Beyond the spoken words


Let’s take a fresh look at the components of communication.   As someone who has studied interpersonal communication, soft skills and more recently counselling over the 20yrs,  I hope I can give you something new to consider here.

I wanted to write this article because I am a firm believer that a great deal of our challenges in life are closely connected or influenced by interpersonal communication.   So let’s start with the bits you know – communication is in its simplest form is the exchange of words between two people; a speaker and a listener who switch roles, sounds simple enough.

First, let’s look at the environment.  Where we choose to communicate can have a significant impact on the words we exchange being heard clearly and correctly.  Environment is more than other noise and can also be temperature, proximity of the two people,  position (sitting/standing),  other objects (blocking/free space), light (colour and brightness) and I am going to throw in timing here as well (time pressures, risk of interruption etc).   Surprisingly while most of us will be nodding ‘oh der, this is all obvious’, the amount of times we fail to plan or even consider the environment we are communicating in and its impact is pretty high.

Now the other area is around the individuals themselves, which is where this gets complicated.  While we share similarities with others we are all unique in the end.   Think of all the influences you have had to this point;  age, sex, heritage, family structure, economic status, language, education, country/culture, health, mood, stress levels etc.  Now apply experiences and how they have shaped you both positively and negatively, where you bullied at school or the head prefect.  Now consider there are probably a range of experiences you aren’t even able to identify that have shaped who you are.   You may feel all these items have shaped your personality,  or maybe your personality traits are something again to overlay on this list, either can be true depending on your view.   In the end I hope you’re starting to form a picture of all the subtleties that we as individuals bring to the table when we communicate with others.

Now let’s unpack the ways we communicate; Most would have heard the statistic around 70% of communication is non-verbal.  Pretty amazing by itself right – that we take most of our messages from body language and facial expressions.  A simple example would be if someone tells you they are happy yet their face tells a complete other story, we go with what the face is telling us right??  This non-verbal communication is the key component for validating the verbal messages we exchange.  It’s the reason things like emails and SMS are more likely to be misinterpreted; because technically only part of the message is really being provided and the other person has to assume the rest.

This takes me to the last point – history.  The above example about interpreting/assuming the intent of a text message is a prime example of this next element of communication.  Think about where those assumptions are coming from and think about the different people you communicate with and the history you have.   A parent for example,  years and years of history throughout your life.  When reading an SMS from a parent there is knowledge about where they are likely coming from with the words right.   How about someone you just met,  what are you basing your interpretation on now?  It is likely a combination of your own style, values, beliefs and expectations of who that person is in society.   The easiest way to describe it is perhaps the stereotypes we tend to construct,  these set up sometimes unchecked/unchallenged filters to help us quickly take in communication.  They can be often wrong.

Let me take this a step further.  What about the negative history you have someone, those you have known short and long term.  I think this is an often overlooked and critical component of communication.  Think about someone you have known for years and the last time you got into a misunderstanding.  Can you recall the thoughts running through your head prior to words even being spoken.    You knew what they were thinking and how they will react to certain things right?  If you asked how their day was for example, you would be pretty confident they would likely either give you a short vague response or jump right into an engaged conversation with you about both your days.   What a lot of us fail to realise in communication is the role past communication has moving forward.   Before we even open our mouths we already expect certain responses, challenges, behaviours.  Unfortunately this means we really aren’t communicating that well anymore because are not open to the messages – we are inserting our own.  If you have someone tagged in your mind as a grump then guess what, they will probably always come across like that.   If you always argue with your partner about housework then every conversation about housework is likely going to be an argument.   Unfortunately the more history we have with someone, the worse our communication gets.  This among other things leads to a failure to resolve conflict, and probably increased conflict as we base more and more on previous (negative) experience.  Naturally it can work the other was too, but we tend not to focus on the positive interactions now do we?

If you’re spotting a pattern in the interactions your having with someone, take a moment to check-in on your own assumptions and filters.  You can even check-in with them on how you are interpreting things, to explore change.  This is by far the hardest communication 🙂


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