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You can benefit from communication breakdowns "What you think you heard me say is not what I meant."

JUNE 2000

by Janet L. Jacobsen

"What we have here is a failure to communicate" was a very famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke. Folks have been using the expression as an excuse ever since.

Whose fault is it when communication breaks down? This is behind many conflicts in relationships (and in the movies). Blame-placing becomes a bigger issue than problem-solving in a lot of relationships.

(Not just romantic relationships, mind you. Work place, parent/child, nation to nation, etc.)

Communication can break down for dozens, maybe hundreds of reasons. The first problem is when you don't know there's been a breakdown. The second problem is when you discover the breakdown and instead of trying to improve the communication, put all your energy into placing blame for the misunderstanding.

I suppose the theory is that once we figure out who gets the blame, they will learn their lesson and not goof up again. But the key thing I have learned from a bachelor's and a master's degree in interpersonal communication is that communication will break down. It is a fact up life. It's normal.

Get over it.

YOU CAN SHARPEN YOUR COMMUNICATION

This does not, however, mean we shouldn't be trying to improve our communication. If you want to spend less time on conflict and confusion and more on fun and understanding, it pays to sharpen up your communication skills.

A significant number of communication-related studies have found that one of the most important ways to improve such skills is by how well you understand how well you are understood. This actually makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. If you deliver your message in such a way that the other person doesn't understand you, but you don't realize you haven't been understood, you're in trouble.

A fellow I know asked me recently why women tend to watch people's faces so much more than men do in conversation. I suggested that one reason is because men tend to decide what they want to say, and say it, and however it goes over is how it goes over.

Women, on the other hand, on average, decide the result they want, and as they begin to deliver their message, they watch to see how the other person is responding. Any looks of confusion, skepticism, disinterest, whatever, and they adjust what they're saying and how they say it as they go.

This may be why women consider themselves better communicators than men: they see themselves as more able to make adjustments than men are. But in my experience women operate on incorrect assumptions more than men do, so they may be more flexible in their approaches, but wind up wrong just as often.

TWO TECHNIQUES

So what to do if you want to improve how well you are understood? Two things: feed back and feed forward.

You've heard of feed back. You say what you want to say, and then ask the other person what they think you said. Then you compare what you meant with what they heard, and deliver your message again with the necessary adjustments.

Feed forward, on the other hand, prepares the other person for reporting on how well you communicated. It's when you say things like, "I have to tell you something and I'm afraid I'm going to say this wrong, so bear with me a minute." Now they are listening in a different way, and are less likely to react emotionally to what you say in the event you don't manage to say it very well. Then you ask for the feed back and proceed from there.

Improving your ability to see how well you were understood requires 1) that you realize you could improve the way you communicate, 2) that you want to improve, 3) your willingness to pay close attention to the communication process, and 4) your willingness to listen to feed back from others and make adjustments.

There is no shame in failures to communicate. Such breakdowns are normal. The shame lies in not learning from your mistakes.