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Psychology: Why Communication Is Easier Said Than Done

Psychologists Owen Hargie, Christine Saunders, and David Dickson developed a model of interpersonal communication that identified components of the communication process. All episodes of communication are goal-directed, and several goals may be pursued simultaneously. A conversation varies as a function of the intended goal. If my goal is to visit with an old friend, I may talk about different things than if I’m conducting an evaluation.

There are also several mediating processes that shape the communication process. Any psychological process that affects the meeting of a communicative goal or the outcome of communication can be a mediating process. One important process is called focusing (what one pays attention to), which can have a major impact. How you connect current conversational information with previous knowledge and inference — going beyond the surface information being communicated — are also important.

Another core aspect of the communication process is feedback, which is information provided to me by the other person about how effectively I am communicating, and how I use it. If you use feedback to change the way you communicate, then you can better meet the conversation goals.

How to ask questions

An important feature of all effective communication is the process of questioning. Questions are a good way to open a conversation, gather information, and express to another person that you’re interested in what he’s saying. There are several different types of questions, such as:

  • Recall: A question like “Where were you on the night of November 12 at 10 p.m.?” asks you to remember basic information. Just a little advice if the police ask you this question: Call a lawyer.

  • Hypothetical: Questions designed to engender some creative thought such as “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

Other questions that ask the responder to analyze, evaluate, or problem solve often have different formats that solicit different types of answers:

  • Closed-end questions require just a yes or no or identification response.

  • Open-end questions require description and elaboration.

How to explain

In addition to being good at questioning, the gift of gab often requires a certain level of skill at explaining oneself. Explanations provide information and clarify messages, and they’re often used to demonstrate a point.

When making a point in a conversation, an individual can often bolster her argument by providing a solid explanation for the position being taken. Good explanations are clear, focused, and linked to the listener’s knowledge base. Being brief and avoiding a lot fillers like “um,” “uh,” and “ya know” also helps.

Sometimes it helps to pause and review so the listener can organize and absorb what has already been explained. It’s also very important to use language that is appropriate to the audience or listener. If you’re too technical, too gross, or too basic, you may lose their interest.

How to listen

A third critical aspect of effective communication is listening. One-way conversations are poor excuses for communication. If no one is listening, there’s no “co” in communication.

Here are some good listener guidelines:

  • Focus: Turn off the TV, put away your phone, reduce extraneous noise, and don’t fidget or fool with stuff around you.

  • Clear your head: Be aware of your biases and preconceived ideas and mentally prepare yourself to pay attention and absorb the information being offered by the other person.

  • Mentally engage: Keep yourself focused by asking questions to clarify what the speaker is saying.

  • Wait: Don’t interrupt if you can help it. Respond when the other person finishes making a point.

  • Process: Mentally identify the main point of the speaker’s communication and organize what he is telling you into categories such as who, what, when, why, and how.

  • Remain open and attentive: Don’t use blocking techniques, such as denying someone’s feelings or changing the topic. Take in what the person is saying.

  • Demonstrate attention: Maintain eye contact, nod, and orient your body toward the speaker and keep an open posture. Don’t cross your arms or turn away.

How to assert yourself

Assertiveness can be defined as standing up for one’s rights and expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner that respects others. Ever order food at a restaurant and get something you didn’t order? Did you eat it or did you send it back? A lot of people won’t say anything because they fear being seen as a jerk or hurting another person’s feelings.

Assertiveness is a social skill that you can learn. Typically, when people get better at being assertive, the overall quality of their relationships improves. They no longer feel that they can’t say what they really think or that they have to keep quiet for the sake of friendships. When people learn how to communicate assertively, they awaken to a whole new realm of possibilities in communication.

Want to be more assertive? Basic assertions are expressions such as “No, I don’t like that movie” or “Thank you, but I’ve had enough fruitcake.” Empathic assertions are statements used to convey that you understand the other person’s position even if you’re not going along with it. “I understand that you prefer fast food over Italian, but I’m really craving spaghetti.”

A particularly useful tool in assertive language is the “I statement” — using a personal position rather than pointing out the other person’s behavior and using the “you” word. Instead of telling your boss that he’s hounding you and he’s ticking you off, I say, “I get the sense that you’re unfairly pressuring me, and I’m feeling frustrated.” Easier said than done, but it works pretty well. Try it!

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