Effective communication is communication that is received in the way it is intended (Katz, 2015). Unlike traditional communication tutorials that focus on assertiveness skills, effective communication considers context, delivery, and most importantly, how the message is heard.
This means communication is only effective if it is correctly received. So regardless of how beautifully you might have said something, if the other person didn’t get it, then the communication is ineffective.
Communication is like throwing a ball. One person tosses the ball with the intention that the recipient will catch it. This requires a good enough toss and a completed catch. It helps if both the tosser and catcher are paying attention and motivated to complete the catch. If the ball is not tossed well, it may or may not make it to the recipient. Or if the recipient is not ready to catch, the ball could be dropped.
So, effective communication is much more than being assertive. Sometimes being assertive is a good way to deliver a message, but other times it may not be. The most effective communication considers context. For example, sometimes delaying communicating is most effective (e.g., if someone is in an angry or bad mood, it may be best not to engage in a conversation at that time). Sometimes being aggressive is most effective such as protecting a child from running into a busy street. Sometimes assertiveness can be interpreted as being too pushy. In this case, a message would be received, but not in the way it was intended, leading the conversation astray.
You are responsible for what you say and how you say it. What do you hope to create as a result of a particular communication? Sometimes people impulsively express their hurt and anger without regard to considering the outcome. While you may want to say how you feel and hope that your communication will bring you closer together (e.g., improve understanding, allow for forgiveness, and increase trust and intimacy), if it is not packaged well, it may end up increasing your distance (e.g., amplify hurt and bitterness).
There is a better way.
1. Check the context. First of all, rather than relying on one strategy (e.g., assertiveness), it may be more effective to have a variety of strategies that are applied as needed depending on a situation. Before speaking, it may be helpful to scan the environment, read the context of what is going on, and assess how is your recipient feeling. Are they upset about something else, or relaxed and open to having a conversation? Is this a good time to bring up an important issue? Is the recipient ready and able to hear what you have to say? Are you aware of certain sensitivities based on yours or the recipient's past?
Again, the purpose is to successfully deliver a message in the way that it is intended.
2. Check your own emotional level. Are you irritated about something unrelated to the person with whom you are talking? Is something in the present triggering something from your past? If so, you may unintentionally throw a speedball and knock the person over with force. Is that what you intended? Maybe take a breath and ground yourself before talking.
3. What is your message? Is your message clear or are you sending a mixed message? A mixed message is like throwing two balls in opposite directions and expecting the recipient to get the right one!
For example, if someone says, “I’m fine,” but their body language conveys upset (e.g., arms crossed and face looks upset, not talking), then what is that person really saying? What should the recipient do? Go away, move towards, give space, or ask another question? A mixed message is confusing and a set up for miscommunication and further upset.
4. Pay attention to how you package your message. When you send a fragile vase in a poorly packaged box, it will likely arrive cracked or may even shatter into pieces. Similarly, if you have a sensitive message, be thoughtful of how you package it. You may intend to share an important feeling, but if it is packaged as blaming, accusing, or threatening, the conversation will likely quickly devolve.
A safer way is to focus on how you are feeling using an I-message, such as, “I feel (hurt, lonely, etc,) when you (don’t answer your phone, leave dishes in the sink, etc)." This is in contrast to a You-message, such as “You never answer the phone,” or “Why do you leave dishes when you know it upsets me?” Can you see how the later communication will likely lead to a fight? There are many publications about I-messages and You-messages. For example, Gottman & Silver (1999) discuss strategies for effective marital communication.
5. Be a good listener. Maybe even more important than delivering good communications is being a good recipient. Listen not only to words but also to the tone of their voice and body language. What is the emotion they are conveying?
As a guideline, if you can read the other person’s feelings, you will vastly improve your communication skills. This is having empathy and working towards understanding the other person’s point of view. When people feel heard, they will much more likely be open to hearing you too.
Another guideline is to reflect what you heard the other person said. This not only is confirmation for you that you heard it correctly but very satisfying for the person who delivered the communication.
In summary, communication requires at least two people: the sender and the receiver. Communication is only effective if it is received in the way it is intended.
Tips to set yourself up for effective communication:
- Consider the timing and mood of your recipient.
- Check your own emotional level.
- Be responsible for delivering clear communication.
- Consider using I-messages to avoid blaming or putting others on the defensive.
- Be a good listener (attentive) when receiving a communication.
Action step: Continue to work on emotional self-regulation, breathing, grounding, and positive self-talk. If you have something you want to communicate, you can start by writing it down. The first draft may have strong emotions and it’s ok to give yourself a chance to express them. But do not send this draft! In the second draft, consider how the other person is going to receive your message. Are you being empathic with how they are feeling? Are you considering how you are packaging your communication? Maybe sandwich something positive with a more sensitive topic. And finally, reflect back what you hear and ask for clarification if you are unsure.
Gottman, J & Silver, N. (1999). "Solve Your Solvable Problems". The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0-609-80579-4.
Katz, L. (2015). Warrior Renew: Healing from military sexual trauma, Springer Publishing, New York, NY. ISBN-13: 978-0826122315