This post talks about communication in the real world. As you read, though, think about how these principles apply to debate and speech. As you practice these concepts in competition, you’re actually strengthening your conversations with family, friends, and strangers. Remember, this is why we do debate.
United States Marine Lewis “Chesty” Puller once succinctly stated my current worldview in better words than anyone else to date. When surrounded by the enemy, and faced with death, he looked at his beleaguered marines and said, “All right boys, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time!
On the surface, this displays courage, bravery, and certainly determination. However, at its base, it displays the same reckless anti-fatalism that I believe should permeate communication as well as my own management of relational conflict and personal struggles.
Recently, I have become disenchanted with the failure of authority figures (in my life) to adequately respond to problems that are clearly within their ability and purview of competent responses. All life is communicative. To say otherwise is moronic. From the moment we are birthed, we cry out in protest of the bright light that has invaded our comfortable lives. This communication is ceaseless, and only stops when our lungs can no longer draw breath.
If I had to boil down my post to two sentences – this would be it. Clear communication is not a pearl waiting to be found, nor is it a rare happenstance of amazing talented communicators. Clear communication should be easy.
Miscommunication is a normalcy in relationships today, despite causing so much friction and pain. For a moment, let us exclude work, and just focus on personal, spousal, and familial communication. How many times have you heard the following phrases uttered by you or your loved ones?
– I didn’t hear you say that
– I thought you meant…
– Why did you say…?
– I wasn’t listening…
– I thought you said…
– Wait, what did you say?
– What do you mean by that…?
– I know you said xyz, but…
– What I thought it meant was…
Miscommunication is usually a result of:
- A lack of knowledge regarding clear communication tactics (which are simple, easy to learn and very foundational).
- A lack of effort on the part of either party.
- A lack of will on the part of either party.
- A result of translation or telephone error where two parties cannot directly interact in a pre-ordained medium.
In my experience, the first 3 make up the majority of scenarios where miscommunication occurs. My frustration stems from people that clearly exhibit numbers 2 and 3. I would offer to my reader (you), that clear communication can happen in every situation, and that miscommunication can always be avoided.
Here is the kicker. Will miscommunication always be avoided? No. But the potential is there! In my limited but intense years on this earth, I have found the following principles to be almost universally helpful.
- Clear communication is usually slow. The first response that comes to your mind is always the wrong one (look up the wonderful book Verbal Judo). Think before you speak. The other person can wait, and most likely they will appreciate your response more.
- Always always always assume that you are the more mature communicator in the conversation. Never ever expect the other person to carry the maturity of the conversation, and never ever expect them to always react appropriately.
A word on this principle. It seems drastic, right? It seems ill-founded. Here is my reasoning. Your perception and expectations of reality are what determine your actions. Thus, if you stick all the agency of the situation on yourself, you cannot be disappointed when things go awry, because you are prepared for it. Let me also say, that this viewpoint does not exclude you from trusting your communication partner, or for that matter having faith in their communication abilities. In Krav Maga and other martial arts, students are taught to go into a fight expecting to bleed. They are taught to expect to see their own blood, to feel pain, and to hurt. When their nose gets broken, and the blood runs down their face, they usually don’t freak out as much, because they expected it. The same goes for communication. You do not want miscommunication to happen, but rather, you are ready to face it, and turn it into clear communication when it does invade an important conversation.
In basketball, the majority of turnovers are credited to the player who passes the ball, not the player who failed to receive the ball. The same is true in communication. If you (as the communicator), focus on what you can control, you won’t get overly frustrated and try to shift the blame onto someone else. It is your job (as the communicator) to do everything in your power to communicate the message in a way that the listener will hear it. Beyond that, the results are somewhat out of your control. That is what I mean when I say I have an “anti-fatalistic” approach to communication. For the most part, results can and should be manipulated to result in clear communication.
- There is almost never a reason to rise above a calm conversational tone. Disagree all you want, but a stern voice is only helpful in situations of parental authority, or high stakes, high-octane environments. In a disagreement between two parties, a raised voice can be the first step to ultimate communicative perdition. Why? Because it sets a standard. If you do it once, you are bound to do it again.
- Say “I feel,” and, “I think” as much as possible. Usually, in a relationally tense conversation, accusations fly. Remember that accusations are the speakers “interpretation” of reality and do not actually reflect reality. Let the other person know, “this is how I perceive your actions” so that they can diagnose the problem, and let you know where the disconnect is. Also, if you frame your accusation, “I feel like you’re ignoring me,” instead of, “You’re ignoring me!” the truth is more likely to come out. One allows for truth, the other sets a party on the defensive.
Make sure to use these terms correctly. Do not say “I feel” when you are stating a fact, claim, or plank of an argument. Saying “I feel” should be reserved for communicating what your reality is. On the other hand, “I think” should be used in situations where you are proposing what you believe objective reality is.
- Avoid negative infinitives. In fact, avoid pendulums and infinitives altogether. “Always” and “never” are the worst words someone can infuse into a conversation. Communicating pendulum emotions is generally just bad all the way around.
Why do I say this? Because reality is never a one-sided pendulum, despite the involved people feeling in the moment that it is. Validation of an unrealistic feeling is counterproductive to the conversation, and the conflict as a whole. You need to discard all false perception and search for the truth of the matter, which generally is in the middle.
- Listen. Listening skills allow you to think about what you want to say next. Listen when you don’t want to, and listen especially when you’re really angry. Why? Because it allows you to calm down, and it allows the other person to feel like you want to know more about their side (regardless of whether that is true or not). Ask a question, and let them keep talking. Endeavor to find out why they did what they did, and what you can do to help. The first thing that comes to your mind to say is always the wrong thing. Read that last sentence again. It is 100% true. Take a moment and listen to the other communicator in the discussion, calm down, and think about what you want to say next. Try to sympathize or empathize with what they are saying, and it will repay you in spades.
- To shut down is to shoot yourself and all future hopes of reconciliation. I know that creeping feeling that can happen before all of a sudden you start answering in as few words as possible. Not everyone has this problem, but some of us do.
If you are the person that normally shuts down to avoid conflict or attack, all you are doing is kicking the can down the road. This same conversation will come up again and again until you explode or shut down, and ruin a friendship in the process. When you next get that feeling like you are being antagonized and you want it to stop, instead of shutting down, do one of the following:
Tell the other person, “Hey, I’m not feeling like I can finish this conversation in a good way, but I want to. Do you mind if we take a short break and come back to it?” Tell the other person you are about to shut down, take a deep breath, and then let them know why you are feeling this way. If you are brave enough, just continue to talk, but don’t shut down, and let the other person know how you are feeling.
The blogosphere, Tumblr, Reddit, et al. are great examples of the straw man culture. We misrepresent our opponents in order to make ourselves look great. This, however, is the worst form of intentional miscommunication because it fosters anger, hate, and frustration that leads to hostile words. A sound byte culture is a culture destined for miscommunication and eventually verbal failure.
Clear communication is a choice. It is a choice to try to do better in every conversation of every day of every week. There is nothing stopping clear communication from happening, and even though you feel like you are surrounded (as Chesty Puller was), there is no excuse for the absence of clear and prudent communication.
By forgetting to learn the tenants of clear communication, we are undereducating ourselves and setting our lives up for much more needless stress.