Editor’s Note: Image not approved by e-shrink, but I needed some eye candy 🙂
In a previous blog, I promised an encore presentation on the subject of interpersonal communication. Your patience is about to be rewarded for I will now set about to fill these pages with the words of wisdom promised.
Actually if one excludes extrasensory communication and similar spiritual phenomena, there is little mystery about how we communicate with each other, but it is amazing how we can screw it up. It appears that all creatures have some means to communicate. Some plants are said to communicate with each other, and I just read an article in Scientific American presenting evidence that some bacteria send signals to others of like kind.
The Dawn of Communication
It is impossible to know exactly how earliest man communicated, but it can be assumed that job one as they came together as groups and then tribes, was to be able to communicate with each other. They would soon find that gestures and other nonverbal means were not sufficient for them to be successful carrying out joint efforts, like gathering food, providing shelter, and protection. Sound would prove to be the most effective means. Messages could be carried over distances without interrupting the sender’s activities. For example a certain sound may have been agreed upon to sound a warning. Meanwhile, man would be evolving physically with very versatile machinery to produce a variety of complex sounds which we now call words and language was born.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Since our Great, Great, Great, Great………..and so on grandparents, like us, were never satisfied with the latest technology, they would undoubtedly start looking for ways to communicate distances beyond their range of hearing. It would also be nice to save and share messages. Smoke signals and other such signaling procedures would have little useful utility. They solved that problem by devising symbols for each word thus enabling them to not only hear, but also see all those words. Fast forward a few thousand years, and here I sit recording words in this mysterious black box. As you are all aware this is not the end of that story, but more about that later.
Most of us talk better than we listen
Of course humans have developed the most complex system of communication centered on our verbal language skills. As a matter fact, many anthropologists rate our ability to use language as the major factor which allowed man to become the dominant creature on the planet. It is language that allows me to write this paper, and to communicate ideas, opinions, directions, knowledge, feelings, or indeed any thoughts which come into my head to anyone who is inclined to listen, and therein lies the most common flaw in any communications system, i.e., most of us talk better than we listen.
Psychiatrists listen, it is what we do, as a matter of fact sometimes that is all we do. It has always amazed me how therapeutic listening can be. There are many times when patients have left my office saying they felt much better after venting their particular problem, in spite of sparse verbal responsiveness on my part. It makes me sad to think that some people find it necessary to spend money to have someone listen to them. Come to think of it, if we all would be better listeners it might save a lot on shrink bills.
I can identify with those people who feel no one listens for I have always envied those guys with deep commanding voices who are able to dominate a discussion. In those situations I am rather soft spoken and sometimes feel excluded. My attempts to change the timbre of my voice have been unsuccessful; consequently; I am usually content to let my wife take the lead in those social situations as she is very good at social repartee.
The Nuts and Bolts of Communication
Everyone knows that in order to have a communication, one must have a transmitter and a receiver. For the sake of brevity (my readers seem to appreciate that quality in these blogs), I will limit my comments to communications between people; although, I realize there are now many machines that communicate, and that animals communicate with each other and with us. It is important to remember that in the presence of other people it is impossible not to communicate, for paradoxically not to communicate sends a message: therefore a communication has taken place. When one ignores another person, it may send a powerful message, but one which can be interpreted in many ways. The message may be clear depending on the situation or context, but can also be confusing.
An outstretched middle finger pointing skyward will rarely be misinterpreted
Verbal conversations are the most versatile and intimate of our means of messaging while written messages are less likely to be misunderstood. Non-verbal messages can also be very precise, for example in our society the presentation of an outstretched middle finger pointing skyward from an otherwise closed fist will rarely be misinterpreted. In spite of such exceptions, words are generally the more precise tool. The superior quality of verbal versus non-verbal communication is evidenced by the difficulty those born without hearing experience as compared to those who are blind. It is well known that a person’s lack of one special sense will result in a compensatory increase in acuity of its opposite. The result for deaf people is that they can become markedly adept at sign language, but to converse with hearing people becomes very difficult. They must either use crude gestures, or depend on written messaging, the first being ineffective and the second inefficient. Lip reading is apt to be fraught with errors and may not even be possible for those born deaf. Blind people however converse with little difficulty and their enhanced hearing may allow them to hear inflections which might go unnoticed by those with normal vision which could help make them superior communicators. The result is that deaf folks often prefer to relate to others who are deaf, while blind people find it easier to assimilate into ordinary society.
