Single Scene Newspaper, Phoenix Arizona, May 1999

Three steps to prevent communication problems and why some folks you don't believe

by Janet L. Jacobsen

You communicate in two ways: verbally and nonverbally. Things are equally likely to screw up in either category.

Verbally is the words you say. Nonverbally is everything else: tone and speed, vocal quality, pronunciation, what your face is doing, what your body is doing, how you're dressed, the setting --lots of stuff. Stuff you aren't even aware is influencing how the other person hears you is influencing how the other person hears you.

Looking for honesty

This makes it very hard to control the nonverbal message; there's just too much going on. Which is why, when someone tells us one thing, but their "body language" is saying something else, we tend to believe the something else. While it's relatively easy (physically) to lie with the words we use, it's a lot tougher to control all the other parts to make the lie look like the truth at all levels. (Con men and other master liars have learned to control a greater number of variables than the rest of us.)

Of course, we can't always say why we think someone else isn't being honest. Many times we are noticing subconsciously that certain things just don't go together, even though we couldn't tell you consciously why we're suspicious.

One study of nonverbal communication found, for instance, that a great many people, when speaking less than the truth, have their feet pointed toward the door. This is apparently an unconscious preparation on their part to flee if they are caught in the lie. They aren't aware they're doing it; you aren't aware you're noticing it. But your "alert" signals are definitely signalling.

Another method we use to screen for lies, by the way, is who stands to gain if the information we are hearing is untrue. Your kid, who desperately wants to go to the mall with her pals, says, "No, we didn't have any homework," despite having had lots of homework for days. Because you can detect that your child may think there's a benefit to fibbing in this case, you follow up with the teacher, or another parent, or just say no to the mall "because I'm the parent, that's why."

On the other hand, if you have a lot of yard work you want them to do, which they don't really want to do, and homework would get them out of the yard work, and they say "No, we didn't have any homework," you are likely to believe them, because you don't see a benefit to them in lying.

Problem prevention

With so many things going on in "communication," it gives us lots of room for error. As we explained in a previous article, communication breakdowns are normal, so forget blaming and work on solving problems when they happen.

Of course, what we'd really like is to not have the problems in the first place. While you can't eliminate difficulties, you can cut them down considerably -- if you're willing to do the work required.

Step one: Pay attention.

We'll talk another time about how to be a good "listener." The first step to better communication is paying better attention to yourself. Most of us are very lazy, very cliched, very stereotyped communicators. We fall into patterns (what in communication theory are called "scripts") and we repeat them over and over, usually without realizing we're doing it.

Ever been driving down the same street you use to get to work, and you meant to go somewhere else, but nevertheless you are almost to work before realizing you're not supposed to be there right now? You're operating on a script (also known as out of habit).

Repeat arguments are often scripts. You say, "No, I don't really want to." Then I say, "You never want to. I never get to." And you say, "Now don't start that again." And there we are, starting it again.

You can't hope to control your communication if you don't listen to your communication. Start now paying attention to the things you say, and the way you say them, and see if they are getting you the results you want. If the way you always handle things isn't doing the job, it's time for a change in strategy.

Step Two: Clarify, clarify, clarify -- the content.

Sometimes we have communication breakdowns because I misheard what you said. I thought you said turn left, and you said right. Sometimes things breakdown because I heard what you said, but I misfired in my response; this is generally the source of the comment, "No not that left; the other left."

Another possibility is that what I mean by a term, or a phrase, or an idea, is not necessarily what you mean. When we start dating and we both say, "Oh no, I'm not interested in getting serious," we think we have an agreement. We don't find out until later, under less pleasant circumstances, that what I meant was I can wait a couple of months before we start going steady, and what you meant was that you plan to date every woman in North America. Oops.

Learn to recognize vagueness and seek clarity when it would be helpful. "I'll pick you up early for the party." Define early. "I'm sure it's casual." Define casual.

I'm about to attend a "fancy" party with a man who had to refer me to one of the other females attending for any idea of what I should wear. I'm grateful he didn't try to fake an answer and me wind up as the only long gown with everyone else in cocktail dresses.

Do not be ashamed to ask for clarification, and do not be ashamed to ask for feedback. "When I say, 'not serious,' how do you interpret that?" The clearer you make your communication, the easier you make it for the other person to be clear with you.

Step Three: Clarify, clarify, clarify -- the intent.

If I ever get around to doing my Ph.D. in communication, I'd like to write my dissertation on attribution. That's when I take what I "hear" from you (that combination of the verbal and nonverbal) and I draw my own conclusions about why you said that and what it really meant. That wouldn't necessarily be so bad, except generally then I go ahead and act on my conclusions and not on what you said.

The first academic discussion I heard on attribution was about a cross-cultural situation. An immigrant family sends a gift to school for the teacher because she has been giving their son a lot of extra help. Depending on their former culture, the family may "attribute" the teacher's return of the gift to the gift not being good enough, or to the teacher not really valuing the child after all. The school rule that teachers aren't allowed to accept gifts either isn't known or isn't seen as sufficient reason to return the gift. The family changes from being happy with the situation to being unhappy because of what they think the return means.

Here's a singles example. We've been dating a while, not long, and you happen to mention that you will be having dinner Sunday with your opposite sex friend Pat. I attribute your telling me this to your desire to make me jealous, or your wish to let me know I'm not all that important to you, or your interest in me making you a better offer for Sunday. The fact that you are telling me because you want me to know there's a good reason you aren't asking me out on Sunday doesn't occur to me. I shall proceed based on my attribution and we could be in for some conflict ahead.

Again the more self-aware we are, the less likely we are to have difficulties. If I know I'm taking what you say and running off in a new direction, I can just ask you, "Are you telling me this because you're looking for a tactful way to tell me you'd like our dating relationship to slow down a bit?" Note that this has to be asked as pure information and with no accusation whatsoever, or it stops being clarification and becomes a fight. If such comments from you nearly always result in conflict, you need a new technique.

One workable method, if you're just learning to stop leaping (or stumbling) to conclusions is to say, "I'm feeling confused and I want to ask you something and I'm probably not going to do a very good job. I'm not upset, I just want to clarify what you said. So will you help me work out the question here?" Then work through it with the person until you mutually come up with the best way to raise such matters.

Good will required

As always, we're assuming that the other person is someone of good will who values good communication as much as you do and isn't necessarily perfect at it either. The assumption of good intentions reduces a lot of difficulties.

In maintaining good will, it's also important to watch your timing. Do not seek clarification of just exactly what they meant by a certain remark while there are other people around whose business the answer is none of.

I was once dating someone who said, "When you're upset about something, I want you to tell me right away." "No you don't," I said. Too often I have discovered that what I think I'm upset about is not the actual problem and the solution I think I want is not actually the best solution. If I blab everything out right away, now we're both upset and we're even less likely to solve the problem.

I prefer to wait, whenever possible, until I'm absolutely sure (or as close as I can be) of what is bothering me, and the best way to explain it. Then I want to discuss it in a situation where we have the least possible distractions and we are both comfortable dealing with the issue.

Sometimes, of course, such level-headedness gets over-ridden by our emotions; just remember that when emotion takes over, you are more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

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