A Simple Way to Communicate More Effectively
Overstating your point may confuse your meaning.
Posted May 30, 2018
I often hear people say, “We just don’t know how to talk to each other anymore!” As a therapist and director of a college counseling center, I find that many people do not communicate well. A key problem is overstatement, that is, using language that’s emphatic, exaggerated or excessive. In our effort to convey the personal importance of what we’re saying, our meaning is often confused.
What is overstatement?
Take the declaration, “We just don’t know how to talk to each other these days.” It states a belief about communication problems, but it also implies a lot more. It suggests that there was a time when people communicated better, though it does not specify when this time was or offer anything by way of actual proof.
This type of statement is surprisingly common: an opinion or belief is presented as an indisputable fact. Such assertions come across as static and rigid—a presentation of the unequivocal—rather than an idea or value to be discussed or debated.
Absolutism or excessiveness can get in the way of what a speaker is really trying to say or might even believe. In the example above, the assertion that folks don’t talk to one another may reflect the speaker’s feeling of disconnection from other people—his loneliness. However, when presented emphatically as an objective truth, the overstatement obscures this meaning.
Once we’ve become aware of the overstatement in our language, we are in a significantly better place to improve our communication skills. So, let’s begin with some markers of overstatement.
Overstatement is characterized by any of the below, either individually or together:
- The use of absolute statements. For instance, saying that something is all or nothing — “I am a failure.” Or making broad claims — “Millennials are lazy and entitled.”
- The absence of specific proof to back up a claim. As above, there are no specifics to back up the assertion about communication “these days.”
- Exclamation marks. When something is said with a particularly strong emphasis, such as, “technology is the cause of our communication problems!” without any supporting evidence.
Examples of overstatement
Sabrina, a college senior, looking despondent, told me that she did not get the job she applied for. She threw up her arms in exasperation and exclaimed, “I don’t even know why I tried, it’s not like I had a chance anyway, all I did was get my hopes up for nothing, I should know that I never get what I want!” The over-generalized nature of the statement and her emphatic delivery are both examples of overstatement. It was difficult for me to know how to respond in an empathic manner.
As I worked to understand her experience, what emerged was both her disappointment about not getting a job she wanted, as well as the fear that she might not ever get a job that would feel satisfying. Her initial overstatement made this hard to see at first. Once I understood, we were able to talk through her fears in a way that left her feeling less hopeless.
Fredrick, a college sophomore, started a session by talking angrily about how he is always left out of plans with peers. “I am always the first one to be dropped. I will never have any friends who respect me like I respect them.” His anger did not leave much room to explore what happened. I shared this observation with him and he told me a story about how his friends recently went out to a party without him.
When I then asked if there were any reasons they could have left him out, Fredrick paused and reflected, “I did tell them that I needed to stay in all weekend to study.” However, when he saw photos of them at a party he felt hurt and insecure. These feelings quickly blossomed into anger, and it did not occur to him that his friends might have been honoring his stated intention to dedicate the weekend to his studies.
Clear communication requires attention
It’s easy to imagine how Sabrina and Fredrick’s overstatements confused others. Sabrina’s overstatement most likely distracted others, like her friends and family, from what was really going on for her. If they responded to the excess in her pained lament, they may have missed the most important parts of her experience. Frederick’s friends probably took him at his word, but their attempt at being thoughtful left him hurt. By questioning the excess in their language, I was able to discover the salient facts hidden behind their hyperbole and expose the negative effects of their overstatements.
Communicating is often hard work. It requires a willingness to think about what we are saying and, equally importantly, how we are saying it.
Philip J. Rosenbaum, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Haverford College. He received his psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute. He is the editor of the recently published book Making Our Ideas Clear: Pragmatism and Psychoanalysis and is the co-editor of the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy. He is in private practice in Philadelphia, PA and his website is www.philiprosenbaumphd.com