The Art and Science of Listening
As I mentioned previously, I believe that failure to hear is usually due to a failure to listen. Listening requires effort. In order to be an effective listener one needs to use all of his faculties, including not only his ears, but also eyes, touch, and sometimes even his sense of smell. It goes without saying that it is essential to be attentive, and to maintain eye contact unless the one talking seems uncomfortable. Observing a person’s posture and movements are all part of the listening process. For example, folding one’s arms across their chest indicates they are not likely to be receptive to your comments. Of course there are many less obvious non-verbal cues which are delivered unconsciously, to which we may respond to without awareness they have occurred.
People who study non-verbal communications can gather amazing amounts of information by simply watching a person. While teaching both individual, couples, and family therapies, we often would show a video tape of a session without sound, and speculate as to what the body language revealed. If the therapist who conducted the session was present he/she would usually be surprised at his/her lack of awareness of some their own non-verbal behaviors. Although a thorough review of the subject is way beyond the scope of this paper, we can learn some things which can be helpful to enhance our abilities to really listen just by watching.
Listen with your eyes
Most cues will be obvious, the breaking of eye contact, leaning forward or backward in a chair etc. One very telling clue as to our engagement is the shifting toward or away from symmetrical positioning e.g. the mirroring of postures. If the person with whom we are conversing mimics our sitting position, it is likely that they are engaged in the conversation, and to change positions will indicate disengagement. We are likely to sense those changes in others more easily than in ourselves. Leaning forward toward the conversant will indicate interest and encourage more talk on the subject while leaning back can be interpreted as: “enough of that subject.” At the same time it may be helpful to remember that if you are bored you probably will look bored, and you will give off the same signals as your bored companion. As mentioned previously, words are still your best shot to receive a clear message, and the non-verbal stuff should be viewed as ancillary.
Now that you know everything there is to know about being a receiver, we can move onto how you may become a talented transmitter. If you are to become a scintillating conversationalist, or a raconteur par excellence you must learn how to deliver a clear and succinct message. This must not be as easy as it sounds for even when listening as hard as I can, I sometimes have no idea what is being said. The KISS acronym (keep it simple, stupid) is still a good rule when it comes to personal conversation. Complexity tends to obscure rather than illuminate. Most contemporary poetry violates this rule in my opinion. My attempts to understand it leaves me with the same feeling I get after spending a half hour working on a rubric’s cube. I confess that I carry a few big words around to use when I want to impress; however long multisyllabic words should be avoided if a little one will do. (You may notice that I have used some of my favorite fancy words in this paragraph, and I trust you are duly impressed).
Direct vs Indirect
Conventional wisdom is that one should always be direct with one’s communications, and “not beat around the bush” as my grandmother would say. In general that is a good rule to follow; however there are times when one might need to deviate from that practice. It brings to mind the solution that my wife Barb found to a vexing problem. It involved a young man who did some office work for her from time to time. The problem was that he had a persistent very strong body odor. She was concerned for him, and suspected the B.O. might well have something to do with his limited social life. Of course, she was reluctant to confront him directly. Although her maternal instincts had kicked in, she did not feel close enough to him to be comfortable discussing his problem directly. After considerable deliberation she resolved her dilemma by giving him a box of deodorant soap for Christmas. Unfortunately, she had no follow up with which to judge the success of her coded message.
There are times however when a direct communication is the best choice in embarrassing situations. One personal example happened while I was giving a lecture to a group of nurses. I noted some snickering among them which was puzzling since grief was the subject of the talk. I later learned that my fly was unzipped. It would have been an act of kindness to have been informed of my zipper problem. To make matters worse, I was forced to endure taunts by colleagues that this was an obvious Freudian slip.
Sending manure and roses in the same box
Although words are of the utmost importance in communicating, we must not forget the music that goes with them. By that I mean the tone, volume, cadence, pitch, and other elements produced by the noise maker in our windpipes. The mechanisms we use to produce sound is remarkable in its versatility and is capable of expressing innumerable emotions which can accompany our words. What we say can be modified, enhanced, diminished or even totally changed in their meaning by our voices. When the words fit the music it can add clarity, but when they don’t it can be confusing. This also applies to visual clues as previously discussed. In those situations in which sound contradicts the words, we have two conflicting messages in one. The purpose of double messages is usually to express hostility, but make it difficult for the recipient to respond as we used to say at the lab: “to send manure and roses in the same box”. In such cases it may be difficult for one to decide which is the more pungent odor.
