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The 4 Primary Principles of Communication

Tune in to these elements to dramatically improve your communication skills.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Effective communication is a connection between people that allows for the exchange of thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and leads to mutual understanding.

This exchange is evidenced when a speaker sends a message to which a listener responds. It seems simple, but it isn’t.

People tend to take the communication process for granted. We generally figure that the communication between two or more people is no big deal. It just works. However, the reality is very different—the process of communication is actually impressively complex.

There are many factors that ultimately determine whether a particular communication experience is likely to be successful or not. There are internal factors that affect each person participating in the communication process individually, interactional factors that affect how information is sent and received between two or more people, and external factors that affect the extent to which the physical environment is conducive to effective communication.

There are also certain principles inherent in the communication process, as well as skills people can learn and practice. When people are aware of these principles and apply this information, they significantly decrease the likelihood of misunderstanding and conflict and increase the chances of successful and skillful communication.

There are four primary principles of communication:

1. The message sent is not necessarily the message received.

We often assume that just because we said something (or thought or intended something) that when another person doesn’t understand what we mean, it’s their fault. After all, the person who sends the message knows exactly what he or she meant. However, what the person on the receiving end of the message hears and understands may be quite different. In contrast to being anyone’s “fault,” this is simply one of the ways the communication process can go off track.

The message sent may not be the message received because it must pass through a filtering system of thoughts and feelings—for both the sender and the receiver. As a result, when an adult comes home frustrated or angry about his or her workday, he or she may communicate anger or impatience to his or her partner or children, even though that isn’t his or her intent. The message must also pass through the listener’s own filter of thoughts and feelings. If a partner or child expects the sender of the message to be angry or impatient, he or she may hear neutral or even positive statements as harsh or angry.

There is considerable room for misunderstanding between what the speaker intends to say, what he or she actually says, and what the listener hears. The less conscious attention the speaker and/or the listener is paying (the more distracted they are) when the message is sent and the more emotionally charged the subject is, the more likely it is that there will be a disconnect between what the speaker intends to say, what he or she actually says, and what the listener hears.

The only way to be certain that the message you send is the same one the other person receives is through the process of feedback. This is more critical when what your communication is of special importance or you sense from the other person’s reaction—whether verbal or nonverbal—that he or she is unclear.

Checking out the accuracy of your communication involves literally asking what the other person heard you say. If what he or she reports hearing does not match up with what you intended, you can then clarify your message by sharing—specifically—what it was you intended to say. Then you can again ask for feedback, checking out what he or she heard this time.

This process may seem cumbersome, but it results in more clear and accurate communication. Sometimes this process may go through two or three rounds to ensure the speaker and listener are on the same page. The more matter-of-fact this process is the more successful it will be.

2. It is impossible to not communicate.

All actions—both intentional and unintentional—communicate certain messages. For example, deliberately ignoring someone is not “not communicating.” Quite the contrary (as you know if you’ve been on the receiving end), this action sends a strong message. Moreover, verbal communication (the words used) is only one part of the larger communication process that includes body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and voice volume.

3. Every message has both content and feeling.

Every message consists of content and feeling. The content is what the message is about based on the words used. The feeling connected to the content is expressed through nonverbal cues—body language, gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, inflection, and voice volume.

Whenever there are discrepancies between a message’s content and feeling, confusion is created for the listener—especially if the content and feeling seem to contradict each other. A classic example of this is when one person tells another “I’m not mad at you” (the content) in a loud angry voice (the feeling). Such communication cannot help but result in a certain degree of confusion.

Electronic communication—via email, text, and other forms of instant messaging—can be so challenging and easily misinterpreted precisely because the words used are isolated from any and all of the nonverbal cues that provide essential information and clarification.

4. Nonverbal cues are more believable than verbal cues.

Whenever there is a discrepancy between the content (verbal) and feeling (nonverbal) of a message, the person on the receiving end will almost always give more weight to the feeling. In other words, if the words a speaker uses don’t match up with his or her tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and other nonverbal cues, the listener will pay more attention to and believe the nonverbal behavior.

Consider how you react when someone gives you what sounds like a compliment: “You look great,” but with a tone of voice that you perceive as sarcastic. Are you more likely to believe the verbal (words used/content) or the nonverbal (tone of voice/feeling)?

These four qualities of the communication process are universal—whether the topic is the post-election political economy, Valentine’s Day planning, or simple sharing of the events of one’s day with others. Paying conscious attention to these four aspects of the communication process—regardless of whether you are on the sending or receiving end—will improve the quality of your communication by making it more skillful, effective, and successful.

Dan Mager is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Discover Recovery: A Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Workbook.

Copyright 2017 Dan Mager, MSW

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