Can you imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t communicate? That means no tone of voice, no body language or facial expressions, no words, no alphabet. Nothing.

Effective skills in communication are necessary to maintain and increase our quality of life. If we can’t communicate effectively, we will be led in a direction we don’t want to go. Every relationship is fraught with misunderstandings. It would be very easy to become confused, frustrated and disappointed simply because we are unable to communicate appropriately.

Broken and difficult relationships can be avoided by understanding the principles of communication and the pitfalls we encounter when we seek to understand one another. When we know and understand the process of communication, we can actively implement principles, hone our skills, avoid problems, and become the effective communicators that we all desire to be.

The language we use to express reality is incomplete

We will always leave something out when we’re retelling a story because we can never say everything about something. And the words we choose to describe something are not reality. They are our understanding of reality.

Do you remember the telephone game from elementary school? One child whispered a message to the next child, who then passed it on down the line. By the time the message was spoken aloud at the end of its trip, it hardly resembled the original. Why? Because each child understood the message differently and passed on what he or she thought were the important details.

How Can We Better Reflect our Reality?

Be careful in the words you choose. Be sure they express what you want to say as clearly as possible. And when someone shares something with you, ask questions to clarify what the person is saying. If you are unsure about what your colleague means when he tells you he doesn’t feel well, ask. Find out what he means by that.

For instance, if someone gets angry at you and says, “You’re all alike. I just can’t stand it”, what would you do? The simplest and most natural thing to do is to react to their anger by responding in anger. But imagine what would happen if you asked a simple question like, “What do you mean when you say that we’re all alike? What is it you can’t stand?” Those questions, joined to a few moments of silence, allow the angry person to elaborate on their sentiments and express more clearly exactly what is the matter. Then you can respond more appropriately.

We all See the World Differently

How we encounter the world has been influenced by who we are, our backgrounds, our education, our values and beliefs, our needs, positions, jobs, and more. In other words, we each see the world through our own set of lenses.

To become better at understanding others’ perception of things, we need to ask questions. We need to listen. We need to learn to delay our reaction until we have more information so that we don't form inaccurate assumptions.

In the real world, everything is extremely complex. And so we simplify things by categorizing our words and ideas, and often those categories are faily black and white.

But in the process of simplifying things, we omit details, forget differences, ignore uniquenesses, and eliminate various levels of meaning. When we view life through such a narrow spectrum, thinking that life is as simple as an “either/or” situation, communication breakdowns are bound to occur.

So, to guard against these pitfalls, we need to develop an open mind, recognizing that different opinions are bound to exist and that it is nearly impossible to always come to a common understanding.

Everything Occurs Within a Context

Another thing that complicates communication is our tendency to remember things out of context. We have probably all misunderstood someone or been misunderstood because something that was given a meaning that was never intended.

Although we don’t fully understand how much our environment influences us, we need to recognize that it does. When we communicate, we must be able to evaluate our own context as well as the one of the person we are communicating with and seek to clarify the meaning of our words as much as we can, as well as the precise context to which they apply.

Helpful Principles

Here are five things you can begin to do today to help you become a better communicator:

  1. Ask questions Don’t assume you understand what a person means. Once you ask a few questions, it doesn’t take long to really find out what she really means.

  2. Listen. To become a better communicator, you must be willing to listen so you can understand the other person’s perspective.

  3. Observe and be willing to verify the information you receive.

  4. Let people know what you are thinking by sharing your thoughts with them. Disclosing information about yourself aids the other person in understanding who you are and how you are understanding them.

  5. Remember that love covers a multitude of wrongs. If your are wanting to understand people and accept them for who they are, then communication will be easier. But if you set out to convince them that your way is the right way at all costs, that’s not communication, it's propaganda. And that’s not love.

Take some time to think about a specific communication problem (difficulty, challenge) you have had recently or in the past.

Now ask yourself some tough questions about how you communicate.

Developing our communication skills and abilities is a lifelong process. Throughout our lives we are faced with challenges in communicating effectively.

You can learn to be a more effective communicator by:

  1. Observing and imitating excellent communicators.

  2. Learning from your own and others’ mistakes.

  3. Developing a conscious awareness of communication habits, patterns, styles, strengths, weaknesses.

  4. Applying principles of effective communication to every conversation.

This article was written by: Geri Forsberg (PhD)

Photo Credit: Omar Lopez