You know, for an English major, I have to admit that I’m not historically the world’s greatest communicator. Sure, I’ve been known to do a whole lot of talking, but when it comes to real communication, conveying an idea from one person’s head to another effectively, sometimes I get a little bogged down in the speaking process. But I’m finding that, as I get older, most all of the important issues distill themselves down to issues based in communication, and quality communication is key to success in practically everything (and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration).
You’ve probably done something similar to this thought experiment before: pretend I’m picturing a truck in my mind, and I want you to draw it. Picture a red truck. Picture a red Chevy truck. Now, let’s pretend you drew that truck, and it was a 100% accurate representation of the Chevy you created in your mind: was it old, or new? Did it have two doors, or four? What are the odds that the Chevy you created in your head was identical to the one I had in my head? I could give you all the details I wanted: the number of doors, the year, the model, even the specific color red, but there’s still no guarantee that we’d have the same picture: that’s because words are just stand-ins for concepts we have in our heads, and they’re not always even good stand-ins.
Communication is a combination of explicit and implicit factors that we juggle both consciously and sub-consciously constantly (get all that?). It’s not just the words themselves, along with their multiple possible definitions that can throw us off; eye contact, body posturing, vocal inflection, and more factor in to in-person vocal discussion. We even try to decode implicit communication in print-based messages like texts and emails! Was that joke supposed to be funny, or sarcastic? How serious is she since he used a period instead of an exclamation point? What did he mean when he sent that winking face, really?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to 100% accurately decode someone’s communication at all times. Poor communication can lead to dramatic consequences both personally and professionally, but frequently we let our fear of being embarrassed or called out interfere with getting to the heart of the matter. Sometimes we’re afraid of hurting the other person with the news, while other times we take comfort in the gray spaces communication provides so we can avoid conflict or perhaps twist the knife a bit in a person that we don’t like. More often than not, poor communication (or a lack of communication entirely), whether intentional or unintentional, makes a situation worse than it already was.
I’ve learned to have a lot of respect for the people in my life who are direct communicators. Though I tend to dance around a situation until I can’t avoid it anymore, I’ve really been impressed by the people who can acknowledge a tough situation, talk through the solution, and walk away with minimal hard feelings. I sometimes think a piece of me is conditioned to think that every tough argument will result in a total meltdown, and my fear of hurting other people makes me want to avoid that circumstance. Problem is that avoiding those tough situations usually just makes them hurt that much worse when they eventually do get confronted.
Though my actions don’t always show it, I’ve learned there are three keys to effective communication:
- Communicate often.
- Communicate directly.
- Communicate in a timely manner.
Perhaps this seems a bit like using a word in its definition, but using these three keys ensures that people receive information about topics that are relevant and important to them, that they’re receiving the message as accurately as possible, and that they can use their knowledge of the communicator to help clarify the message. Any communication, from professional feedback to relationship advice to cleaning instructions, benefits from using these keys.
I feel like I’m a bit in “do as I say, not as I do” country with this advice, but that doesn’t mean I believe in these principles any less. I’m working to communicate more often, more directly, and more immediately. Being around friends who are great communicators teaches me more about integrating quality communication in to my daily life, and that makes life better for me and the people around me. Hopefully you can use these keys to unlock the doors to effective communication in your own life!
Wow. Gag. That was a terrible ending. But I’m allowed one every once in a while, right? 🙂