Effective communication is crucial, in the post-pandemic era:
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about effective communication. These skills are more vital than ever before, as we’re living in a time of rampant misinformation, misunderstanding and miscommunication. And now that we’re starting to come together after many months of social isolation, effective communication is essential if we want our relationships to thrive.
Effective communication is being able to simply and concisely convey the message you want to get across as well as understanding exactly what someone else is telling you. It’s about speaking clearly and listening carefully. The root of the word “communicate” is “commune,” or come together.
Effective communication is just as much about hearing as it is about being heard. Too often, we’re so focused on whether the other person is listening to us that we forget to listen to them. But, if it’s a one-sided conversation it’s not communication, it’s badgering.
Mistake #1: Making assumptions:
One common communication error is to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, we finish their sentence in our mind and come to our own conclusions.
As a psychotherapist, there have been many times when I’ve started a sentence with a patient and they’ve finished it for me, but it wasn’t at all what I was going to say. My patient assumed that I was going in one direction when I was going in another.
In a therapy session where good communication is one of the goals, it’s not so difficult for the speaker to note the listener’s error and to clarify his or her intentions. However, if the listener is jumping to the wrong conclusions elsewhere, it could lead to unfortunate misunderstandings and unpleasant interactions.
We may have a sense of where someone is heading in the conversation but it’s always better to be patient and not anticipate their intention.
In your communications with others, it’s important to be open-minded and allow the other person to make their point. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing something that they aren’t saying.
Effective communication has to be clear and direct. You can’t expect the other person to read between the lines or guess at what you’re trying to express. Otherwise, you risk alienation and conflict.
For the same reason, you can’t pretend that you get it when you don’t. It’s no use to you if the speaker thinks that you’re on the same page when you’re actually reading a whole other book.
Mistake #2: Being too vague:
A mistake that people make far too often in communication is being too vague. You have to say exactly what you mean and not simply hope that the other person gets it. If they don’t hear exactly what you intended to say, they’ll never be able to give you what you want.
Whether it’s in a friendship, a romantic relationship, or with members of our family, we will often make vague statements when the other person has done something to upset us.
We’re afraid to be authentic because we’re afraid that this person will get angry at us or even reject us. What we need to know is that if someone gets angry at us for telling them that they’ve upset us, they have just shown us that they are not a reasonable person.
You need to know that there’s nothing wrong with telling someone that something they did upset you. A reasonable, respectful, caring person will not be defensive about it. They will not get angry at you and they won’t reject you over it.
A reasonable, respectful, caring person will feel bad for having upset you and they’ll apologize for having upset you. They’ll tell you that they’ll try to do better, moving forward.
In a sense, telling someone that they made you upset is an excellent test to see if they can respond to your needs and feelings in a reasonable and respectful manner.
In fact, all effective communication is a test of the other person to see if they can negotiate in good faith.
If the person becomes angry, defensive or rejecting, or if they deny that they did it or tell you that you’re over-reacting, they have just FAILED THE TEST.
This person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you. They simply are incapable of responding in a reasonable way to normal feedback. As long as you didn’t attack them when you told them what they did to upset you, their reaction is not about you.
You shouldn’t feel responsible if the person fails the test. That’s on them. They’ve just shown you that they’re unable to handle feedback. They’ve also shown you that you’ll never be able to get your needs met in this relationship — because of them, not because of you.
Mistake #3: Holding in anger:
Another mistake people make in communicating is keeping things inside when they’re angry. We’re afraid to express our anger because the other person might not like it. We hold it in for as long as we can but then inevitably, it leaks out in passive-aggressive behavior or an emotional outburst.
It’s always better to politely and respectfully tell the other person how you feel. Passive-aggressive behavior is extremely off-putting, as are angry outbursts.
Your attempts to avoid an unpleasant confrontations backfire when you hold in your anger. Also, you need to know that if someone can’t tolerate your anger it means that they aren’t someone who you should associate with.
Of course, expressing anger should never be done with a raised voice. That’s unnecessary and overly aggressive. It’s enough to say, “I’m angry at you for X,” or “When you did Y, it made me angry.” These types of statements are clear and direct but not aggressive.
Expressing your anger this way helps you see that if the other person reacts badly, it’s not because of your delivery — it’s because this person is unable to tolerate any expressions of anger. They have just FAILED THE TEST.
