I find communication fascinating. It can be an absolute minefield to navigate. Most of us don’t realise the dangers, and then a bomb goes off and we’re left wondering what happened. We all have our own experiences, beliefs and personal laws that form the filter that we communicate through. What will seem like clear communication to one person, will be completely baffling to another. Here is a mix of advice and facts about communication that I’ve learned over the years.
Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s studies showed that 93% of emotional communication is non-verbal, with the remaining 7% being verbal. 55% of non-verbal emotional communication is attributed to body language, and 38% to tone of voice. When you think about how many times in a conversation we might shake or nod our head, shrug our shoulders, smile, frown etc, you can understand how these figures could be true. Essentially, non-verbal communication expresses the intent of the words we’re speaking. But those cues are only the ones that we intend to use, that we want the other person to be aware of. There are so many more unspoken actions that we don’t intend to communicate. But they are speaking loud and clear.
Open or Closed?
Did you know that you can be perceived as hostile just by the way you hold your arms? If your arms are folded, that communicates that you are either protecting yourself, or that you don’t want to hear what is being said. It is a make-shift wall between you and the person speaking to you. The same is true of walking behind a chair or desk when being spoken to. Putting anything between you and the person you are communicating with sends the message that you are not comfortable with the situation.
Looking at the Clock
We have probably all been guilty of this once or twice. When having a conversation with someone, we suddenly realise that we need to be somewhere else. But the conversation hasn’t come to a natural end, and the minutes are ticking away. We start fidgeting and we mentally check out, all the while glancing back and forth to wherever our timepiece is. I assure you, nothing will make the person you have been conversing with feel less valued. A better way to deal with this situation will be dependent on many factors, such as how well you know the person, the nature of the conversation, and the person’s state of mind. If you really have to leave, then and there, it may be better to gently interrupt, apologise and let them know of your situation. You can then agree on a time to pick-up the conversation at a later time.
Arms behind your head
This may just be a relaxed pose when you’re on your own, but when you’re speaking to someone, this can be perceived as conveying superiority or dominance. Apparently assuming a posture that’s too open means, “I’m better than you”! However, I’m not convinced that this is the best indicator of someone feeling superior, as I have found myself in the same pose when trying to convey that I was relaxed and knew what I was doing, when I was anything but confident!
Scratching and Fidgeting
We are probably all aware that someone who starts fidgeting during a conversation is uncomfortable for some reason. It would be easy to assume that subject matter may have a part to play, but there are a huge range of reasons for discomfort and, if you are concerned, it is probably best to ask the question rather than assume something that may be incorrect.
Western society tells us that maintaining eye contact when being spoken to is a sign of respect, and shows that we’re listening. The problem with this premise is that some people are extremely uncomfortable with making eye contact and, if pushed to do so, will actually feel so uncomfortable that they will be unable to focus on the conversation. This can be tricky when dealing with students, as we want to make sure they are listening to instructions. Instead of demanding eye contact, it can be more effective to ask your instructions to be repeated back to you. Repeating instructions back to the instruction-giver is actually good practice anyway, and something that I do routinely to ensure that I am clear on what needs to be done, and so that my busy brain doesn’t forget what has been said.
Tone of Voice
Sarcasm is defined as “The use of irony to mock or convey contempt”. My question is, why are we mocking or conveying contempt towards others anyway? As a society, we do it so much that there is a word for it! Some of us are so comfortable with using sarcasm that it has become part of the way we speak every day, without even thinking about it. I know that it’s supposed to be humorous, but I’ve never found it to be funny when I was on the receiving end of it. Also, some people don’t understand sarcasm, which makes it a very confusing means of getting your point across. It certainly doesn’t make anyone feel valued, so it might be time we stopped seeing it as an acceptable means of communication.
Yelling at someone when in close proximity to them is almost always perceived as anger. And it usually is anger, or something closely related. Sometimes it will be due to another emotion, such as excitement. Occasionally, you may come across someone who yells and shows all the signs of being angry, but they are actually scared. If you are being yelled at, your instinct may be to respond by yelling back. This is because humans have a tendency to mimic others’ behaviour. But when we yell at someone who is already yelling, we only escalate the situation. To de-escalate the situation, try speaking quietly and calmly. It might take a minute, but the yeller will eventually begin to match your tone, and heightened emotions will ease, making room to resolve the situation.
