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I recently attended a conference on the newest diagnostic manual used in the field of psychotherapy. In discussing some of the changes to common diagnoses, the speaker began to address brain development and communication. He pointed out that the area of our brain that is responsible for understanding language develops prior to expressive language centers. He used this as a way of explaining the terrible twos. Per his explanation terrible twos occur in part because toddlers, who understand a fair amount, don’t yet realize that they can’t express themselves clearly. What we hear is “whah wadder!” What the toddler thinks he is saying: “Hey mommy, could you please hand me some water in the blue cup. That one is my favorite, and could you make sure it is cold.” With your super abilities to translate toddler speech you proceed to pour some water in the nearest cup (a red one) from the faucet. Your child’s response is “whah water” with a slightly more insistent and annoyed tone meaning, “excuse me, I said I would like my water in the blue cup. The red cup will not do, it doesn’t taste right. And you gave me tap water, room temp tap water, I want my water cold! I think I am being clear here!” to which you say, “yes honey, here is your water, in your cup, see waaa-TER!” What happens next is a consequence of faulty communication: your toddler starts to scream, he may even throw himself on the floor or at you. As for the cup of water, that most certainly got thrown right at you.

I find that a lot of time adult communication follows similar patterns. We are so convinced that we communicate clearly with others, that we rarely check to see if they have understood what we mean. Communication is a combination of several things: the words we use, our tone, our body language, our intended message, our inferences, and our assumptions (think of assumptions as the mental filters and historical biases we all have). We are often aware of the first two, sometimes even the third element, but people often forget the latter three. Truth be told, in most cases it is not much of an issue, but it does become paramount when trying to convey serious or complex thoughts. Let me provide a simple fictional example. You ask me if I would like to go out to eat some oysters, and I respond by saying, “sure! Because you know me, I love oysters.” You have no other information available, and so you might think that I was saying that I would love to go, because I actually do love oysters. But let me add the following information – my tone is slightly snarky, by brow is just a touch furrowed, I once had food poisoning with raw shellfish and was incapacitated for two full days and you and I were friends at the time that happened (7 years ago), and I assume that people should remember things that upset me or they don’t really care about me. Does this change the significance of those words? Am I communicating something else? Maybe what I really mean is, “of course I don’t want to go eat oysters, and you should know that, so I am not even going to bother answering that questions, but now you can be sure I am a bit peeved that you are so thoughtless as to not remember how sick I was.“ The example is a bit far fetched, but versions of it take place everyday.

Those same assumptions/inferences/biases distort incoming messages too. In other words, you come to a conversation with your own personal filters, which impact how you communicate, but also how you interpret incoming speech. A perfect example of this is someone who, assuming that they are not good enough in general, translates their boss saying, ”I need to speak with you in my office,” as meaning, “you are in a lot of trouble and I am probably going to fire you,” when what the boss really meant was that she needed to speak with them in her office for a moment. This miscommunication may be momentary, but those few minutes of dread are excruciatingly painful for the listener.

These implicit filters and the complexity of proper communication are one of the reasons why some forms of written communication, especially brief forms such as texting and social media comments, are awful when trying to convey complex thoughts.

Universal tips for clear communication:

  • Think of what you meant to say – what is the point you ultimately want your listener to leave with?

  • Take stock of your mood, your mental state, and how they may color your speech.

  • Check in with yourself, what assumptions are you walking into the conversation with? Are you assuming you are going to be dismissed? If so you are probably going to feel that way regardless of whether you are heard or not (see this older post on perception and reality for more details on how this happens).

  • Ask questions often, especially questions in which you allow the listener to explain what they understand. Note that having them repeat your words doesn’t guarantee they understand your specific meaning.

  • Give others the opportunity to respond and before you jump all over them for not getting your point, work on clarifying what you meant.

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