Sarcasm and the double message
Sarcasm is probably the most recognized form of the double message; however there are some who are masters of the technique. Some women are said to be “catty” in their conversations with other women For example at a dressy social function Miss Catty might say, “What a nice dress, I saw one just like it on the dollar rack at K-mart the other day.”The recipient of this message is apt to remain speechless unless she is quick enough to come up with an equally sarcastic response. In any event the two are unlikely to become friends. There are words and phrases which can be interpreted differently. Some idioms can be confusing and even suggest opposite viewpoints. Since language is never static some may change in their meanings as for example the phrase, “cute as a bug” usually referring to a younger person now seems to be accepted as complimentary; however I don’t believe many people would consider bugs cute.
Anger vs Hostility
Many people find it difficult to deal with anger either of their own or others. This can be limiting in their ability to form lasting and honest relationships for there will always be reasons for anger towards others whether real or imagined. Unexpressed anger will result in either hostile behavior or depression.
In our so called civil society it is often deemed inappropriate to express anger directly, but rest assured it will be communicated by all those non-verbal means we have talked about in spite of our best efforts to conceal it. Contrary to public opinion anger and hostility are not synonymous. Anger is an emotion while hostility is a behavior. Hostility is unlikely to resolve the issues which perpetrated the anger, and furthermore the response to hostility is apt to increase one’s anger.
The efficient and healthy way to express anger
There is a very simple and efficient way to express anger and that is to say “I am angry with you.” This will allow the source of your anger the opportunity to ask about your anger and consider options other than fighting. As I mentioned before, you are the only expert on your emotions so they can’t be refuted by others. If he shows no interest in resolving your differences, you are best off to just dump the sucker.
When you’re on the receiving end of anger
The opposite side of the coin is when you are the recipient of the anger or hostility. If the person is sufficiently enlightened to open the conversation with their feelings of anger, you have a good chance of resolving the issue, but it is more likely that it will be hostility, e.g., name calling, accusations, jealousy, or even physical assault. In the latter case just run unless you have a ball bat handy.
Acknowledge the affect
In other circumstances you may be able to diffuse the hostility by acknowledging the affect. The affect for you non-shrinks is the word we use for feelings. As a matter of fact that phrase: “acknowledge the affect” became my mantra when teaching psychotherapy. Phrases such as, “you must be very angry, or you really look mad,” may lead to a more productive discussion. In some cases it may be more effective to use your own affect especially if there is no response to your acknowledgement of his anger. Whatever you say must be honest, like “I feel sad, this hurts my feelings, or you are scaring me.” Although these strategies do not guarantee success, they are less likely to result in escalation of the conflict. Of course sometimes we would rather fight and in such cases that remains a prerogative; although it is often difficult to determine the winner.
Being assertive without hostility
Many of us have grown up in homes where we were taught to be submissive. This is probably true for women more often than for men. Then we grow up and find that we must be assertive or be ignored. Our childhood experiences of assertiveness was usually linked with anger, but as we grow up we learn that to be accepted into society we must learn civility. The result is that in this competitive world we must assert ourselves or be left in the dust. The problem is that we don’t know how to be assertive without being hostile. This was a problem for many, many of my patients. As women strived for more independence, and learned to work alongside men who were accustomed to being considered the dominant gender their need for assertiveness training increased, and this need is not confined to women. Learning to recognize feelings will help one to compartmentalize them and learn how to communicate without unwanted hostility. In other words acknowledge the affect.
The Awesome Complexity of Communication
The subject of interpersonal communications is obviously much more complicated than what is presented here. It is estimated that our vocabulary includes between 10,000 and 17,000 words depending on age and education level. When the myriad non-verbal modifiers are added coupled with the thousands of ways words can be arranged we become aware of the awesome complexity of this function which we take for granted.
P.S. I am a bit anxious about submitting this for publication as I have a grandson who is about to graduate with a major in communications. I can only hope he will be merciful in his critique.
Next time, I hope to share some thoughts about families.