In our relationships we often want to share things with others — we want them to know what we’re thinking and feeling, or convince them to think in a certain way. To do this, we have to carry out a miraculous task — to somehow get what’s in our head over to the other person, so that they understand it in much the same way that we do.
In some ways this might seem like a simple task — you can “just tell them”. And sometimes it is as simple as that. But in many cases it isn’t easy — our thoughts and feelings are complex, or they are conflicting, or we have a sense of something but we’re not really sure how to put it into words. And there may be a lot of background information that we know but the other person doesn’t (imagine telling a stranger about something that just happened to your best friend). On top of this, we have to use a language where almost every word has several different meanings.
Perhaps this is obvious, but it seems to me that miscommunication and lack of communication are everywhere. I’ve been in more than my share of business meetings where almost no real communication happens — people talk at length about something that others pretend to understand but don’t, or different people express conflicting points of view while congratulating themselves about reaching agreement. And in personal relationships I’ve had my share of arguments that later turned out to be… just misunderstandings.
Here are a few ideas I’ve had (or, more often, borrowed from others), and I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways to “get your message across” more effectively.
Keep it simple
This is classic advice, and I think, very useful. The simpler you make something, the easier it is for the other person to process and understand. After all, you’ve probably had a long time to think about your way of viewing things, but the other person must process what you’re saying almost instantly.
If you have conflicting thoughts about something, keeping it simple may mean just picking the one that you feel the most. If someone asks your opinion about, say, the economy and you have twelve different theories about it, it may mean just picking one and explaining it, instead of trying to talk about all of them.
Another way we add complexity is by communicating our uncertainty, or “hedging” — using phrases like “maybe”, “kind of”, “I’m not really sure but”, “it could be this or it could be that”, etc. Sometimes this uncertainty is important, and it makes sense to convey it. But of course nothing in life is certain, and hedging can make what you’re saying less simple and harder to follow (and can weaken its impact). So when appropriate, removing hedging can make your communication simpler and easier to understand.
Keeping it simple does often mean that you are cutting things out and modifying things just a bit to reduce the complexity. Does this mean you’re misleading people or “not telling the whole truth”? If you’re cutting out things that make you look bad and “enhancing” the story in your favor a bit, for example, then yes it does. But I think you can be true to the spirit of what you’re conveying in a way that gives a faithful approximation to the truth. For example, when someone asks you what time it is and your watch says that it’s 4:32 PM and 17 seconds, telling them that “it’s four thirty” isn’t misleading — it’s giving your best simple approximation to the truth.
However, at times communicating what you want to communicate requires sharing something more complex. I think Albert Einstein said it best when he said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Do your best to tell the simplest story you can, while still being true to what you need to communicate.
Just to make a point explicit — effective communication is usually not just giving the other person a “brain dump” of everything you’re thinking. It usually involves putting your thoughts into a form that the other person can best understand.
One more point on this. “Keeping it simple” also doesn’t mean that you treat your listener as if they were an idiot. Treating someone like a four-year-old can be frustrating for them, and result in leaving out relevant information.
Al: What do you think of Sara?
Lenny: Well, I think she’s pretty nice. I mean, sometimes she can be a little, I don’t know, pushy. But then again, she’s had a rough couple of months, and it’s actually kind of refreshing to have someone that stands up for themselves. So overall, I mean, good.
Al: What do you think of Sara?
Lenny: A bit pushy, but I can handle it. I like her.
Similarly, keeping it simple means not needlessly repeating yourself — talking on and on and saying the same thing over and over can get in the way of a clear understanding (and cause the other person to “tune you out”).
Simply… make sense. Choose words that work well together, and be consistent with yourself and with what people know to be true.
George W. Bush: Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.
George W. Bush (revised): Families are the hope of our nation; it is within families that our dreams take wing.
Speak to the other person “where they are”
It may be hard to believe, but, yes, other people have thoughts and feelings, and they are often different from your own! In many cases, there is a big difference between what’s in your head, and what’s in the other person’s head. As mentioned above, an example of this is trying to tell a stranger about something that just happened to your best friend — much of what you want to communicate only makes sense if you know your friend.
I think the first step is simply to recognize that the other person has a different perspective, and to attempt talk to them so that it makes sense from that perspective. It may also involve a lot of simplification, since you often don’t have the time to go into the background in detail.
This also means trying to figure out what the other person is really thinking and feeling, and addressing their concerns and values, even if the other person isn’t stating them explicitly. If the other person asks “Is this the way to Times Square?” you don’t just tell them “no”, but tell them what the right way is and point out something interesting along the way. Making what you’re saying relevant to the other person is also important, by making it interesting to them and something they can relate to. Finally, if your views differ from those of the other person, it often makes sense to address those differences explicitly, instead of stating your views as accepted fact.
Pay attention to rhythm and timing
Rhythm and timing are important aspects of conversation. One a small scale, the rhythm of your own speech matters. Frequent pausing to search for words can make it more difficult for the other person to understand you, as can stopping one sentence halfway through and starting a different one (“John is really… the important thing is that…”).
On a larger scale, the rhythms of the conversation as a whole are also important. Taking turns talking, interrupting and dealing with interruptions, handling distractions and “side tracks”, and deciding when to change the topic or bring up an important question are all issues of rhythm and timing. In many cases, speaking and transitioning smoothly instead of abruptly can make it easier for people hear and understand what you’re saying.
Al: Look, I’m sort of feeling that… well, to give some background, I’ve always loved football. And when I get that… when that time of year comes around… I just feel that… I don’t know…
Al: I love football season — it’s probably the thing I look forward to the most.
Make it interesting
People can only hear your message if they’re paying attention to it — making it interesting makes it much more likely that they’ll pay attention.
Be aware of the implicit message
The words we say form an explicit message. But the other person isn’t only listening to our words — they’re also listening to our tone of voice, and watching our body language and other behaviors. In fact, this implicit message is very important in helping the other person understand what we’re saying, and whether they agree with it. It makes sense to be aware of this and realize that sending conflicting or negative implicit signals can make it more difficult to understand your message (or for the other person to accept it).