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O'TOOLE: Strategies for communication success

• Feb 6, 2018 at 1:00 PM

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Famous words from the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” and apt description of every relationship I’ve had since birth.

It’s not just me. A lack of communication or ineffective communication is a common complaint among coworkers, friends, families and spouses. It’s a major source of stress in the workplace and in the home. Then there are the people who don’t even realize they have communication problems because they mistake talking or making conversation for communication. Life coach Tony Robbins says communication is more than exchanging words, it’s connecting with others. It’s using our language skills to fulfill our needs and the needs of others.

Communication failures are often listening failures. Active, engaged listeners report deeper, more meaningful relationships. How can we be active, engaged listeners?

First, focus fully on the speaker in order to observe subtle nuances and nonverbal cues. No texting or playing Candy Crush while the other person is speaking. Make eye contact. I know someone who frequently files her nails when I’m talking to her. It’s so demoralizing! Her lack of eye contact and the loud scraping noise of the emery board say to me, “You are not worthy of my full attention and I’m so bored listening to you that I find my nails more interesting. Please hurry up and finish talking.”

If concentration is difficult, we can always repeat the speaker’s words in our heads. This reinforces the message and helps us stay focused.

Second, keep your right ear to the speaker. I thought that sounded weird at first, but a Positive Psychology article explains that the primary processing centers for speech comprehension and emotion are located on the left side of the brain, and the left side of the brain is connected to the right side of the body.

Third, resist the urge to silently rehearse what you will say while someone else is speaking. That’s not active listening, that’s waiting to talk. Show your interest by nodding, smiling and encouraging the speaker with short comments like “yes” or “uh huh.”

Fourth, take a moment before responding to reflect on what you’ve heard and how you’re affected. Make a sincere effort to walk in the other person’s shoes. Express what the speaker’s words mean to you. Ask questions to clarify what you don’t understand.

Besides an inability to listen actively, there are many common barriers to effective communication. Defensiveness causes you to focus on your own protection instead of the issues being discussed. Telling others how they are instead of how they affect you will cause the others to feel defensive and angry. Bringing old patterns into the present does not allow the other person to change. It prevents forgiveness and healing.

And there’s my favorite: failing to state your needs and expecting others to know them intuitively. I can’t count the number of times someone has gotten furious with me because I didn’t do something for them that they never told me they wanted done. How was I to know they wanted me to do it if they didn’t tell me? I have a lot of talents, but mind-reading isn’t one of them, unfortunately. And if you expect me to read your mind, you better be able to read my mind, too.

The biggest communication barrier, however, might be the impulse to evaluate and critically judge what others say.

So what are the qualities of effective communication?

People who communicate effectively avoid critical judgment. They respect the differences of others and refrain from pressuring others to accept a point of view. They are honest and direct without attacking another’s character. They use “I” statements (“I feel unappreciated when you don’t thank me for ironing your shirts.”) They are open about how they are affected by others and they are not mysterious, expecting others to decode their messages.

In pressure situations, it’s important to stay calm. If you are anxious during a high-pressure conversation, you can employ stall tactics. Ask a question or ask the speaker to clarify before you respond. Pause to collect your thoughts. You might make just one point and provide one example and gauge the other person’s reaction to determine whether you should include more points.

It’s OK to take a moment to calm down. Take deep breaths. Put a mint in your mouth, squeeze a stress ball. Look for humor in the situation. Laughing together can lighten the mood and deepen your connection. If necessary, postpone the discussion until you’re calmer and can think more rationally. Take a walk, meditate, listen to music, or do something else that relaxes you. Then return to the discussion.

There are so many articles and books on the subject of communication that it’s overwhelming. I’m obviously not the only one who feels the failure to communicate.  But after many hours of reading, I’m fairly confident I can be a communication success.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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