One of the only real skills I have always thought myself to possess is that of being a fairly good communicator. As soon as you think this, or say this out loud, however, it’s one of those things that is bound to bite you on the butt. We all screw up, we’re all misunderstood and we all misunderstand, regardless of how ‘good’ we are at communicating. Much like announcing to the world that you’re a proofreader, before writing an article — there’s bound to be a typo in there somewhere!
But what separates those moments of real synergy, connection and positivity from those times when we are butting our heads against the wall, unable to agree or even to simply be understood?
What makes someone a bad communicator? What makes someone a good communicator?
How can you still have a constructive discussion with someone who is a bad communicator?
Here’s what I’ve found.
What is involved in ‘communication’?
There are so many stages to even enacting ‘communication’.
- You have a thought
- You have to articulate that thought
- The speech/sign/whatever used to communicate needs to be heard/seen
- The other person needs to internalise/process the information
- They need to have a thought in response
- They have to articulate that thought…
And so on. There are a thousand tiny steps within these steps that are making it possible for us to communicate at all.
Word choice, intonation, body language, all contribute to these steps, as well as more internalised qualities, like cultural understanding, upbringing, etc…
The important thing to keep in mind here is that communication requires a variety of steps in which it is very easy for something to go wrong. There can be a failure at any of these points.
How do conversations go ‘bad’?
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.
I had a friend, for instance, who would constantly shift the topic when I tried to address a topic with him. He’d be forever distracted and shifting the topic in a way that obviously felt logical to him, but didn’t feel logical to me. Understanding his point of view felt really difficult. So instead, I learned not to be surprised by the sudden jumps in conversation. I learned that I had to be patient and gently try and bring the topic back to the matter at hand, if I really needed an answer on something.
Remember that your sense of logical and your perspective is just one point of view. Understanding where they are at will help you get across the bridge of communication much easier.
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.
I definitely know people who, if you say anything at all that could be construed as criticism, will immediately go on the attack. This means that if there is a problem, I have to approach that person with extreme care and positivity. I really need to make sure that the conversation starts with the right vibe.
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:
Ineffective communication: “You are so stupid!”
Effective communication: “You’re a smart person, and what you did this morning was not very smart.”
This is the difference between attacking the person’s entire being with a harsh generalisation, rather than the issue at hand which is the actual problem. If you say to someone that they have been manipulative, or done wrong, or whatever, they aren’t going to be able to process that — it’s a blanket statement that is rather hard to take. But if they have done a specific thing that you didn’t like — that you found to be manipulative or cruel or whatever — then that is the thing to target. The issue, not the person.
- 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.
Another great resource:
3 Reasons Why Most People are Bad Communicators
Every day you miscommunicate something to someone. You don't do it intentionally but it happens. It actually happens…
Not everyone communicates optimally — in fact, most of us fail. But that doesn’t mean we should just shut up shop and stop trying. And sometimes, we just don’t have the luxury of that choice. When communicating with bad communicators, we have the power to do a lot to help achieve mutual understanding. Conversations are wonderful when they really flow and everyone’s on board, but hard conversations are some of the most powerful in creating positive change.
We all want to be understood, and understand, at the end of the day.