The two keys to successful communication
by Janet L. Jacobsen
February 1999 Single Scene Newspaper
"Women rate the skills of conflict management, ego support, and comforting, as
well as social support, as being more important than men." That's what it says in
Communication Abstracts, a book giving brief reports of published communication research,
citing a study in the journal Communication Research Reports.
I think they meant to say that women find such skills more important than men do.
What do you know_miscom-munication in a major communication text.
After I had my masters degree in communication, I was managing a Nation-al Endowment for
the Humanities grant that involved performances of literature at the local libraries. The
first performance at one of the libraries had several glitches in getting set up and one
of the librarians was very upset. "Being from the communication department, you
shouldn't have these problems," she said.
"Oh no," we assured her. "Being from the communication department, we don't
have small problems. We go right to the big disasters."
You can't get it right
That understanding is probably the greatest benefit of my years of study in how people
talk to each other. If you think you have communication breakdowns because someone is
wrong or bad, think again. You have communication breakdowns because communication
breakdowns are normal.
Your assumption that someone else "should" communicate the way you do, or
"should" know what you mean when you say something doesn't mean they do. And
that doesn't make them wrong.
Did you know there are lots of recipes for bread? Which one is wrong?
Of course there is no inherently "wrong" recipe for bread. But if you've used
the banana bread recipe when what you wanted was cinnamon rolls, you're going to be
disappointed. The method is only "wrong" for getting a particular result.
So when you tell someone they are "wrong" in how they communicate with you, or
how they heard you, they will quite naturally think, "Why, this is a perfectly good
recipe! It's not wrong!" And they will be right!
Solving the problem
When faced with a major com-munication glitch, a giant misunderstanding, a colossal
communication breakdown, you don't need to know who's "wrong" because most
likely nobody is. What you want to know is: What happened? How did this come about?
When the person says, "You said bring some potatoes, so I brought a half dozen,"
the best response is to say, "Oh. When I said 'some' I was thinking more like a
dozen. I should have been more specific." Next time you will still have to be
specific, because you will say "some" _ thinking they are going to bring a half
dozen because that's what it means to them _ and they will bring a dozen, because they now
know that's what it means to you.
Nobody should be mad at anybody at this point. One can be distressed at unexpectedly
having only half as many potatoes as needed, but then the thing to do is figure out how to
resolve the result of the miscommunication. Somebody could have gone next door and
borrowed more potatoes in the time you spent yelling about whose "fault" this
So when faced with a problem as the result of poor communication, you need to do three
things: Figure out how best to solve the immediate problem_in this case, coming up with
another half dozen potatoes. And you have to walk through how the breakdown occurred,
without ire or blame. Lastly, you need to resolve with your partner in the problem how
this could be handled next time so the situation doesn't repeat.
"I won't use vague words like 'some' when I know exactly the number I want."
"If you say 'some,' I'll ask what you mean exactly."
Good intent assumed
You can learn to resolve com-munication disruptions with this friendly and useful
technique when you believe that both people have good intentions. We get into greater
difficulty when we think the other person is using this as an excuse_they really wanted to
spoil the dinner party by not bringing enough potatoes.
Ok, now you have an additional problem. All of the steps mentioned above still have to be
taken, and we must all proceed as if good will exists, because we could be wrong, after
But if next time we are very specific and the person still shows up with half the
necessary potatoes, now we know where the real problem lies and we have to quit inviting
this person to our dinner parties.
There's the saying that goes, "What you think you heard me say is not what I
meant." Remember this when you get into one of those shouting matches where one of
you is saying, "But you said 'xxxxx'!" and the other is saying, "I did
Unless you have an objective observer who was present at the time and can clarify who in
fact said what, this argument will never be won. Even if one of you proves themselves
"right," having proved the other "wrong" is not necessarily a win in a
relationship you'd like to see continue.
Remember our key point: com-munication breakdowns are normal. One has occurred. How do we
keep this parti-cular breakdown from happening again?
Nagging is no solution
One of the ways we try to be certain that we've been understood is to keep repeating
what we said. In most cases this becomes known as "nagging," and is a real pain
to both the nagger and the naggee.
If you find yourself being the naggee frequently, there is an easy way to
"solve" the problem. Quite likely the person is telling you for the second (or
third) time because you haven't acknowledged what was said the first time. Stop right
there and tell them what you hear. "You're saying you want me to call my friends
about the party."
Unfortunately this will bring you to the point of having to make a decision about and
acknowledge what you are go-ing to do about this expectation. You may have been
unresponsive because you really don't want to call these folks. So when your cohort says,
"So, are you going to call them?" tell the truth: "No." "I don't
know." "I haven't decided." Whatever.
That's called communication. And that's the other key truth: in good communication, you
won't always like what you hear.
Too often the nagger keeps nagging because they think the naggee hasn't heard them. In
fact, they probably have heard very well, and they don't want to deal with the outcome of
what their reply is going to be. "You want me to, I don't want to. If I just don't
say anything, maybe this will all go away."
As the nagger, then, you also have options. Change the tune. "I understood that you
were going to call your friends about the party, but that hasn't happened. Does this mean
you really don't want them to come? Does it mean you'd rather I called them?"
The tough part here, of course, is you may not like the answer. You don't think you should
have to call their friends about a party you are throwing together.
Again, let's look at how we got here. We both want to invite them but neither of us wants
to call. What are the options? Written invitations! E-mail. Postpone the party. Whatever.
Not necessarily good news
Communication deadlocks often occur because we think we have only "your"
option and "my" option, when in fact there may be many other options that are
acceptable to us both if we will just quit defending our own position long enough to find
Sometimes, of course, there are no other options. "I've decided to move to the West
Coast." "I don't want you to." Well, maybe nothing can be done about that.
"Good" communication doesn't mean you always hear what you want to hear. It's
good communication when you have a clear and accurate understanding of what the other
person said, and they know that you know. Did you like the message? Maybe not. But don't
blame it on a communication breakdown.