Many of us have challenges communicating with others. “I can’t talk to my boss.” “I don’t understand my teenagers,” and, “my co-worker and I just don’t see eye to eye,” are all expressions of difficulties we have with communication. While there are a myriad ways to address these issues, one very powerful solution is to look more deeply at our communication patterns and to build a richer vocabulary for our experiences.
When we can describe our experiences more thoroughly, we have more options for making positive change and improving situations. I call this, “Communication Appreciation.” It refers to our ability to look deeply at the process of communication and develop an appreciation for the subtle dynamics and patterns that exist in our own communication, our use of words and the way they shape our relationships and life experiences. This, in turn, allows us to understand ourselves and our relationships better, and it comes to our aid when we want to learn new habits or teach others.
Let me give you an example of how this works. When I was in school, I enrolled in a course called, “Music Appreciation.” I thought it might be an easy A, but instead I was confronted with an entirely new world of experience and vocabulary. I had always enjoyed many kinds of music, but my experience was severely limited by my lack of vocabulary. I could say that I “liked” this kind of music or “didn’t like” that kind, but I literally listened to music differently once I had a deeper vocabulary to describe it. After taking the class, I was able to hear the cello as a distinct element of the music; I could identify the timpani in the background; I could describe a piece of music in far more detail and I could identify very specifically what I liked about it and what I didn’t like with richer detail and far more accuracy. With my larger vocabulary, I now literally experience music in a very different way.
Communication is similar. Because we communicate all the time, we often feel that we know “enough” about it. In the workplace, I often hear people using a very limited vocabulary to describe their experiences. “My boss is annoying.” “I work on a fantastic team!” “My workplace is hostile.” “I hate my job. It’s boring.”
While these descriptions may be technically accurate, they don’t afford us much opportunity to learn from and impact the situation. Saying, “my boss enters my office without knocking and issues demands,” is more descriptive, and also gives us the chance to take action that will positively impact the situation with more finesse. We can speak up to our boss about how she or he has a habit of entering without knocking and asking for things to be done in a harsh tone of voice, and we may be able to persuade him or her to behave differently. It is much more difficult to get a positive result when we simply ask someone to stop being “annoying.”
If, instead of, “I work on a fantastic team,” you might say, “my team is highly productive because we stick to clear guidelines for running our team meetings and making decisions.” This description points me toward replicating the conditions that make one team productive, with a different group.
So, how do we develop our ability to appreciate and describe communication in this more refined way? It’s actually simple with three easy steps.
3 Easy Steps to Refine Your Communication Skills & Influence Change
1) Get Curious.When we are curious, our minds open to new experiences that we wouldn’t normally attend to. Open your mind and start looking closely at the mundane. Ask yourself, “What is createdby the way I am communicating? Is it hostility? Connection? Respect?” These and other curious questions can open our minds to new ways of seeing everyday situations. (For more on curiosity, see my last blog post: Curiosity: Asking the Right Questions to Motivate, Manage & Lead)
2) Use the “Surveillance Camera Technique.”When emotions run high, it is much more difficult to be fair and reasonable in our descriptions. If I have had a long, frustrating set of experiences with my co-worker, it is hard for me to see what is ACTUALLY happening TODAY with much accuracy. To address this, try describing an interaction as if it were caught on tape by a surveillance camera. First, start with no sound. Just describe the body movements as if you were simply watching a tape of a complete stranger, and you had to describe it to a third party on the phone. Then, when you have practiced that technique for a while, add in the sound track. Try describing tones of voice, volume, rate and pace of speech, along with specific words and phrases. This will make it much easier for you to tease out the difference between the actual words that are used, and our particular and personal reaction to those words.
3) Build Your Vocabulary.Like it or not, when we have more words, we can describe our experiences in greater detail. Instead of simply saying, “I was listening,” you could use greater detail by saying, “I was focused on your words and facial expressions and using open-ended questions to better understand your perspective.” This may not seem like really learning new vocabulary, but integrating more communication and emotion words into your routine vocabulary will better equip you to describe the subtle differences in your experiences.
Use these tips to build a deeper appreciation for the subtlety of communication, and you will be able to learn much more from every interaction, influencing your social world for the better!
Written by Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer