Conversations with Bad Communicators

How to work through the barriers in communication

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Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

What is involved in ‘communication’?

There are so many stages to even enacting ‘communication’.

  1. You have to articulate that thought
  2. The speech/sign/whatever used to communicate needs to be heard/seen
  3. The other person needs to internalise/process the information
  4. They need to have a thought in response
  5. They have to articulate that thought…

How do conversations go ‘bad’?

Not Listening

If one or both of you isn’t such a good listener, that definitely doesn’t help a conversation run smoothly. Listening isn’t always that easy if we’re stressed out, distracted or worried. I’ve written before about how to improve this particular skill, and it is the foundation of good communication.

Assuming the Worst

Without trust in the other person’s goodwill, conversations go dark pretty quickly. If we’re starting a conversation assuming the worst of our counterpart, it biases the way we interpret everything that they say (and will of course affect how we respond). Generosity and flexibility are important factors in helping communication along.

Forgetting About Context

Context is rather important. If I say “Everything sucks” because I’ve just missed my train that morning or if I say “Everything sucks” because a loved one has just passed away, those are not the same thing. And because of how we talk in the modern world, it is possible I might say the same exact words about vastly different magnitudes of problem. Context is really important, and sometimes, getting through to the person you’re talking to will require sensitivity to that.

Misjudging the Audience

If I start to use really particular jargon on a certain topic, I might alienate someone who doesn’t come from that world. This is not necessarily about being patronising, but rather, assuming or applying your point of view onto the listener. It’s important to remember that when you communicate, it’s out of the desire for the other person to understand and relate, not just for you to say what you want to say.

Unfairness and Ego

It’s easy to be defensive when our ego gets the better of us. And having an unfair or egotistical approach to the way we communicate will manifest as aggression, dismissiveness or indifference. None of which are helpful for communicating!

Advice for Getting towards a Good Conversation

If you find it difficult to communicate with someone, that can often spell the end of a potential relationship. But what happens if we really have to communicate with someone who we consider a bad communicator? I think there are a lot of small things we can do to help things along. After all, none of us is perfect and we will invariably miscommunicate at some point or other, but we can take steps to try and get towards a good conversation…

1. Know what you want to achieve

Is there something you really need to communicate to this person, or something you need from them? It’s helpful to know that going in to a conversation with someone who is difficult to talk to. It will focus the energy in the right direction, and if they aren’t the sort of person who tends to respond well when you try and communicate with them, it will ease your pain in the process too, limiting how much work you have to do (by making sure you’re at least getting to the point of the conversation!).

2. Get a sense for their point of view

It can help a lot to try and get a feel for what their view on things might be. This can be really tricky when someone really isn’t wired the same way as you.

3. Approach with lightness and openness

It’s probably going to take time to get through to the meat of the conversation if someone isn’t a great communicator. It might be hard to get your point across or to hear their view fully, so you need to approach with an attitude of lightness and openness. Positivity helps, and will help to negate defensiveness, which is a huge closer of communication.

4. Make sure to get clarification

Wherever there’s uncertainty, or there’s a history of ‘bad’ communication, it pays to check. Double check that you have understood — it’s as simple as saying, “So, have I got this right?” Ask them for confirmation. Then gently check on their understanding, “What do you think needs to happen next?” or “What do you make of all this?” it will go a long way towards ensuring you’ve actually communicated effectively.

5. Be tough on the issue, soft on the person

This is a classic piece of advise, that I think I really didn’t get until it came to having to regularly communicate with a bad communicator. The example I’ve read goes a little like this:

In summary…

  • There are many potential points of failure, making ‘bad’ communication fairly common. Remember this complexity.
  • Conversations go wrong for a lot of reasons, but they are mostly to do with assuming incorrectly, not being very flexible or very generous in our approach towards other people.
  • When we communicate, it helps to have a goal or desired outcome in mind to keep on track.
  • You have to proceed from where they are, not from where you are.
  • Maintain a good attitude — openness and lightness will take you a long way.
  • Check understanding — both yours and theirs.
  • Keep on the issue, not on the person.

Written by

Trying to live better. Writing on Mental Health, Relationships, and Living Ethically. Editor/Podcaster.

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