For most people, having close relationships with others is considered to be an important part of having a happy life. One of the keys to having successful relationships is effective communication. There are two major components of our communications with others: first, someone has something they want to communicate to another person, so they send a message using a medium such as writing or speaking, and second, someone receives the sent message by hearing or reading it, and succeeds in understanding the message that the other intended to send. There are many incidents in which communication is not successful (that is, the intended message is not understood by the person receiving the message) and there are many reasons for a message to not be understood, including a lack of clarity in the sent message and/or a distorted understanding by the person receiving the message. This article will describe some simple tools that can be used to help communication be more successful.

One of the most basic tools is paraphrasing, which means stating in our own words what we think the other person is saying. We can use that as a listener by pausing the communication and paraphrasing what we think the communicator has been communicating, and if we get an agreement, allow the communication to continue. If we get a disagreement, we keep trying to restate our understanding until the communicator agrees with our interpretation of what they were communicating. As a communicator, we can apply this tool by asking our listener to paraphrase what they just heard us communicate and then, based on the correctness of the paraphrase, either restate what we were previously trying to communicate until they can correctly paraphrase it or continue with what we want to communicate. In the book The Four Agreements, the author Don Miguel states that the third agreement is “don’t make assumptions” – paraphrasing is an important technique to make sure we are understanding what is being communicated by others, rather than just assuming we understand what is being communicated. In order to correctly paraphrase, we have to make use of an important cognitive tool called “perspective-taking” or “empathy”, which is the learned ability to take other people’s points of view, to understand how they perceive and emotionally respond to a particular event, even if it is not how WE perceive and emotionally respond to it.

An example of how all of us lack perspective-taking in early childhood is shown by the following “game”:  Show a 2 or 3-year-old child a card that has a picture of a giraffe on one side and a picture of an elephant on the other side. Show the child both sides of the card, and then place the card so that we and they see different sides, with them seeing the giraffe and us the elephant. Ask them the question “what am I seeing, or looking at, right now?” and they will usually tell us that we are looking at a giraffe, just as they are. At that moment, they lack the cognitive skill of perspective-taking, as they cannot visualize that we have a different perspective from them, i.e. are seeing a different picture than they are seeing. A far more complex cognitive-emotional skill, one that some of us develop later in life, to varying degrees, and some of us do not acquire at all, is called “empathy”, which is the ability to understand emotionally how someone is feeling about an event, even if it is quite different from how we feel about it. This means we are able to feel their feeling in our body-mind in the moment of empathy, but we usually feel it with far less intensity (and we are aware that it is their feeling, not ours). An example might be that their favorite sports team lost the championship, whereas ours won, so we are feeling elated and they are feeling devastated. If we have the empathy skill, in that moment we are able to show them that that we understand that they are quite disappointed and sad and perhaps are able to not “rub it in their face” that we are quite elated. Of course, if the feelings the other people are having are not ones we ever feel, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to show empathy for them. This is a problem that many people have when they are not in touch with many of their own feelings (often these are men, but not always).

Before finishing this blog entry, I want to emphasize that most human communication is non-verbal, so that instead of only using words to communicate, we also use body language such as tone of voice, speech cadence, speech volume, facial expression, hand gestures, body posture, larger body movements, etc. This will be the subject of a later blog entry, but for now, I want to make the point that communication is quite often ineffective due to a lack of awareness by communicators about what nonverbal messages they are sending and/or a lack of awareness by communication receivers about the meaning of the nonverbal messages they are receiving (and of course, the potential for making mistaken assumptions about the meaning of the nonverbal signals being sent and received is enormous).

Given the complexity of human communication, it is fairly miraculous that we can ever effectively communicate with each other. When George Bernard Shaw quipped that “people are divided by a common language”, he meant that when we hear someone describing something using the same language we use, we assume that they mean the same thing that we would mean when we use those words or phrases, but that is quite often a mistaken assumption.

See the blog entry dated 4/13/23 entitled “Violent Communication and Interpersonal Conflict” for more information about complex human communication that is affected by the personal emotions, beliefs, and attitudes of both the sender and receiver of communications.

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