Communication’s Number One Rule

April 19, 2008 at 9:16 pm Leave a comment

As with all things in life, communication has rules. As with most sets of rules, one rises to the top of the list as the most important.

You cannot not communicate.

I am going to say it again, because it is just that important.

You cannot not communicate.

Everything that you do communicates something, whether you are actually verbalizing a thought or just sitting in a chair twirling your hair around your finger. Many people fall into the trap of believing that they only communicate when actual words are exchanged, whether that is in person, or more likely these days, via e-mail, text message, or blog.

This is a dangerous trap to fall into because research shows that the bulk of a message received is through non-verbal cues such as folded arms, rolling of the eyes, smiling, frowning, even the proximity in which you are standing to the person you are talking to.

Coming in second to non-verbal cues is the tone of your message; that is how you say what you say. Think of this in terms of how your average sixteen-year old talks to her parents. It is not necessarily what she is saying (read “fine” as the answer to just about every question), but instead, it is the tone with which she is saying the words.

And in a distant third (less than 10% of the message that is received), comes the actual words that you are saying. The irony is that most people spend far more time choosing their words (although, truth be told, most people don’t actually give this much thought) than they spend thinking about things like the look on their face, the tone of their voice, or the timing of their conversation.

Some of you are skeptical, so let me give you a couple of examples that you have probably seen in your very own life.

What happened: It’s date night! You finally have a sitter and are on your way to dinner at someplace without a drive through and then off to see a non-animated movie. In the car on the way to dinner, your cell phone rings. It’s your best friend. You answer (it could be an emergency). It is not an emergency, but you stay on the phone with her catching up during the ten minute drive from your house to the restaurant.

What he heard: This is a classic example of communicating something without saying a word. Although you were not talking to your husband, what he heard was that your best friend is far more important and interesting than he is.

What went wrong: In the age of constant communication, we are seldom unreachable. While this comes in handy if your wife goes into labor and needs to get you out of a meeting immediately, it also means that we are often mentally unavailable to the people who are actually in the room with us. Whether we answer a non-emergency phone call during a date, check our e-mail on our blackberry during dinner, or post our latest Tweet while our kids are pleading for us to play Candyland with them, our addiction to electronic media frequently communicates our disinterest in the real life happening right in front of us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t times when an e-mail or a phone call aren’t urgent. Certainly there are. What I am saying is that more often than not, these things are not urgent and we answer not because we have to, but because we can. Keep in mind what you are communicating to those who are with you when you are e-communicating with those who are not.

What happened: After you brought your three week old baby to your mother-in-law’s house without a hat (even though it is mid-July) she rolls her eyes and gives you the silent treatment for the rest of the day.

What you hear: Your husband should have married that girl he dated before you in college, because not only would she put a hat on the baby even in 101 degree weather, she would make her little boy much happier than you ever could.

What went wrong: This is proof positive that you words do not necessarily equal communication. The silent treatment is one of the strongest punishments we can subject a person to. Remember, the strongest part of your message is non-verbal. When that becomes the only part of the message, we are left to interpret every sigh, every click of the remote, and every song on the cd in the car. In the digital age, the silent treatment can also take the form of an unanswered e-mail, voice mail or friend request.

As you move through your day, take an hour and observe the communication happening around you in all of its forms. In just 60 short minutes I promise you will find that there is no time when people are not communicating something. Once we can agree on this, the question then becomes are they communicating effectively?

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Entry filed under: Effective Communication.

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