Just Can’t Communicate
I heard Zig Ziglar tell this joke about communication many years ago.
A woman meets with an attorney and says “I want to divorce my husband!“
“OK” the attorney responds, “let’s start with a few questions first.”
“Like what?” she asks.
“Well, do you have any grounds?”
“Yes, we have about 5 acres out in the country.”
“No, I mean do you have a grudge?”
“No, but we have a nice, wide carport and a storage shed.”
“Let me ask this a different way. Do you have any complaints about him?”
“Well, does he beat you up?”
“No, I’m up at least an hour before him every day.”
“Well, what about your role here? Do you ever wake up grouchy?”
“No, when he’s in a bad mood I just let him sleep.”
Exasperated, the attorney finally asks, “Why exactly do you want to get a divorce?”
“Well,” she replies, “the guy just can’t communicate!”
Our biggest struggle with communication is when we simply assume it happened. You can hear the assumption in the language people use. You may have heard statements like this from others or even coming out of your own mouth. I know I have.
“It made perfect sense to me!”
“How could I be any clearer?!”
“Why can’t you understand this?!”
“What do I have to do to get through to you?!”
“Do I have to say it again?!”
Yes, You Do
So the assumption that communication happened just because we said something is a strong impulse. And despite evidence again and again that it doesn’t work that way, we persist. And communication fails.
Did you ever play the Telephone Game when you were a kid? You may remember how it’s played. Everyone sits or stands next to each other. One person whispers something in the next person’s ear, usually some silly phrase or complex sentence. That person then whispers it to the next and so on until everyone hears it. The last person then repeats what they heard, which is usually only vaguely related to what the first person said.
Why does it come out like that? Shouldn’t the message successfully pass along accurately every time? In fact, it almost never does. Here are some reasons why:
- As listeners, we are not always focused as much as we should be on what is being said. Since the speaker can only say the phrase once, we have to rely on what we think was said.
- Related to that, our brain tends to fill in the unfamiliar with the familiar. So words that were missed get substituted with words we know.
- As speakers, our own tone, inflection, pronunciation, and mindset effect how the words come out.
Relating that to our daily communication, what we say and how we say it has a great effect on what people hear. The environment in which the conversation took place makes a difference. The mindset of the listener also has an impact on what they hear and how they interpret it.
So for communication to be successful it is important to be aware of our own emotions and attitudes. We must also be mindful of the emotions and attitudes of the listener. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is angry or upset or fearful or stressed? How about when you were angry or upset or fearful or stressed? How well did that really go?
A farmer who wants to grow crops doesn’t just throw seeds out and hope they grow. The farmer will prepare the environment where he wants things to grow. He might till the ground so the dirt is fresh and airy. He might fertilize and water the ground. When spreading the seeds, he might make sure they end up in the right place for optimal growth. When he sets up the environment correctly, anticipates weather and other conditions that can negatively impact the crops, and provides ongoing care then the farmer can enjoy a successful harvest.
Tips for Better Communication
If we truly desire to communicate successfully, like a farmer sowing seeds, we have to make sure we have the right environment.
- Check Your Own Emotions. When we are emotionally charged we are more concerned with having our say than we are with communicating.
- Check the Listener’s Emotions. While sometimes it is unavoidable, it’s best to not attempt communication when the other person is experiencing high emotions before the conversation begins.
- Choose Words Familiar with the Other Person. You ever have someone talk to you with jargon totally unfamiliar to you? People connect better with words they already have a relationship with.
- Ask for Understanding. Don’t assume they know what you mean. Ask them to repeat back what they hear you to say. It keeps them involved in the communication and it ensures that it actually occurs.