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Resolving communication breakdown

If you are feeling misunderstood, you are not alone. Although we live in an era of global connectivity, evidence suggests that our communication skills are still profoundly lacking. With misunderstandings being commonplace in every household, it is no wonder that one in four Australians report that they experience regular feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

Although loneliness is often considered a symptom of solitude; you don’t need to be alone to feel lonely. The pain of being in a social group or the company of loved ones, whilst feeling overwhelmingly disconnected by ongoing misunderstandings, can be profoundly debilitating.

Social media bombards us with messages that tell us that effective communication skills are essential for health, happiness, relationship satisfaction, as well as personal and professional success, yet a recent study by Relationships Australia describes the rising levels of loneliness as an epidemic. Clearly, our ability to understand each other does not come naturally.

Communication is not something that can be easily avoided. We spend a large portion of our waking hours interacting with others – we talk over breakfast, on the phone, we watch TV, send texts, email, chat on the internet, apply for a job, argue with siblings, ignore our neighbours, order a coffee or ask for a pay rise, the list goes on and on. Beyond words, we also communicate through gestures. You might lower your voice, shout, slam your fist on the table, point accusingly, raise an eyebrow or wink – these are all forms of communication. The way we dress also sends messages; wearing a suit or piercing your nose unwittingly offers people information about you. Yet, even though communication is such a common part of daily life, being understood and understanding others is far more complicated then we think. That being said, what steps can we take to make sure we are understood?

As a first step, it’s important to note that communication is not the same as talking. Talking is only a small part of communication. In it’s simplest form communication is about sending a message and making sure that others understand your intended meaning. Beyond spoken or written words, the information we are sending out into the world also includes nonverbal messages and behaviour, such as:

  • Facial expressions
  • The tone and volume of your voice
  • Your body language
  • The way you look
  • The time of day
  • The chosen mode of communication
  • The place and the social environment
  • Other parts of ‘the message’ which might include: your job or role, gender, culture or the way you are dressed.

communication is not the same as talking

At its core communication is a two-part process, in which a sender decides what needs to be said and the receiver interprets the message and tries to understand it’s meaning. This is a simultaneous process requires the receiving and interpreting of messages by both people. This isn’t as easy as it seems, as there are a lot of additional factors that can get in the way of understanding. These include:

  • The manner in which the message is sent, such as face-to-face conversation, emails, text messages or social media posts. The choice of delivery method adds to the value and effectiveness of the message.
  • The setting of the communication. This includes the environment, the time of day, how well you know each other, your history, the degree of friendliness and the impact of cultural expectations such as beliefs and customs.
  • Noise is anything that interferes with getting your message across. There are several different types of noise: physical noise (such as a noisy room); physiological noise (such as the use of a raised or a quiet voice); psychological noise in the minds of both sender or receiver (such as disinterest, judgements or personal bias) and language differences including the use of swearing, slang or jargon. 

in recognising the complexity of communication, you begin to understand why it’s so easy to be misunderstood

Have you ever considered how someone else knows what you mean when you speak to them? Although we all share the same language, we all have a unique interpretation of a word’s meaning. We develop meaning by listening to the words, seeing and experiencing nonverbal cues and contextual signals, then interpreting them according to our explanatory framework of self- knowledge, culture, gender, age, education, status, roles, situation, personality, our present state of mind, environment, and many other factors. Although you can look up the meaning of a word in the dictionary the way we each use and understand words and how we choose to use them in any given situation is different from person to person. Therefore, your meaning may not be the same as someone else’s meaning. 

If you have ever played the game of Chinese Whispers, where one person begins a message and whispers it around a circle of others, only to find that the final message is completely changed from its original intent, you’ll be aware of just how easily a message can become distorted. Yet as complicated as this all sounds, all is not lost. Some skills can be learnt that foster effective communication and the majority of them revolve around developing our capacity to listen. 

effective listeners hear meaning – others simply hear words 

Strange though it may seem, speakers don’t control communication – listeners do. Speakers can talk as much as they want but if you don’t listen, there is no understanding and no communication. A speaker can’t force you to listen. Not only can we choose whether or not to listen, but we can also choose whether to listen effectively or not. We hear many things but listen to very few. We can hear without wanting to hear, but we have to want to listen. Listening is a process that involves hearing as well as understanding and responding. 

Yet even though our days are full of listening to information, research suggests that we misinterpret, misunderstand or change 75% of what we hear. This suggests that while we spend a lot of time listening, we don’t seem to be very good at it – which adds up to a lot of misunderstanding.

At school, we learn to read, write, spell, speak, and do maths. But we don’t learn how to listen. Scroll through the internet and you’ll find a multitude of short courses designed to help you improve your public speaking skills, sharpen your memory, speed read, sharpen your business or creative writing skills, but there is very little training available that is specifically designed to improve listening skills. 

