If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we live in strange times and that effective communication is in short supply. The division between the two major political parties in America is astounding. If you ever read the comments on political news stories on social media, you can see just how crazy it can get. Everybody is edgy and angry, and nobody is listening to each other. If you don’t read the comments, I urge you to read them on a few posts. Especially on any posts that have to do with Donald Trump.
I feel like most of the problem has to do with the way we are communicating. We are fairly new to communicating so frequently through text. A person can sit safely behind their computer screen and have little risk that the person they are talking to is going to punch them in the mouth. Because it’s a low risk type of communication, it’s made people more brash, direct, and less empathetic to the people they communicate with. There are things that people say on social media that they would never dream of saying to someone face-to-face.
So, how do we bridge this gap and get back to more mature discussions? How do we heal the ever worsening wounds of political discourse? Does effective communication have anything to do with happiness? I would answer that last one with a resounding yes! Your ability to communicate with people effectively is probably one of the most powerful skills you can develop in life. Effective communication drives all of your social interactions, which ultimately helps you build relationships — a key foundation to a happy life.I also want to speak direct and clear about communication. I don’t want to give you some politically correct, feel-good advice. Lacing your sentences with “I feel” doesn’t help much if the thing you’re saying after is some hurtful, selfish nonsense. So, let’s look at five tips you can try today that will improve your communication skills.
Tip 1: Learn to Listen for Understanding
This is standard advice that any article, book, seminar, or class on communication will give you. Our egos will immediately shout into our heads: BUT I DO LISTEN! Nonsense! If you’re in the middle of arguing with someone, there’s a high probability that you aren’t hearing them the way they are trying to be heard. The meaning of communication is the response you get, not what you intend to convey.
We spend so much time trying to get the other person to understand us, that we completely forget that we have a duty to understand them as well. If you don’t understand the person you are speaking to in the way that they want to be understood, then real communication has not taken place.
I see this all the time in debates and discussion on social media. I’ve seen two people who essentially agree with each other argue for hours because nobody took the time to clarify what they meant by certain words. Do you realize that people have different meanings and associations for the same words? That not everybody defines certain words or phrases in the same way you do? I bet everybody reading this article is interpreting it in a slightly different way.
The key is to learn to listen for understanding. This is different than just hearing what people say. For example, if a person says that they are “pro-choice,” people will interpret that in different ways based on their feelings about the subject. Another pro-choice person might give them an air high five. A pro-life person might interpret that to mean that they are for the killing of babies.
It’s an interesting thing, the abortion debate, because the two sides aren’t in direct conflict with each other. It’s not “pro life vs. pro death” nor is it “pro choice vs anti choice.” A pro choice person puts a higher value on the rights of the woman, whereas a pro life person puts a higher value on the rights of the baby. Neither side is completely wrong. It’s okay to value both of those things. However, given the volatile nature of such a discussion, you’d think people were going to straight up murder each other over what they perceive the other side to believe.
Learn to listen. To check for understanding. Ask questions of the other person before you share your point of view. If you embrace this type of active listening, your conversations and discussions will go a lot smoother.
Tip 2: Don’t make things personal
One of the most common themes in poor communication is that any emotional discussion of a topic devolves into a shouting match. People hurl insults at each other instead of discussing the topic at hand. I understand that many of these topics hold deeply personal roots for people, but you have to understand that an effective communicator doesn’t get bogged down with emotion. Or, at the very least, they learn how to channel that emotion into more constructive discussion.
It’s okay to attack someone’s point. It’s not okay to attack them personally. I also understand that it’s not easy to do this, especially when you’re dealing with someone that you perceive to be a total idiot. We want to call a person who doesn’t see our point of view moronic because, to us, our point of view seems so clear. However, the person you are speaking to has not had the same experiences as you. They grew up different than you, and they have a whole other perspective that you haven’t considered.
We have to move beyond the personal insults. It’s okay to disagree with people, but to attack them isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Tip 3: Don’t participate in win/lose discussions
A win/lose discussion is one in which the goal of the interaction is to win someone to your point of view. There are a lot of extremely negative people who only communicate in this way. A lot of people will try to drag you into this type of discussion. A person in this type of discussion is not interested in what is factually true, they are only interested in how they might persuade people to join their side.
The U.S. is currently in a pickle politically because the two sides have forgotten how to communicate with each other. The two major parties have become almost tribe-like in nature, where no compromise is even considered. So, we have this constant back and forth. One party takes over, undoes everything they can from what the previous party did, and then pushes their own agenda. People get tired of that, so they push to elect the other party and they do the same thing. The only way to overcome this is to elect people who are willing to listen to both sides and end this win/lose paradigm we are all living in.
The hardest part of avoiding the win/lose mindset in discussions is that it means you will eventually have to eat crow and admit you were wrong (or misinformed) about an issue. Understand that your knowledge of whatever your discussion is not a reflection of who you are as a person. We take our mistakes and failures so personally. It’s time to understand that we don’t know everything, and that we are all learning new things every day from our own perspectives. Be willing to admit you are wrong. Be will to concede a point you don’t agree with. Be willing to tell a person that you understand why they believe the way they do. These things go a LONG way to taking the heat out of a discussion.
Tip 4: Treat people the way you would like to be treated
This is an oldie but goodie. You don’t like it when people get personal, call you names, and ignore your point of view. So, why do you do it to others? Sometimes you have to be the bigger person — which means you are the first to step out of the win/lose paradigm. Even if you feel yourself getting emotional, take a step back and breathe.
If you are communicating online with someone, open up your notepad and type out that nasty response you want to give them. Then delete it. We do better with communication on our second pass. Be willing to write and then edit/delete parts that you know are going to cause unnecessary conflict. Train yourself to be the bigger person and take the high road. You may not always get there, but the more your do it, the better you get at ignoring and filtering the stuff that isn’t worth a response.
Tip 5: Ignore those who refuse to follow these tips
The most powerful ability you can cultivate in yourself is the ability to learn when to walk away. When to keep your mouth shut. When to just straight up ignore something that doesn’t deserve a response. But sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to someone is to ignore them. They are offensive, mean, and nasty because they want your time and attention. To not give it to them will actually make them more upset than any mean thing you can conjure up.
Some people simply don’t deserve our time and our attention. If you find yourself being drawn into these types of drama-laced discussions, then it’s time to look inward at yourself and see what’s driving you to do that. Sometimes the people we attract can give us huge insights into unresolved issues that we have.
At the end of the day, communication is just a tennis match. You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to see the other person AS a person. See them, hear them, feel them, and try to understand them. The more you empathize with a person, the less likely you are to ineffectively communicate with them.