Effective and clear communication is an absurdly important skill to develop. After all, we live in an age of unprecedented mass-communication, one where everybody’s talking. Like, all the fucking time; you can’t open Facebook or Twittergrams or Yik-Yak ((Ok, now you’re just making shit up)) and not be deluged by 40,000 of your closest friends, all of whom think that it’s utterly important that you hear their carefully considered opinion on the Syrian refugee crisis.
But while we’re all clamoring to be heard, is anyone being understood? Now that the holiday season is upon us and we’re spending time with loved ones and can-barely-stand-ones, it’s a great time to work on improving how we communicate. Here’s how you make sure people are hearing what you’re actually saying.
1) Consider Your Audience’s Familiarity With The Subject (And With You)
One of the first mistakes we make when it comes to communication is that we frequently forget that we’re talking to people who may not have the same backgrounds as we do. We all have a tendency to balkanize. Whether on Facebook or in person, we surround ourselves with people who share our experiences and outlook on life. It’s totally understandable; we naturally gravitate to the people with whom we have the most in common and that tends to mean people whose life experiences are similar to our own. But one of the side effects of these groupings is that we tend to use a form of communication short-cuts. Because of those commonalities, we make leaps in logic and rhetoric that may leave other people scratching their heads and wondering what the hell we’re talking about. Things that may seem intuitively obvious to us and our immediate circle can leave other people who don’t share our experiences in the lurch. We’re able to make these leaps because we’ve been balls deep in it, while other people may never have heard of it in the first place. Similarly, things that seem perfectly normal to us because of that shared background may seem absolutely bugfuck to everyone else. I mean, why would you want to sit around pretending to play a sport with numbers and mathematical formulae instead of, y’know, actually playing it?
For example: as someone who deals a lot with relationships and sexuality, I spend a lot of time talking shop with fellow dating coaches and educators. Because we have that shared background, we can end up talking about fairly esoteric areas of relationship theory and practice. However, when talking with friends and family who don’t have the same background or haven’t done similar levels of research, I have to remember to dial back on my assumptions that of course they’re going to know what I mean when I talk about co-dependent reactive attachment styles, floggers vs. violet wands, demisexual dating drama, Red Pill philosophy or varying flavors of poly commitments. With my peers, I’m able to leap from point A to point D because we have that shared understanding. With others, I think I’m making perfect sense but to them, I sound like I’m channelling crazy dead people and talking moon logic.
This presumed familiarity gets especially bad online, where a lack of tonality and body language combines with the belief that we’re the center of the virtual panopticon that is Facebook. Witness any number of arguments that start because someone assumed that it was intuitively obvious that they were being sarcastic and couldn’t possibly mean what they just said. Or people leaping on somebody for a poor choice of words because they weren’t aware that a particular word or phrase is Problematic-with-a-capital-P. Or when an argument breaks out because one person made a reference to gay or Asian people without everyone else realizing that that person was, himself, gay and Asian.
Don’t assume people know you (or your subject) as well as you think. If what you’re saying requires your exact background, then the odds of being misunderstood are high.
2) Be As Concise and Clear As Possible
One of the barriers to communication is too much communication. There’s a fine line between dazzling someone with your brilliance and baffling them with your bullshit. It’s all too easy to get caught up spewing tornados of word vomit and think we’re being eloquent through the force of sheer quantity. To everyone else, however, it’s nonsense; there may be a point in there somewhere but it’s kind of hard to find buried under the piles of discarded diphthongs and ground up gerunds.
It could well be that when you warm to your subject, you get incredibly excited and meander off track. It could be that it’s a complicated topic with a great deal of nuance and you’re trying to explain it as best as you can. It could also be that on some level, you’ve learned the English Major’s Special: throw enough clouds of conversational flack out there and nobody will realize that you don’t know what the hell you’re saying. Ultimately, the reason doesn’t matter, because the results do. The point of communication is understanding and that got lost somewhere behind the obfuscating language, the excess vocabulary and the sheer weight of words.
If you want to be understood, you want to keep things short, keep things simple and keep things clear. Think of it as trying to explain a concept to a five-year old on Saturday morning1 and they’ve just had two bowls of Choco-Sugar Bombs. Anything too complicated or involved and they’re just going to wander off and play Yokai Watch instead. What is the shortest way you can explain the gist of the what you want to say and still get the meaning across?
This can be difficult to do; some subjects are complex and defy simple explanations. This is why newspapers used to have reporters whose assignment it was to cover science and medicine exclusively; their jobs were to explain complicated topics in a way that a layman could understand. Even scientists have a hard time with the “English, Egon” routine. This is part of why Brian Cox, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are unto rockstars: they can take the mysteries of the cosmos and make them simple enough that even a fundamentalist Christian has to say “OK, that makes sense…”
Other times, however, much of the verbal cruft isn’t as necessary as we think it is. If you want to explain the X-Men, you can go into the decades of continuity and labyrinthine relationships… or you can simply leave it at “people born with mutations that give them super powers and the rest of the world hates and fears them”.
As a general rule, it’s better to summarize quickly and then explain further as needed. It’s much easier for other people to follow along once they have a baseline understanding to build on.
3) Your Choice of Words Can Help or Hinder Communication
One of the great ironies of communication is that the same thing that enables it – words – can also shut it down. What we say and the way we say it can make the difference between mutual understanding and people digging in their heels, plugging their ears and refusing to pay any more attention.
Jargon and complicated vocabulary, for example, tends to make people tune out. When we see a long string of words that we can’t immediately suss out but are clearly expected to understand, we tend to assume that either it’s nonsense or – as in the previous section – it’s there to make us feel stupid or the speaker seem smart (or both). Vocabulary, sophistication of grammar and the rejection of colloquial language are frequently class indicators, and many people are sensitive to feeling as though they’re being excluded or talked down to. Plus, at times, some language usage is so outside of our normal experience that we simply have no idea what the hell they mean.