Effective listening is sharing the meaning of both the words and feelings communicated in verbal and nonverbal messages. This requires listening with an open mind, a non-judgemental attitude, and an other-orientation approach. Effective listening requires effort. It also requires time, concentration, attention, empathy, patience, understanding, tolerance, and self-control to keep your thoughts from intruding. Effective listening is a skill, which can be learnt, and the benefits are enormous. 

to genuinely listen to another person, we need to be willing to get out of our own way

The first step in resolving any misunderstanding is a willingness to receive new information. This is easier said than done. When we feel misunderstood it is difficult for us to stay open and connect with others, yet it is in these moments that a willingness to listen becomes more important than ever.

Personal feelings of anger, confusion or frustration, as well as strong opinions and biases, can make it difficult to listen and absorb another’s perspective. To genuinely listen to another person, we need to be willing to get out of our own way. This might require drawing down on values such as caring, open-heartedness and kindness to connect with the best version of one’s self. This personal reflection is a preparatory stage, which allows us time to gather our thoughts and our intention before we approach conversations that aim to unpack misunderstandings and resolve conflict.

Creating an opportunity for discussion doesn’t need to be complicated. Simply asking questions about how another is interpreting a given situation opens the pathway towards mutual understanding. Listening to another’s response and paraphrasing back what you have heard, followed by asking if you have heard them correctly, offers you an opportunity to clarify and understand a given situation. To practice this, try the following steps:

  • ·Consider the most effective method for communicating. Face to face is always best, followed by Facetime, Skype or phone discussion. Written forms of communication such as emails or texts can easily lose meaning as they are interpreted.
  • Attempt to minimise ‘noise’ – both external (such as moving out of a noisy room or choosing the right time of day) and internal (putting your thoughts aside).
  • Consider begining with a long lead sentence that lets the other person know how you are feeling and your good intention, such as: “I am feeling disconnected at the moment. This is hard for me as I care about you and our relationship. Can you tell me what is going on for you? I want to do my best to understand your perspective….” (if the person is not able to share at that time…try to create a time and space for the dialogue to occur; ask when there might be a better time or place to talk).
  • When the conversation begins, give the other person your complete attention.
  • Look and listen to both words and nonverbal cues, paying attention to what is said as well as what isn’t said.
  • Look and listen for clues as to the speaker’s intention or how they would like their message interpreted. 
  • Listen with curiosity and non-judgment and without interrupting the speaker’s flow.  Use your body language and offer small gestures such as gentle eye contact or nodding, to show that you are interested and engaged.
  • Listen to your internal reactions, such as passing thoughts, biases and opinions, rising feelings or physical sensations. Remind yourself of your intent to shelve any reactions that may get in the way of you simply listening.

meanings are in people not in the words they speak 

The hardest part of listening is the willingness to hear something about yourself that you disagree with and/or upsets you. It’s important to note that we don’t have to share the same opinion, we just need to be willing to try to understand another’s perspective.

Effective listening involves not assuming you know what the other person means.  Rather, creating space to foster understanding requires asking for clarification and additional information, with a willingness to hear and interpret the message from the other’s point of view. This may not be easy. Interpreting someone’s meaning can be difficult; meanings are in people not in the words they speak. We each develop meaning according to our unique explanatory framework

As mentioned, words only deliver a small portion of the whole story. Attending to another’s view also requires us to try and assess how they may be feeling. Are they sad, angry or exhausted; what does their body language and tone of voice tell you?

A good listener may even be able to gain insight from the words that are not being said. Sometimes unspoken words can be just as important, if not more important than those being used.

Once you think you understand another person’s meaning, paraphrasing both the information and the emotions you’ve picked up on shows you’re attempting to make sense of their view. If you haven’t got it right, allow the other person an opportunity to clarify. There’s no need to respond immediately, allow yourself time to digest the information. Ask the other person for time to do so, if you need it. Though consider doing this respectfully, keeping in mind your values around caring.

When people share their intimate thoughts with you, they may feel vulnerable and require an immediate response. The most important thing is to be genuine in your attempt to listen. If you don’t get it right straight away, acknowledge your efforts and the need to practice. It’s easy to get listening wrong, though with self-awareness we can learn from the mistakes we make.

In a nutshell, developing our knowledge of the elements involved in good communication and honing our capacity to listen actively, helps to overcome misunderstanding. This is easier said than done as improving your listening skills requires knowledge, self-awareness, practice, time, patience, and an other-orientation approach to the way we connect with the people in our lives. Misunderstandings are diminished through the act of listening. Touching the heart of another by listening to their heartfelt concerns, is like offering a gentle hug.

Rather than the generally accepted norm of being aware of words but being lost to any depth of meaning, developing our listening skills assists with laying a pathway towards mutual understanding. In short, being misunderstood begins and ends with ourselves; effective communication requires a willingness to replace a lifetime of misunderstandings with a genuine desire to comprehend others.

By Joanna Joustra

Counsellor, Coach and Mindfulness Facilitator at Mindful Life




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