- Miscommunication and arguments can stem from recurrent patterns in communication.
- The four components of communication—content, language, delivery, and timing—can be optimized for effectiveness.
- One tip for approaching sensitive conversations is to focus on a "soft start-up," avoiding globalization, criticism, and blame.
Do you ever come away from what you thought was going to be a simple conversation and wonder why you and your partner ended up in a fight, not speaking, certainly with nothing resolved, and maybe everything just a little bit worse?
This subject of escalations arising from conversations that were not expected to be problematic comes up so often, maybe in part due to the closer quarters enforced by the restrictions of the last few years, that I’ve tried to distill our everyday communication into four specific parts so that we can look at the building blocks of our interactions.
The four parts of communication
As you reflect on these distinct aspects, your goal should be to see if there are particular parts of this process that you habitually get stuck on, especially when the topics are emotionally charged. Try to identify any patterns that you have developed or stumbling blocks that don’t do you any favors.
The four parts of communication are:
- Content—quite simply, the message you’re trying to get across.
- Language—the words and phrases you select to communicate that message.
- Delivery—that illusive-to-define tone of voice—timbre, urgency, pitch, volume, body language, intensity, and humor.
- Timing—when you deliver your message.
Managing the perception of a message
It might strike you that this breakdown is obvious and hardly worth taking time to consider, but you’d be surprised how often our perception of our delivery is different from the perception of those receiving it. That’s not to say that we’re always wrong and the other person is always right. However, it’s in this discrepancy where trouble can start, particularly if the person you’re speaking with is someone with whom you’re close or have regular interactions.
Let’s use a simple example as we investigate this:
- The content: You want to tell your partner that you don’t want them responding to invitations on your behalf. You want to collaborate and discuss it before they are accepted or declined regardless of what’s in your diary for that date. Simple, right? It’s not ostensibly such a charged subject but, in fact, it touches on many sensitive aspects of a relationship—partnership, dominance, cooperation, independence, power over, power to, personal choice, etc. So, maybe it’s not quite so simple, after all.
- The language: Do you use “you” a lot instead of “I,” as in “you do this…” as opposed to “In this situation, I feel…”? Do you tend to generalize and globalize, as in “You always…” or “You never…”? Are you more emphatic than you need to be, such as “I hate when you do such-and-such…” as opposed to “I’d prefer it if you didn’t…”? Think of the difference between the language used in: “I know I didn’t have anything in the diary for that night but I’d rather you checked with me before accepting an invitation for us, as I’m not sure I want to go to that event. Can we make an agreement that we always check back with each other before giving an answer?”; and the choice of words in: “I hate the way you always accept invitations on my behalf. No more!” And, of paramount importance, avoid any temptation to have a dig at the other person on other outstanding issues, such as: “You always answer invitations without checking with me. No wonder you get poor reviews at work—no collaboration!” This is obvious, I know, but it can also be irresistible.
- The delivery: It is often hard to gauge our tone, and, in my opinion, this aspect of communication is the most vulnerable to skewed interpretation and lenses. It is most likely to be revised in our memories and be a reason, or an excuse, for a message being heard badly or maybe not at all. Still, we can work on self-awareness of our delivery, and also on understanding how our counterpart best hears us. Using this insight, work on a “soft start-up,” eliminating criticism and negativity when you first bring up a potentially difficult subject. You’ll need to spend time bringing down your own agitation about an issue, and trying to find a neutral way into the subject so that you don’t come at it with “guns blazing.” One way to do this is to take time to calm down after something has annoyed you. Check your tendency to globalize and try not to conflate the topic at hand with others. Finally, do not use sarcasm and control any passive-aggressive delivery, however tempting or hardwired, as they are a guarantee that you’ll lose your listener.
- Finally, there’s timing—two types: One is about being sure that you and your partner are not already reactive with emotions escalated when you start the conversation. In other words, if that issue that you want to talk about has just happened, don’t “strike while the iron’s hot.” Instead, give yourselves time to calm down. This will allow you to process the conversation from your sophisticated frontal lobes, the seat of impulse control and judgment, not your reactive amygdala, which is activated when we’re stressed and flooded with emotion. The second type of timing is about choosing a moment when you both have enough bandwidth to communicate properly. Don’t bring up a difficult subject when your partner is just about to leave or when you yourself are going out the door, nor when friends are expected to arrive, or a work deadline is looming. Try not to wait till you’re just going to bed or overdue for lunch and hungry. In short, find a moment when there’s time to discuss the different aspects and you can both do it justice.
Does this all sound either obvious or overkill? Overcomplicating simple communication? You tell me. If you’re never coming away from a conversation feeling misunderstood or that maybe you misunderstood your partner, good for you. But if there are times when you’re just not sure what went wrong, go through these steps, shift your approach, and try again.