Saturday, April 15, 2017

Communication 101

Improve your communication

and conflict resolving abilities

First of all, let's look at what communication is exactly. The most basic way to describe communication is the conveyance of a message from a sender to a receiver.
Staticly it looks like this:

As communication is a very complicated process, there are many other factors that influence how and if a message is received and also if it's received correctly.

An example of what influences whether a message is received correctly, is the context in which it was sent and received. A couple examples of context:
-The Location. In a busy airport or workplace with lots of background noise it can be hard to hear what someone says, as well as provide very little privacy.
-The History. Whether the sender and receiver have had previous conflicts influences the conversation at hand)
-Experience. Experience and previously attained knowledge can make a difference between how people understand each other. If a manager wrongfully assumes all of his employees have acquired the same background knowledge on a specific technical process, not all of his employees may understand his expectations when he explains what he expects the new and more efficient process would look like.
-Time. Even something as obvious as time can be a major influence on the process. Were you distracted or in a time crunch when your friend tried to have that heart to heart with you?

Here is a list of all different kinds of factors that can cause interference in the communication process between sender and receiver.

Essentially what happens if there is an issue of miscommunication, the message the sender has put out is misinterpreted by the receiver. It is possible that the message was unclear or that any of the plentiful factors listed above distorted or diluted the conveyance of the message.
With so many often dynamic factors influencing our communication on a daily basis, you may ask what it takes to communicate effectively. To be able to do so, we need to keep in mind two things. We need to understand the intention and the emotion behind the message and the information that is sent to us.
It also means we need to look at how we receive messages, by listening and reflecting back. These are important skills to improve our communication, relationships and conflict resolving capabilities. More on this subject later.

Things to keep in mind for interpersonal communication:

Emotional control
It's important to be conscious of our emotional state of mind, because our feelings and emotions affect what we say and how we say it. It effects our facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. We have to remember to take a deep breath and a step back to calm down when we can not keep the control over our emotions.

Every person we communicate with deserves our undivided attention. That means no texting, taking phone calls or communicating to other people while in conversation with someone. When we're preoccupied we miss important information.

Body language
An element of communication often grossly underestimated is our body language. If we say something different with our words than with our bodies, the message can become confusing and contradictory. We have to make sure our words and body are on the same page. Think of the angry parent who is hunched over their child with clenched fists yelling: "NO, I am NOT angry!"
It's also valuable to keep in mind what message we convey with our bodies. Is our attitude open or closed?

Effective listening
Part of effective communicating has everything to do with being a good listener. Letting your conversational partner know that you truly hear and understand them is just as important as putting the right information out there yourself. How do we do this? Three examples:
1. While they re speaking make interested 'listening noises' and affirmative facial expressions. Such as "oh yes?" "Ah, I see." "no, really?" etc.
2. Summarize their story when they're done to check if we understood correctly. "So what you say happened, was..."
3. Paraphrase their account in your own words to let them know we heard them and understood. "let me see if I got this right..."
By doing this we ensure our conversational partners that we are engaged in the conversation and are truly paying attention. We are listening to hear their story and not just to reply with our thoughts or opinions. The most important thing to keep in mind with listening is not to interrupt or intercede.

It is also important to be honest about what a message does to us. We are as much a contributor to the conversation as our partner. What we think and feel matters so we have to be honest about ourselves. If a specific conversation is hurtful, too intense it is ok to express this. If we need a moment to calm down or regroup because we're upset or angry that is perfectly acceptable, as long as we communicate this in a respectful manner.

The matter of feedback brings us to the following aspect of communication. There is always a risk for miscommunication and conflict. Luckily resolving conflicts isn't impossible. Especially not if we make sure to still use effective communication techniques. In the first place it helps to change our attitude towards conflict. It is more helpful to approach a conflict as an opportunity for improvement, than as a problem that cannot be solved. The whole point to effective communication, conflict resolving and relationships (whether they're work, family or personal relationships hardly matters) is to look at a situation from a different perspective.
From this starting point we can keep in mind:

- I matter. My opinions, feelings and needs matter.
- The other person matters, as do their opinions, feelings and needs.
- It's ok to express my feelings as long as I stay respectful
- It helps to receive feedback positively. (remember it is a chance to improve upon yourself and your relationship)
- I have to protect my boundaries

A little side note on that last one. "You are the master of your fate." Only you can protect yourself from saying or doing something you don't want to or that violates your integrity. In which case it is completely understandable to say 'no'. If that is a problem for you a valuable option can be to look for alternatives so everyone can be ok with the eventual outcome. Just as long as you don't sacrifice too much of yourself in the process to resolve a conflict.

To resolve a conflict here a some rules to follow to stick to effective communication.

After these rules you may wonder what the best way would be to give feedback after or in a conflict situation. In my Social Work Education we practiced this over and over again up to the point where it is practically ingrained in me. I notice that I use these strategies with my friends, clients and family as well.

Here are the guidelines I was taught and that I use to resolve conflicts.

- Use a positive sandwich. Start by saying something positive, then give your feedback and finish again by saying something positive. A good rule of thumb would be to say something that you appreciate the other person does, that you would like them to expand on or continue (as opposed to focusing on the negative behavior). Rather than being critical choose to focus on being supportive.
- Give constructive feedback. The goal of giving supportive feedback is to benefit both parties, by being constructive you create an opportunity for improvement in stead of an attack.
- Give feedback on behavior, not the person.  If someone does something stupid, that does not make them stupid. There is a difference. Also, behavior can be changed more easily than a person can.
- Respect the other person. There it is again, that very vague expression to respect the other person. What does this entail? Make sure that when you give them feedback, you keep in mind the location (is it quiet and private?), the circumstances (do both of you have enough time to give the other person their full attention?) and last but not least, confidentiality. I can not stress this last one enough. The conflict is after all, only between you and the other person. The only two people who should be involved in this conversation are you and that particular person. If the intent from both parties is indeed to resolve the issue with the benefit of both in mind, it should stay between the two involved parties. By involving others, or opening the conversation up to a bigger forum such as social media or group email or whatever else there is, you loose the opportunity for a real conversation and there for also for true conflict resolvement.

That said, keep in mind that conflicts arise everywhere and with everyone. We are only human, we err. We feel and we react. Sometimes it isn't pretty. Add to that that we are mainly surrounded by those we care about most. That means they often get the worst of it. I believe that if we come from a place of humbleness and dignity, there is no conflict that can't be resolved.

Good luck with your effective communication processes and please let me know what worked for you?