Communication’s Number One Rule

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

Imperfect Princesses

I always thought my first child would be a boy. I have an older brother, so in my mind, the boy just comes first. I also grew up in a neighborhood where I was the only girl. We lived across the street from a house with five boys (God bless their mother!) which led to my inevitable conversion from sweet little girl to TomBoy.

It’s funny how life works. Almost four years ago, my husband and I sat anxiously in the OB’s office as they performed our sono-gram. The sono-tech smiled as she froze a picture on the screen drew an arrow and labeled it “girl parts.” While we were very excited to bring a little girl into this world, we were also a little, well, terrified. You see, along with his still somewhat TomBoyish wife, my husband grew up in a house with a brother as his only sibling. He moved from that environment to a fraternity house and it is safe to say both residences left him a bit unprepared for life with a little girl.

Our once nicely decorated home has turned into a sea of pink, surrounded by all things princess and My Little Pony.

My daughter’s new favorite television show is Dancing With the Stars. She could care less that one of the stars won Gold at the Winter Olympics before she was born. She is unaffected by the fact that one of the contestants can’t even hear the music that she is dancing to. For my daughter, as with most things in her life, this reality show provides a soundtrack and sets the stage for her own performance.

As soon as she hears the theme song to the “Dancing Show” she runs for her two favorite things: a princess dress and her daddy. After helps her get into her favorite princess dress of the day, they commence to the living room where she holds her hands up in the air and smiles as she pleads, “Daddy, dance with me! Dance with me daddy.” This leads to twirling, singing, swaying, sometimes falling, and the ever popular standing on daddy’s feet.

Although they are not allowed on the dance floor of ABC’s show, the home game does allow the use of lifts during the dance routine. This week, as Richie lifted his sweet princess, all clad in pink of course, into the air to spin her around, she returned the favor by letting out a long, loud toot, and I’m not talking about the kind a train makes.

All Richie and I could do is burst into laughter, which of course sent our daughter into hysterics. She kept dancing, as did Richie, although with tears of laughter in his eyes and a wish that her senior prom will end in a similar fashion.

As I watched my favorite couple dance on our carpeted ballroom, I started to wonder, at what point is it no longer cute or funny to be an imperfect princess? Is it likely that Prince Charming would have still chased Cinderella down the stairs of the castle if she bent down to pick up her shoe and let one rip?

Somewhere between pre-school and puberty, the things in life that used to bring us so much joy, like being tickled, slurping spaghetti, and hiking up our skirts to climb on the monkey bars, loose their charm. We all of the sudden realize that other people are watching us and that our behavior, which used to elicit laughter, now gets us nothing but looks of disapproval.

As I watch my little princess grow, I am already pained to think that her years of un-ashamed tooting and spinning around and around until she falls to the floor are in limited supply. All I can do is hope that somewhere out there, a little prince, with his own little imperfections, is spinning around in the living room with his mommy, practicing for the day when he will take the place of my husband on the dance floor and in my little princess’ heart.

April 17, 2008 at 11:12 pm 2 comments

Welcome to the world of Miss Information

Communication is the key to never-ending bliss or complete and total destruction.

If you are like most of us, you live somewhere in the middle on any given day. Even in my house-hold, where both my husband and I hold degrees in Communication Studies from the University of North Texas, the sea of communication is often turbulent and sometimes down right dangerous. We both completed dozens of courses on how to effectively communicate in relationships, across gender lines, during conflict, in a train, in a boat, when it rains, when you bloat etc. . . And yet, that training seems to go out the window when one of us is upset that the other didn’t manage to get the dishwasher loaded, even though he was home all night while the other was spending a 15 hour day at the office followed by a seemingly never ending board meeting.

And although both of us have successful careers in public relations where we spend many hours every day carefully crafting the exact words that will most effectively communicate our message to the intended audiences, we still manage to hurt each others’ feelings when one of us is in the mood for a date night and the other is in the mood to watch Grey’s Anatomy, eat a pint of ice cream, and be in bed by 9.

So if two people steeped in the business of effective communication have issues making it work, how do we expect people who never took so much as a public speaking class to effectively communicate with their mate?

That’s just the thing – even though everyone can agree that in any given situation effective communication is the key to success, most people spend very little time learning how to communicate effectively. In fact, I would hazard to guess that most people don’t even know what effective communication looks like. It’s kind of like make up – if someone has applied it correctly, you don’t notice that it’s there. But if someone pulled out the blue eyeshadow circa 1985, glitter covered false eyelashes, and blush that looks like it was applied with at trowel, you can spot that from a mile away.

And so it is with effective communication. When it’s applied properly in any given situation, it generally goes unnoticed. On the flip side, when we fail to communicate properly, it is as easily noticed as the tears in your wife’s eyes when you present her with a gym membership for your 15th anniversary. Note to male readers: Your wife does not want a gym membership as a present ever. I don’t care if she tells you she has been thinking about joining a gym or even if you find a half completed membership form on the kitchen counter with a post it note that says “Please finish filling this out and drop it by the gym on your way to work.” Don’t do it. Ever. Under any circumstances. Ever.

And so I have started tihs Blog. Clearly not because I am an authority on communicating effectively. In fact, I probably have more experience from the blunders I have made over the years. But because I know what you know: Even though we will fail sometimes, the times we succeed make life much easier. If we can increase our success rate even a little, life at home, at work, at church, and at your in-law’s house will be much easier. And who doesn’t want that?

April 14, 2008 at 2:58 am Leave a comment

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