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how to communicate
anything to anyone

   From Essential Communications Skills Lab training course

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"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 algebra."

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.

Why? 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 difficult?

Your Negative Emotions
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 exist in
a spectrum;

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 emotional."

Our habitual 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 communications:

1. We automatically identify with others' emotions (you get sad, I get sad), or,

2. We automatically contrast our emotion to others' (you get mad, I get afraid).

Heated Conversation
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 fails.

Most young 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.

The Courageous Communicator
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 uncomfortable.

But having fear is vastly different from not communicating because of fear.

Initiating 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.

Tact and Politeness
Tact does 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:

1. Communicating exactly what you mean, and,

2. Framing the content with effective transitions.

"Excuse me, 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 what is
coming, and,

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
little frustrated...."

Communication Cycles
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 this?"

"Why are you drifting away?" is an assumptive question; the results are predictable.

Uncompleted Communications
Closure provides clear indication that communications have been received the way they were meant. The absence of closure, though common enough,
is unnerving.

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 Fund.

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