This can become especially troublesome when you’re using terms-of-art: a word or phrase that has a specific or specialized meaning within a particular field or discipline that might have another meaning in common usage. On occasion, the difference between normal usage and specialized usage – or the association with a group that uses the term – can cause friction. One of the most prominent examples as of late is the term “privilege”. When we talk about issues surrounding social justice and equality, “privilege” gets used fairly frequently to refer to the invisible advantages that are held by the dominant group. However, once you throw the word “privilege” into a discussion, the conversation can get derailed into an argument as to whether or not somebody is actually privileged or not. It doesn’t help that many people – usually young, mostly well-intentioned, occasionally with more enthusiasm than experience – will throw out “check your privilege” as a way of shutting down a conversation.
This, in no small part, is why so many people try to explain the concept of privilege without actually saying the p-word. The conversations are ones that need to happen, but the word itself causes the conversation to come to a screeching halt as people stomp their feet and insist on arguing definitions and common usage vs. meaning. Other phrases like “political correctness” or “problematic” or “triggering” can be just as loaded, semantically, and just as derailing. Be aware if a chosen word or phrase you use tends to cause verbal pile-ups. Is it possible to describe the same thing with a different word or phrase?
Of course, occasionally you have to use terms-of-art because there isn’t another way to describe what you want to say. While using layman’s terms are generally a good idea (at first), sometimes communication means striking the balance between ease of understanding and specificity.
4) Tone Matters
The old chestnut of “It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it,” is very true. Your overall tone can affect how much others actually listen to you. The way we talk – from word choice, to sentence length, to vocal intonations – can completely change the intent and impact of our words. If you’ve ever had a fight with your partner, then you’ve almost certainly experienced this. Their words say “I’m fine,” but the rest of them says “fuck yourself with a chainsaw.” Even online – where vocal inflection and body language is absent – tone matters. Snarky responses, for example, are a great way to shut down a productive conversation and pick a fight instead. It tells everyone involved that you’re more interested in scoring points for your friends than actually talking. Similarly, being condescending in tone and manner is going to just piss people off. Talking down to someone feels disrespectful at best and insulting at worst. It tells them that not only do you think they’re stupid, but your talking to them at all is a waste of your precious time.
Being angry and aggressive is also a great way to shut down communication. When somebody is trying to have a conversation in good faith, a confrontational approach isn’t going to change their minds… even if they’re demonstrably wrong. If the way you talk to somebody lets them know that you think they’re a human garbage fire and you wouldn’t spare the piss to put them out, then odds are pretty good that they’re going to just quit talking to you at all. After all, why should someone want to pay attention to you when they feel like they’re just going to get verbally kicked in the balls?
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a value to anger or being angry or that you need to be nice and polite to people at all times. There are plenty of times when anger and aggression are warranted, even necessary. However, if your goal is to inform, educate or actually change someone’s mind, then anger and hostility is going to get in your own way. John Oliver, Trevor Noah and John Stewart are all masters at communicating difficult topics in such a way that gets the seriousness and vehemence across without beating you over the head with it. This can be important, because when someone feels attacked, they tend to reinforce their own opinion instead. Acknowledging their intelligence and presenting things in a way that doesn’t make them feel like you believe they’re an idiot works much better than berating them for being wrong.
That having been said, talking about tone and its effect on communication is a tricky and loaded subject. The tone argument or tone policing is a common way of derailing or dismissing an argument, particularly from women and minorities, because of the way they said things. It implies that someone can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously because they’re too angry, too irrational, too whatever. It’s an innocuous and fake appeal to civility that, in reality, is usually just a way of getting the other person to shut up.
Of course, the fact that people use tone to dismiss others doesn’t mean that all expressions of anger or belligerence are to go unquestioned, either. Someone can legitimately be a bully or to try to badger someone into silence or submission through the force of their anger and personality, and their tone is part and parcel of their abuse of others.
(Remember how I said this was a tricky subject? Yeah…)
Rule of thumb: worry primarily about your tone as the one speaking. Tread very carefully when concerning yourself with others’ tone when you’re the one listening.
5) You Have to Listen, Too…
Communication is a two-way street. If you want to be heard, you need to be willing to listen just as much – if not more. Part of being understood means understanding others; if you can’t understand them, how are you supposed to get your ideas across?
The trick is that listening and understanding is more than just passively letting words drift into you earholes; you have to put the work in too. Active listening – paying attention to and engaging with what they have to say – is key. Sometimes this means putting in more effort to get the gist of what they’re saying – piecing your way through unfamiliar terminology via context, trying to fill in the gaps from logical leaps, etc. The fact that they may be more verbally meandering doesn’t make it ok to just dismiss them out of hand or to go back to waiting for your turn to talk. Many miscommunications come about because one party wasn’t willing to pay attention to more than just the surface. They let those loaded words and clouds of verbal fog distract them from the underlying intent and meaning, and so conflict and confusion is born instead.
Other times, you need to engage your empathy and try to see things from their point of view. It’s easy to fly off the handle at some perceived slight or slur. But does the fact that they used an inartful turn of phrase or a potentially offensive term signal maliciousness, or ignorance? Is it possible they simply didn’t know the term was offensive? Intent doesn’t absolve offense, but it does provide context that can and should affect how we respond.
Yes, it can seem unfair to have to put in more effort to understand and be understood than others are willing to do so. But in making the effort to connect with them – to meet them half-way or more – we learn how to communicate more efficiently and clearly ourselves. And in doing so, we can go from being heard to being listened to.
- Oh God that’s right, Saturday morning cartoons don’t exist any more fuck I’m old… [↩]