A default descriptor we include on job applications is ‘good communication skills,’ but are we good communicators? How many times have we uttered the words “you’re not listening to me!” or “that’s not what I meant!” Blaming others for not understanding us or blaming ourselves for not being able to communicate well. It can be frustrating when miscommunication happens, often leaving us feeling unheard, misunderstood, perhaps even unimportant or invisible.
Interactions require a minimum of two active participants, meaning that both need to be able to communicate and listen effectively. It sounds simple in principle, so why do we find ourselves struggling in this area?
Communication and non-verbal cues
We often take communication for granted and regard it as synonymous with spoken words. However non-verbal cues also signal what we might be attempting to express, eye contact, body language, the tone of our voice. This can impact the way our message is received by others.
Three categories of communication styles can be helpful to consider, passive, assertive and aggressive.
Passive, assertive and aggressive communication styles
Passive communication may occur when we are unsure of ourselves, we see our needs as less important than others, so we may be hesitant and/or unclear in verbally expressing what we want. Avoiding eye contact, appearing nervous. Preparing ourselves to be ignored, dismissed or attacked and unconsciously trying to protect ourselves by communicating in this way.
Assertive communication is clear, open and honest, we see our needs as just as important as others and are open to the other person’s response. Maintaining comfortable eye contact, appearing confident and relaxed in our body language. We expect people to hear what we have to say.
Aggressive communication may occur when we are only considering ourselves in the interaction, we see our needs as more important than others. Alternatively, we may not think our needs will be heard unless we communicate in an aggressive way. Our objective may be to win the argument, we can be overbearing, trying to dominate the space and conversation. Ignoring others or interrupting them when they try to speak. We may appear tense and attempt to intrude on the other person’s space by pointing at them or having agitated or threatening body movements.
Do you recognise your tendency to occupy one style of communication over another? How do people respond to this? What impact does it have on you?
The mind-reading trap
A common trap to fall into is assuming that another person knows what you are thinking. We can sometimes believe that because we think a certain way, others do too. Or, because we expressed feeling upset, another person would instinctually know how to respond to this in the way we would wish. Thus, leaving us confused and distressed when this does not occur. It could have been the case that caregivers were good at pre-empting and responding to us, or we have very perceptive friends so never had to practice communicating.
Alternatively, our needs were never responded to when we did express them, so we learnt to stop trying. The bottom line is that we cannot expect others to know what we are thinking or feeling unless we tell them. No one is a mind reader.
Difficulty expressing ourselves
If we are particularly impacted by a situation, it can be difficult to speak in that moment. Our thoughts may be muddled, and we can struggle to know how we are feeling, let alone what we want to express.
In such instances it is useful to take a few moments, maybe a couple of deep breaths to allow yourself to process what is happening. Does the situation require an immediate response from you? If you are in a conversation can you ask for a few minutes to yourself, say you need to go the toilet and take some time out there, or suggest continuing the conversation at a later time? We are allowed to give ourselves time and space.
After the event, you may find it helpful to write down your thoughts or record them out loud, to help you make sense of your experience. It might feel enough to do this, but you could also share this with the other person or people involved. Perhaps rehearse what you might say with a trusted person, or in the mirror first, to help clarify how and what you want to communicate.
I regularly hear clients say, “well it is too late to say that now” or “the time has passed, it will be weird to bring it up now/people will say I’m too sensitive/ it doesn’t matter anyway”. If it is important to you, do not put a deadline on talking about a situation or conversation you would like to revisit. Give yourself permission to share your thoughts and feelings. Express yourself.