Why communication is the most important skill you’ll ever learn.
I was at work on a typical Tuesday when I realized I had forgotten my gym clothes at home. My boyfriend was coming to meet me and offered to bring my clothes with him. To speed up our exchange, he called me to find out if there were specific items I wanted:
BF: I see the white Nike shirt and the green workout shirt.
Me: Green shirt? I don’t think I have a green workout shirt. ..but actually if you see the light teal / blue shirt I have, could you grab that one? Otherwise, the white one is fine!
He showed up at my office and laughed as he handed me my shirt: “This is the green shirt.”
Confused as I looked at the shirt, I barked back: “Babe, this is definitely a BLUE shirt.” We both laughed and engaged in a few words of commentary about which color was actually right.. Until we settled on the idea that it was a seafoam green / pale blue color.
While it seemed obvious to me that the shirt was teal blue, my interaction with my boyfriend was hindered by assumptions that we both made: we both separately assumed that what we saw was the only option. Without the physical representation of the shirt in front of us and the ability to literally SEE where our disconnect occurred, it’s possible my boyfriend and I would have never have had the opportunity to calibrate our understandings with one another; to realize that we were both describing the same thing from our own perspectives.
When you think about it, words are just symbols. They are a person’s best effort to describe a concept that is occurring in his or her mind. Since we can never SEE INTO someone’s mind or understand another’s perspective firsthand, words convey a message to help us gain that understanding.
In many instances, the words a person uses may be misaligned from our own vocabulary and as a result, it can be challenging to level-set with the two different languages.* Furthermore, our descriptions and interpretations of the world around us are largely based on our perception, our environment, and our exposure. Since experiences vary from person to person, it can be hard to understand how a word or concept that means one thing to you may take on a different meaning for another person.
*This obviously assumes that the person is being honest. Needless to say, when someone is dishonest and you learn to doubt his or her words you introduce a whole new level of complexity, but we’ll save that lesson for another day.
While the example I’ve discussed above was a relatively harmless misunderstanding, in many cases, the way we process the world around us may have deep emotional ties. Consider, for instance, what a cake may look like to an eight-year-old on her birthday – a symbol of excitement and celebration – while an attendee of the party with an eating disorder may see this same item as a trigger and a representation of pain. Neither experience is wrong, but it is important that we be gracious to one another and pump the brakes on the fast-paced world we live in to facilitate our dialogue with others. We need to recognize the power of our words and be empathetic to experiences that differ from our own.
Luckily, there are things you can do to improve your communication skills overall and gain a better understanding of the people around you. Read on for more cheat codes around how you can improve a key skill that will contribute to all areas of your life.
SLOW YOUR ROLL. COMMUNICATION TAKES TIME.
Our generation is full of communication challenges. Instead of meeting one another in person, we distance ourselves through screens and technology. Instead of using words to describe what we mean, we resort to acronyms, hashtags and emojis. Days of expansive thought are now dwindled down to 280 characters. It seems that as we become more globalized with greater ability to connect with other communities, we also take strides in believing that life’s problems can be resolved in an instant: we can zap our food in a microwave instead of waiting for the oven for hours, we can send a text if we’ll be late to a dinner, and we can fly across the world within hours. It’s also even easier for us to compensate for information we don’t have in our mental database: we can now quickly search through an enormous realm of information that is available at our fingertips.
With all of these conveniences comes an inevitably lower threshold for what we deem to be “inefficient”. We become impatient with others if we are misunderstood and often feel as though these differences make it difficult to connect. However, by taking ownership of the role we play in communicating with others, we can slow ourselves down when miscommunications arise. We can target our effort toward exercising extra patience in our interactions with others. With a little bit of extra effort and an open ear, we’re more adept at picking up on the nuances around us, including the details that may help us to understand another person.
While it may seem counterintuitive, slowing down in our interactions actually helps us to speed up our exchanges in the longer term. Studies reflect the fact that investing time in developing relationships at work makes us more efficient workers. A little extra time and effort invested with a loved one helps to build trust that may safeguard against future arguments or future sources of tension. Our effort to communicate clearly with the people around us leads us to leave less up to chance and misunderstanding.
ASK QUESTIONS. MAKE AN EFFORT TO UNDERSTAND.
Human beings have a basic need to be seen. There is almost nothing more frustrating than when put your ideas out into the world and feel like they’re not heard in the way you intended. Often times, we may want another chance to explain – to have others let us know when something we say doesn’t land well so we can level-set. Maybe you “overreacted” to something someone said because it felt like a trigger for you, and then subsequently felt a need to explain your response to that person. If you felt like your reason for getting triggered was valid based on your own experiences, chances are you may have felt a bit slighted if the person you were interacting with made no effort to understand your story.
In many cases, you make an assumption that something that is obvious TO YOU is also obvious to the other person. Similar to the t-shirt situation with my boyfriend, however, it can be challenging for you to bring awareness to an area where your perspective differs from the company you keep. Until the instance I mentioned earlier, that shirt had always appeared to be a light pale blue to me; it never would have occurred to me that someone else might have described it differently, or that I might want to account for a variety of perspectives to help my boyfriend see my point of view.
In more emotional conversations, these differences of opinion might lead to full-blown arguments between two individuals. And unfortunately, when things become emotionally heated, the ability to listen clearly and the patience to truly understand wears thin. We often become tied to our argument and lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the conversation was to COMMUNICATE with one another which inherently means acknowledging BOTH perspectives involved.
To help yourself safeguard against miscommunications that may arise in the future and to deepen your relationships in general, you can make an effort to understand others’ perspectives by asking yourself:
- Do I know with certainty what another person means? Is there a definition that feels “obvious” that I should inquire into?
- Does my friend have an experience that is driving his/her perspective? Is there more that I can understand about his/her experience or understanding to help me see another side to the conversation?
- Is there more I can find out about his or her background or given vocabulary to make me empathetic to our differences of opinion?
By asking these questions upfront, you can help to create a deeper understanding of those you interact with BEFORE conversations become heated. This understanding may even prevent you from feeling overwhelmed if/when a miscommunication occurs. Why? Because with a little bit of deepened empathy, you can now see another person’s point of view with greater clarity, therefore helping you to see if underlying experiences may be driving a difference of opinion.
The truth is, when we make an effort to understand someone, we are essentially finding the blueprint to their existence. If we can understand their roadmap, listen openly to their experiences and suspend judgment, we have the ability to gain deep insight into their vocabulary.
For example, while it may seem obvious and intuitive, even listening to someone talk about his or her family leaves room for a ton of questions that can allow you to gain greater insight into what this topic area means to the person. Who is included in that label of “family”? What are some of the things they do together? Where on the priority list does this topic fall for him or her? Is the concept of “family” something that generates warmth and visions of laughter with Mom, Dad, and a few siblings? Is it riddled with painful memories, arguments, and a lack of belonging? Is it the comfort of a cat and a good book? Or perhaps defined by a few friends that are “closer than blood”? As you can see, the room for variation is far and wide and we severely limit our abilities to understand others if we are always making assumptions for other people with respect to commonly used topics/terms.
DIVE IN AND BE VULNERABLE.
So dive into someone else’s stories. Ask questions. Maybe this notion feels uncomfortable in theory. But consider how you feel when someone takes an interest in you and asks you questions that go a level deeper. For many of us, feeling SEEN by another feels like a gift; this exchange encourages us to continue returning back for that feeling that helps us to feel comfortable in our own skin. Instead of waiting for that feeling to be sparked by another, we can do our part to HELP OTHERS feel seen. We can ask questions that show another person our level of investment. We can learn to contribute to a conversation by asking more and assuming less.