Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not siad, most of love is lost.
Khalil Gibran (19/20c Lebanese-American writer)
In this area, we will focus on what affects the quality of communication in terms of its content (what we communicate) and its form (how we communicate).
The what of communicating (the content)
Let’s start with some features pertinent to the content of our communication:
Preparation: preparing what to say can be beneficial when you are expected to talk (e.g. giving a speech) or answer questions (e.g. at exams). It can also be good for potentially awkward situations (e.g. being publicly praised). However, preparation may not be so useful for conversations. It is often ineffective as the responses of others are rarely fully predictable, and can also impede spontaneity. Words need to reflect the actual mood and situation to have the desired effect, so, thinking through an issue rather than thinking about what to say is better preparation.
Openness and concealment: openness, sharing our inner world with others, is important for communication. The more we are open, the greater exchange can be. However, openness involves some risks: opening up too much or too fast may have the opposite effect. If you quickly reveal everything, you may cease to be interesting. In fact, complete openness is rarely desired. That people remain to some extent a secret for each other can make an interaction more appealing. However, being deliberately secretive can put people off too. Some fine-tuning is called for here. In a nutshell, it is usually better to open up gradually and to a degree that won’t put you in an uneven position or make you regret it later. To avoid the former, check if the other person is opening up as much as you; to avoid the latter, before going further, ask yourself if you will be okay tomorrow having opened up so much.
Sincerity and lying
- To what extent one can be sincere should depend on the listener’s ability to accept it (rather than his position or importance, for example). Intelligent people respect sincerity even when it does not please them because it gives them a chance to improve or explain themselves. We should be aware though that our sincere comments may be subjective and that we can hurt somebody’s feelings unnecessarily. For this reason, tentative sincerity may be the best bet (e.g. ‘it seems to me that this situation could’ve been handled better’).
- Lying can bring some immediate advantages, but it has long- term consequences: it creates a barrier between you and others, it requires an effort (lies need to be remembered), and it can be hugely damaging if exposed. So even if you think that lying to others may be okay sometimes (e.g. to protect or comfort somebody), at least do not lie to yourself – be aware that you are lying and why. Then, consider if it is worth it.
The locus of communication
- The trick of a good conversation is to talk about what others (rather than just you) find interesting. Great if these two coincide, but they may not, so it is important to try to find common ground (if you are interested in psychology and the other person in football, talk about football psychology).
- Digressions may sometimes be interesting, but a conversation is based on an implicit agreement to engage with a particular topic. Digressions, in a way, breach that agreement, which is why people feel cheated when somebody digresses too much.
- It is also essential to calibrate how far you go. Some people may be interested in the topic but don’t wish to go into great detail or depth and they may lose interest if you do.
- Focusing on yourself needs to be balanced too: avoiding ‘I’ tends to be seen as lacking confidence, but its frequent use may be perceived as being self-centered. Self-praise, in particular, may have the opposite effect – rather than eliciting admiration, it can be off-putting and leaver an imporession if insecurity.
The how of communicating (the form)
This is, of course, essential. What’s the point of talking if nobody is listening? To maintain attention your talk needs to be:
- Interesting: an interesting talk is relevant, imaginative, and may (if appropriate) include humour. There is also something else: not everything needs to be spelt out or explained. What can be extrapolated may elicit greater interest than what is said; people like to draw conclusions themselves because it makes them more active and appeals to their intelligence.
- Clear: check first if what you want to say is clear to you; if it is not, it will certainly not be clear to others. Assuming that others know what you know, being ambiguous, or making things too complicated often affects clarity. Generally, the simpler you can say something the better.
- Concise: attention can be lost if you say too little as well as if you say too much. As a rule of thumb, talk as long as others are happy to listen. Verbal disengagement (e.g. cursory responses only) and body language (tension, fidgeting, glazed eyes) usually indicate that they are not. Nothing can guarantee though that you will get the reaction you expect. If you don’t, remember that repetition rarely improves an impression. It is more likely that what you said was ignored than not heard or understood, so as a rule, repeat something only if asked.
- Convincing: how you talk may be as important as what you say in this respect. Talking calmly leaves an impression of authority and self-control and can go with deep emotions. Changes in intensity, pitch, intonation and pace, on the other hand, break the monotony and convey passion. Loud speaking may grab attention and have an effect of openness or power, but it could be unpleasant and suggest a lack of thoughtfulness, depth, and respect. People are usually more attentive if one speaks softly, although being too quiet can make listening an effort. Body language and eye contact also matter – your hands and face can play a greater role than your mouth in making your talk convincing.
Maintaining the flow
The flow of a conversation should be a spontaneous process, so only two points that are not always intuitive are brought up here:
- Interruptions can speed up and develop conversation if they are closely related and build on what has been said. However, jumping to conclusions or ‘mind-reading’ breaks the flow and is perceived as undermining the other person. You may also miss something important or stop the one who is talking from expressing herself emotionally if you interrupt. So, on balance, it is usually better to allow others to finish before speaking.
- Pauses: don’t be afraid of them – pauses can be part of the conversational flow, as they give participants time to digest what has been said, to rest, or a chance to respond.
Generally speaking, there are two communication styles:
- Linear communication is associated with logical, rational talking that develops an argument in orderly sequences.
- Non-linear communication is based on lateral thinking and associations that allow multiple connections and directions.
Both are important: non-linear communication can be useful when talking about multifaceted topics and when you want to engage listeners’ imagination (by, for example, describing experiences). The linear way of talking can be clearer and better when making a specific point. We tend to habitually adopt one of these styles, but as their respective strengths are different, it is better to be proficient in both. Practising a style that you don’t usually use may take you out of your comfort zone at first, but the benefits of mastering both will become clear fairly quickly.
Improving your communication: the key here is practice. Pick up one of the above elements and practise (recording some of your conversations or talks, or asking somebody to give you honest feedback can be very useful). Once you are reasonably happy with it, move to the next element.