"A child repeats his
communication to you several times. A man, obviously distracted and worried,
refuses to share his uncertainties with his wife. A manager, clearly unhappy
with an employee's performance, hesitates to broach the subject. Your teenager
remains silent about her insecurities at school, until she brings home a D in
In these and
countless other events every day, our failures to relate boil down to our
failure to communicate. Well-publicized studies tell us that certain
communication situations elicit our most paralyzing fears, while our common
sense tells us that this suffering is unnecessary. While "good communication"
becomes a buzz phrase as accepted as "good motherhood," the wherewithal often
remains a mystery.
Is it that we as a species are simply new at it? Are we saddled with
insurmountable personality conflict in our individualistic society? Is some of
the problem inherent in the differences between the sexes? Or could it be that
because human communication contains emotion, which we sometimes feel as
complex, that we make the challenge of successful communication unnecessarily
Every single human communication
contains some emotion or some mixture of emotions. There are three simple keys
to understanding emotions:
1. To understand that your emotions
2. To understand that your emotions are vital
to your happiness, and;
3. To understand that labeling some emotions
"negative" will greatly limit your ability to communicate.
Energy characterizes the emotion
spectrum, not good or bad. Much of our personal power rests in understanding
this fact. At one end of this spectrum are emotions that consume energy,
leaving very little for our use to communicate and achieve. Some of these
emotions are hopelessness, sadness, and fear. At the other end are emotions
that generate energy. These are emotions like hostility, interest, and
enthusiasm. The person who has achieved full use of his or her emotions will
tell you that none are bad, though some are more productive and more fun.
Nevertheless, most of us have drawn negative conclusions, often in unremembered
moments from our past, about certain emotions. The experience of these emotions
is uncomfortable and makes communication seem difficult.
Tom, for instance, learned early in life
that a man shouldn't cry or show weakness. Somewhere along the line Tom
concluded that sadness is unseemly and negative. Today Tom is an important
executive. But Tom is also a human being, and as such he has sadness as much as
anyone, man or woman. But Tom unconsciously prevents himself from experiencing
this emotion. So when he gets sad, Tom blusters about, feeling frustrated and
accusatory, making his communications hard to receive. His blustering goes on
and on, for he achieves no release or change of experience in this
mis-identified emotion. His emotional experience feels complex to Tom,
and communications involving these emotions seem difficult. Moreover, Tom,
subliminally uncomfortable with his own emotion, has an automatic intolerance
of certain emotional expressions in others: "She gets too
sensitivities, then, extend beyond our own communications and affect our
ability to receive communications from others. Unrecognized, these
sensitivities lead to two kinds of mistakes in receiving
automatically identify with others' emotions (you get sad, I get sad),
2. We automatically
contrast our emotion to others' (you get mad, I get afraid).
Most of us
have difficulty remaining truly present during heated conversation, even
without real threat. We may feel "yelled at," or "dressed down," when "direct
emotionally expressed disagreement" would be more accurate. During these
communications, we are often busy making judgments and planning rebuttal. This
is understandable, given our emotional discomfort, but it nevertheless
compromises our ability to receive. When we mix together the processes of
receiving information and judging it, the message changes and the communication
children are excellent receivers: of information, of material support, and of
emotions. Busy learning, the very young are able to remain curious and
interested through most non-violent communication. In those years, we are able
to remain detached from but interested in others' emotions, and the
result is usually an excellent communication on all sides.
As an adult you can regain your natural
ability to maintain active interested presence, even through the heat of an
emotional communication. Notice your private judgments, notice your tendencies
to react, but do not act on these temptations. This will help you remove
yourself from automatic emotional reaction and replace that with the emotion of
genuine interest as the audience. As a receiver during the heated phases of
communication, remember that you are there only to gather information and to
appreciate the emotions of your partner.
Fear is one
of the emotions that most of us have negative judgments about. These judgments
aside, we all do have fears and they are often present in difficult
communication situations. Tom, for instance, may have fear about expressing
vulnerability to his wife Judy. Judy may shy away from certain direct
communications to Tom because his blustering reaction "makes" her
having fear is vastly different from not communicating because of
difficult communications takes courage. Courage does not mean the absence of
fear, it means that despite forebodings, and with consideration, you go ahead.