“It's not what you said, it’s how you said it”
This one is a favourite at my house. I am forever trying to get my kids to speak to each other with a bit more respect. For example, in a very annoyed tone, Child 1 says, “Can you get your stuff out of my room?”. To which Child 2 responds (yells), in an equally annoyed tone, “Yeah, just wait, I’m busy!”. At which point all hell breaks loose with objects and insults being thrown left, right and centre. This is where I break in and try to calmly explain that if the annoyance had been left out of their tone of voice to start with, we could have gotten through the exchange in a peaceful manner, rather than sparking WWIII. You get the idea.
Words matter. Although words are actually the smallest component of our overall communication, your choice of words can be extremely important. A word that one person may be comfortable using as part of their everyday vocabulary may be considered extremely offensive to another. A good rule of thumb is to adjust the type of words that you speak according to who you are speaking with. Obviously you don’t want to look like you are just copying words that others are saying, but letting them take the lead to establish what is acceptable in a conversation is a good way to stay out of trouble. And if in doubt, leave it out!
What else contributes to communication?
Western society places a lot of importance on being able to converse quickly and easily. If we are able supply a swift response, we convey that we are intelligent and quick-witted. This has led to the issue of not actually hearing what the other person is saying. All too often we take the first part of what someone has said, and then miss the rest of it because we have become preoccupied with formulating our reply, or because we have something great to add. If we listen to learn, rather than listen to respond, we might find out some very interesting things, and help the people we converse with to feel valued as well. There’s nothing worse than sharing, what you consider to be, a deep thought, just to realise that the other person wasn’t really interested in what you had to say. I really like the idea that the word “listen” is an anagram of “silent”, meaning that to listen we must be silent. This includes our inner voice.
Filtering through our own experiences
Our own experiences assign meaning to words, tone and body language, and our experiences may be very different to those of the person we are communicating with. This means that the other person may hear a different message to what you were actually trying to convey. Before you take offense to something that is said to you, try clarifying what is being said. Ask questions, be specific if you need to be. For example, come right out and ask, “When you said _______, did you mean_______?”. In most cases, if the message has come across negatively, the other person will be horrified that they have come across this way, and will correct the situation immediately. And if they did mean to offend you, then at least you won’t lose any sleep wondering!
It’s worth noting that this can also apply to interpreting emotions in others. Michelle Swan has penned a blog post called I am not angry, I am scared that talks about how her emotions have often been misconstrued by others witnessing them, and is well worth reading.
When it comes to written communication, we are provided with none of the information that we rely on to understand the intent behind the words spoken. This makes written communication very tricky.
Emojis/Emoticons are an excellent tool for providing clues to intent behind written words. They provide us with a visual to go along with the words we’ve just read. “Wow, that looks great , reads much differently to “Wow, that looks great”
One area where communication can go awry very quickly is through emails with work colleagues. We tend to get very comfortable with quickly written emails that don’t have a lot of thought put into them. It’s important to remember that, without any indication of tone of voice or body language, the reader is only able to imagine the intention behind the written words. That being the case, you might then think that it would be a good idea to use a lot of exclamation marks or use phrases like “thanks very much” to convey your good will. But, believe it or not (and some of you will believe it, because it’s how you communicate) some people find these things annoying and over the top. So, just like spoken communication, I try to mimic the person I’m writing to. If their emails always seem upbeat with lots of exclamations and thanks and emoji’s, I will return the same. If they are quite mono-tonal and bland, I will match them. If you have to initiate an email and are not sure of the other person’s style, keep it professional and see how they respond.
Unfortunately, we will never be able to get it right every time. Even with the best intentions and strategies in place, we can’t understand the inner workings of every person we communicate with. The best we can do is apply what we know, and give a lot of grace. Hopefully that grace will be returned to us when we accidentally offend someone or send the wrong message. We just need to remember that one size will never “fit all”, particularly when it comes to communication. We all do it differently, which is part of what makes it so hard!
Although this is only a brief look at some of the different aspects of how we share our thoughts with each other, hopefully you feel a bit more enlightened and prepared to navigate the minefield that is communication!
What other tips would you share about communication?