And if they have failed this test, it means that you’ll never be able to work through problems with this person, because they’ll always shut you down when you try to tell them that they made you mad.
The appropriate way to respond to your telling them that they made you mad would be with statements like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” or, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
If they try to talk you out of your anger, or if they tell you that you have no right to be angry, or if they accuse you of abusing them or controlling them with your anger, they are not someone you want to associate with.
One caveat: expressing anger in the workplace is a completely different situation. There, it’s often inappropriate to be clear and direct; especially with regard to your supervisors.
At work, you need to be much more clever and subtle, so as not to cause offense or risk jeopardizing your position. In the workplace it’s best to err on the side of caution and not engage in confrontation unless it’s strategically done.
Authentic communication can be anxiety-provoking:
From the above, you can see that the main reason why people don’t communicate effectively is out of fear of rejection. Also, it can be very disappointing to discover that a person you like or admire, or who is a member of your family, isn’t someone you can be open with.
On the other hand, if you aren’t clear and direct, the other person won’t know what you think and feel and you’ll never get your needs met. The relationship will remain superficial and even frustrating. There’s nothing good in that.
In our personal relationships, it’s always better to be honest and authentic. If you’re disappointed, it’s better to have this happen early on than to spend years with someone who can’t negotiate with you in good faith.
One caveat: never put yourself in harm’s way. If you think that someone will become violent or vindictive toward you if you communicate with them clearly and directly, trust your gut and walk away. Avoid any type of confrontation with someone who scares you. If they scare you, get away.
Effective communication allows other people to really know you. This way, if they like you and want to be around you, you’ll be sure that it’s because of who you genuinely are. If they try to shut you down, they have failed the test. You’ve learned that you’ll never get your needs met with them so you don’t have to waste any more time in this relationship.
When you don’t communicate effectively, problems arise: People might choose to be with you because they think that you’re someone you’re not. Or, selfish, hurtful people will be with you because they are able to get away with their bad behaviour. This can lead to major misunderstandings and frustrations and possibly big blow-outs when the truth about how you actually think and feel finally comes out.
You certainly don’t want to marry someone based on them assuming that you’re someone you’re not, and you don’t want to sign up long-term with a company and invest years of your life with them because you assume that their philosophy is aligned with your own when in fact, it’s not.
Mistake #4: Clumsy confrontation:
As I’ve indicated above, an important part of effective communication is healthy confrontation, which is when you tell the other person what they’ve done to upset or anger you and what you need them to do, instead.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in confrontation is in being overly aggressive, whether through blaming, shaming or criticizing.
If you communicate in a clumsy manner, it’s impossible to know if the other person has failed the test because they’re unreasonable, or because your delivery was overly aggressive.
Saying things in a polite, respectful manner is the only way to guarantee that the other person’s reaction is not tainted by your delivery.
Another type of clumsy confrontation is when you make absolute-sounding statements like, “You never do X,” or “You always do Y.”
The problem with these statements is that they immediately put the other person on the defensive and then it’s impossible to know whether or not they’re capable of hearing you and responding to your needs appropriately.
It’s always better to make “I” statements, as these build bridges rather than create defensiveness on the part of the listener.
You can say, “When you did X, I felt hurt (or angry), or “When you didn’t do Y, I felt disappointed (or let down).” You can add that if the person continues to make you feel hurt, upset, disappointed or let down, there will be problems.
“I” statements don’t tend to make the other person feel blamed or coerced. If the other person does become hostile or defensive, you can be reassured that their reaction is not a response to your delivery but a sign that they’re unable to be reasonable, respectful or caring toward you. They have just FAILED THE TEST.
The super-skill we all need now:
Now that we’re emerging from the darkness of COVID-19, and once again starting to connect with friends, family and romantic partners, effective communication is the super-skill that will enable us to form and maintain the best possible relationships.
Effective communication can support us in building deep, meaningful and authentic connections. It can also shine a light on who we’re dealing with and empower us to walk away from anyone who is incapable of responding to our feelings and needs in the manner that we deserve.
Sign up for my free biweekly wellness newsletter here for my series on Moving into Summer with Good Self-Care, where you’ll learn simple tips for taking the best care of yourself and your loved ones this 2021 summer season.
And tune in to my ongoing YouTube video series on Coping With Covid.