As opposed to indefinitely hesitating and worrying, actually jumping off your
high dive of anticipation can be a confidence-building and extremely productive
experience. To tilt the odds further toward success, you will want to be very
good with tact.
not mean politeness to the point of indirectness ("if he really loved me, he
would know to cook spaghetti for me...") The two essential ingredients
to tact are:
Communicating exactly what you mean, and,
2. Framing the content with effective
George, may I interrupt for a moment" will often get you much further than
"Hold it, George." Transitions achieve a smoother change by:
1. Giving your receiver(s) some idea of
2. Eliciting willingness.
You are, for example, planning to
approach your boss on a sensitive subject. Until now you have been hesitating
because your boss is busy and often responds poorly to controversy. To help
span the gap between your former silent disagreement and your goal of a full
communication, you put in a transition: "Bob, I'd like to go over some details
of the Smith project. I know we've been through it before, but I've got some
new ideas. They may be controversial, but I think they might be valuable, too.
Would you be willing to take a few moments to hear me out?" When the meeting
starts, add appropriate transitions, including mentioning that your purpose is
positive even if your ideas aren't ultimately accepted. Then proceed with an
accurate communication, stating exactly what you mean. Emotions, such as a
built-up frustration, can be expressed as well: "And actually, I've been a
Each sentence that I write here is a
separate little communication cycle, for each has a beginning, content, and an
end. As you read each sentence, and hopefully understand it the way I mean it,
then that little cycle starts and completes for us.
A communication cycle cannot exist
until everybody involved invests their attention or presence. As you read along
here, for instance, you may "drift away" at a certain point. From then on,
nothing is being communicated from me to you, for you have dis-invested your
presence. Most people observing you, however, would have no clue about this:
for all they know, the communication is still happening.
We are all experts at faking presence.
Everybody has the ability, not always acknowledged, to sit facing our
associates pretending to be present, but actually "be" somewhere else. This
little trick is harmless enough, but if you forget about it you may be "doing
business" with people who aren't there, counting on that interaction. Small
wonder, then, that meetings are seldom as productive as they could be. Next
time notice how many participants are really there.
Are You Here?
The most effective quality of presence
is active, genuine interest.
Okay, you say to your partner, I'm
interested, so the cycle has started. Or has it? Now you know that
presence is important, but what about those people with whom you communicate
who haven't thought about it? How do you determine their presence, and how do
you bring them back?
Eye contact is a pretty good indicator of presence, but it is not
infallible. Eye contact is highly dependent on medium and culture. But if a
person is following along with you, for instance by telephone, and responding
sensibly, chances are good that he is still around. With memos and electronic
communications, you have to be more deliberate and ask for closure. When in
doubt about your partner's presence, ask a non-assumptive question: "Do I have
your attention?", or, "Is this a good time?", or, "Still with me on
"Why are you
drifting away?" is an assumptive question; the results are
Closure provides clear indication that
communications have been received the way they were meant. The absence of
closure, though common enough,
Let us say that I'm sitting next to you.
After establishing presence, I ask you to please go get me a ham sandwich. You
don't say a word, but get up and walk out of the room.
I'm likely to be left wondering. Are
you going to get it? Are you offended? What about the Swiss cheese?
Wonder is the absence of an answer
or closure. If the communication is important, or of consequence - say I
haven't eaten in two days, or we are involved in an important business cycle
that requires action - then I would experience the wonder as worry.
Worry, then, is the absence of closure to an important cycle. If you don't
remember the cycle, as in one from your childhood, then you might experience
the worry as "free-floating anxiety." Ah, but we drift from our subject. Sorry.
Do we still have your attention?
This article was reprinted in part
from Learning Center High Performance
Teamwork course by
Arthur R. (Arky) Ciancutti, M.D.
For more information on workplace
communication skills, read Trust