Communication breakdown
Image: Paul Townsend / CC BY-ND 2.0

Why is communicating effectively so hard for most of us mere humans? Why is it so easy for us to have a communication breakdown? Why can’t people hear what I’m saying without misinterpretation? Why can’t I listen without taking things personally?

If communication is 90 percent nonverbal, why can’t I just convey my feelings and thoughts through a smile, a nod, a thumbs-up, or finger guns?

Lately, I have been overly conscious of my communication skills, or lack thereof. Sometimes I feel like I am just treading water in this area instead of moving forward. So I have to ask myself, “Is it me, or is it them?”

With my 16-year-old daughter, I am going to have to go with “It’s them!” Trying to communicate with a teenager is like trying to learn a foreign language backwards and underwater. If you have had this experience, you know what I mean. I could write a whole column on “the teenager,” but I’m just going to stick to the general idea of a communication breakdown for today’s thoughts. My rant on the joys of raising a teenager I will spare you until another time … but yes, mom, what comes around does go around, and you were right! All you had to do was sit back and wait. It might have taken 25 years, but I did get what was coming to me.

People say to me, “You are a writer! How can it be hard for you to communicate?” Like I have some superpower with words or something. Well, it is, and I don’t! Although I can usually scrawl some words on a page that most people would agree make sense and are clear, when it comes to communicating verbally with the people I care about, I am at the same disadvantage as the next poor schmuck. Often, there seems to be a communication breakdown.

I believe the problem lies in our ever-anxious and uncanny ability to put our own spin on the meaning of other people’s words. We are all walking around with years of accumulated knowledge (baggage), experiences (baggage), and feelings (baggage) that we unconsciously thrust into every conversation we have. And then there are the grudges, hurts, and resentments that we think we have forgiven, let go of, or buried with a hatchet that seem to resurrect themselves like the walking dead time and time again. Or my personal favorite—when a forgotten hurt jumps from the rightful owner into the lap of some unsuspecting and innocent bystander just because that person somehow triggered an old wound that never healed.

Is it my fault your mom used to beat you with chopsticks, so that when I offer you a nice Asian meal you feel like a battered child instead of seeing it as a romantic gesture of love and friendship? Or when I compliment your singing voice, is it my fault that it brings back painful memories of being locked in the car on road trips with your most UN-favorite Aunt Sally and being forced to sing show tunes for hours and hours?

Communication breakdown
Image: Tmannya / CC BY-SA 3.0

I use these extreme (and ridiculous) examples to make a point: we all have our own connotations (baggage) and meanings we tie to words, the type of language, and the way someone talks to us. Take that meat and sandwich it in the middle of the problem of social media, instant messaging, texting, and all our other technological advances that are robbing this generation of the ability to interact appropriately face-to-face with other humans. Top it all off with nice condiments like sarcasm, cynicism, and slang, and you have yourself a mouthful. A miscommunication sandwich. Yum! 

So, how are we to understand our fellow man and express ourselves genuinely with all these obstacles in our way? I know that, for me, good communication can be simplified down into one singular idea that Steven Covey made famous in his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Habit No. 5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is a timeless idea that Covey adapted from the famous “Peace Prayer.” Although the prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the author is actually unclear, but it is generally believed to be about 100 years old and penned by an anonymous French writer, according to Huffington Post writer Daniel P. Horan. Either way, the sentiment remains golden:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;

So, whether you subscribe to the belief system of science, business, or divine spirituality, the point is that it’s not about you (me)! Stop trying so hard to get your point across. The key to avoiding a communication breakdown is listening. The more you are able to listen, the more you will be understood.

It never ceases to amaze me how simple things really are and how complicated, difficult, and messy I always seem to make them. I need to listen more. Simple. Listen.

Writing is a great tool for sharing your thoughts. Technology is amazing, fascinating, and fun, but if we want to have real communication with another human being, we need to stop trying to be heard so much and focus on hearing. When I take the time to get back to this point, whether it be with a teenager, a coworker, a stranger I just met, or the people I love the most, I find that when I really seek to understand it becomes easy to communicate. I am able to drop all the extra baggage I’ve been carrying around and repair that communication breakdown. So fill your communication sandwich with whatever meat and condiments you find appetizing, but when it gets too hard to swallow, just remember that it’s not about how much you can dish out: it’s about how much you take in.

Happy listening!

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