Do you remember what it’s like to learn
to drive a standard shift car? Or to play a musical
instrumental? Or ride a bicycle? At first the task seems
impossible, far too complex to ever be coordinated from
your one body and one mind. But with encouragement and
lots of clumsy practice, we do begin to learn.
Even with our 20/20 hindsight we cannot
identify exactly when we cross that invisible line from
practice into knowing. But we do. We learn. And one
day we recognize that what once seemed impossible has
become natural, even automatic.
Learning communication skills is no different.
Keep in mind that as we learn to act and speak differently,
we are also learning to think differently. And that
is much more difficult than driving a standard shift
BEGIN WITH COMMITMENT
Mastering new relationship skills is not
for the faint of heart. Effective communication ---
especially in times of conflict --- calls for a focused
dedication and repetitious practice. It calls for honest
self-evaluation, humility, a sense of fair play, and
a willingness to change according to the needs of the
relationship. And it takes (at least) two.
Changing out-dated, ineffective communication
patterns involves a great deal of “unlearning,” a much
greater challenge than simply filling in the blank slate.
(Ever try to ditch a bad habit?) In a word, learning
effective communication skills calls for commitment
--- commitment to yourself, to your partners in communication,
and to the relationship as a whole.
COMMUNICATION STARTER KIT
What follows are 7 important tools to
help build effective communication. As with any tools,
the first challenge is to learn how and when to use
each tool. (A hammer is very important, but I don’t
want to use it to repair my eyeglasses.) And keep in
mind that this is only a starter set. You will hopefully
be adding to this collection of tools for the rest of
1. Take Turns. Two separate agendas can seldom be accomplished
at once. Establish some ground rules that will insure
that you will take enough time for each of you to talk
while the other is really listening.
2. Give Information. State your perceptions
and your feelings concisely and respectfully. Avoid
“selling your side” as the gospel truth, even when it
feels that way to you. To resolve any conflict, room
must be made for at least two different perspectives.
And remember that emotions are subjective information,
not open for debate (i.e. “you shouldn’t feel guilty,”
or “you have no right to be angry”).
3. Gather Information. You have a responsibility
in communication to do your share of listening, being
receptive to what your partner is saying, without immediately
judging and categorizing. Ask questions with curiosity,
like a good interviewer. And --- here comes the radical
part --- listen to the answers. Too often we ask questions
not to gather information, but to make a point.
4. Problem Solve with Benevolence. Be
certain to clarify your intention (especially in conflict
communication) as seeking a satisfactory outcome for
both of you. Find common ground on which to base your
communication (i.e. “We each want to be heard completely
and accurately,” and/or “We need to make a decision
about . . . “) Avoid seeking agreement about perceptions
or feelings as a communication goal. There must be room
for both of you to win.
5. Future Orient to Problem Solve. Those
who forget the past are, in fact, doomed to repeat it.
True. But those who won’t let go of the past may also
be contributing to its repetition. In conflict communication
it is best to state complaints about past behaviors
clearly and concisely, and then to “future orient.”
That is, sink most of your energy into describing and/or
requesting what you want or need from your partner beginning
now. You must be willing to take the chance that your
partner wants to and can change along with you. (If
you are not able to muster any faith that your partner
is willing and/or capable of change, you are probably
not working on the most serious problem in your relationship.
Get some help.)
6. Take Breaks. Each of you must have
the authority to call time out. And each of you must
learn to respect time outs when they are called. Call
time out when you recognize old, dysfunctional patterns
of communication taking over. (They seem to have a life
of their own.) When you call time out, it is imperative
that you later initiate a time to talk again. Don’t
just leave it hanging.
7. Backtrack. This is my favorite tool,
probably because I have had to use it so often. All
progress is not forward. Sometimes the best you can
do is stop mid-mistake, apologize and ask for an opportunity
to try again (“do overs” I believe we used to call them).
But be careful to not ask for that chance
if you do not think you can follow through with some
new and improved communication. If you are not ready
yet, try apologizing and step back to step 6: take a
break. Keep this collection of tools handy, and make
use of them the next time you experience a communication
Better yet, use them before you experience
a communication problem. And remember: You cannot solve
many problems from adversarial positions. Work to stay
on the same side of the problem, and practice having
conversations to "convey" rather than to "convince."
About the author:
Thom Rutledge is a psychotherapist and the author of
several books. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org www.webpowers.com/thomrutledge