The lost art of communication

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Both spoken and unspoken words can lead to accidental misunderstandings, writes SAROJA SRINIVASAN

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In an age that’s drowning in a sea of communication devices, we still often hear about a lack of communication. It’s the impersonal nature of this electronic communication that relays private matters that can create major conflict. There is an endless amount of miscommunication that often leads to misunderstandings. Whether it is between parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, there may be a lot of talk, but somehow each party seems to feel that they have not been heard. This begs the question, ‘Have people lost the art of communicating’?

Communication is the process of conveying facts, ideas, attitudes and opinions from one mind to another. The word ‘mind’ is used to emphasise the basic issue in good communication. It is not just what we see, hear, or read, that starts the process of communication. The fundamental motivation in communicating effectively is to ensure that the person who receives the communication understands it the way it was meant.

Communication may take a verbal form (words) and/or non-verbal forms (gestures, stance, tone of voice, etc.) We know that there is effective communication occurring when the speaker is aware that they are understood by the receiver’s response. This could be through words, or gestures, or both. The sender and the receiver of a message have an equal role for anything to be effectively communicated. Often in disagreements, one is ‘blamed’ more than the other. Either the sender is seen as not being clear, or the receiver is seen as not having understood the message. In fact, both could have contributed to the miscommunication.

Everything we do, or do not do, say or not say, is communicating something very powerfully. It is a myth when people say that some people never actually say anything. The fact is that they are also conveying something powerful by not saying anything. Inaction, or keeping silent, can just as easily convey meaning as effectively as words do. This can be either in agreement or disagreement with what is being said, and can sometimes even convey meaning more effectively than words.

It is commonly accepted that in overall communication only a small percent is verbal and a very large percent is non-verbal. Yet a lot of conflict arises from just the very words that are used. When we look at it more closely, we find that the words, though appropriate, were expressed in a certain way that gave rise to the misunderstanding. The nonverbal accompaniments that went with the words seem to be far more powerful than just the words themselves. In everyday miscommunication, the influence of the nonverbal component is often far greater than the verbal. The most common mistake is when the words do not match the action, and the tone of voice. An example is when a person uses a sarcastic tone. The receiver of the communication perhaps has missed the non-verbal aspects like the tone of voice, body language, and eye-contact, and reads the intent of the speaker completely differently to what was intended. This can then start a series of misunderstandings and arguments.

In effective communication, what the speaker intends and what impact it has on the listener has to be equal. Intent = impact. To have effective communication, a good speaker states what they want, feel and think clearly and precisely, and a good listener picks up on the meaning of the speaker, without making guesses. This is all very well in theory, although in practice there can be many pitfalls, which we may not be aware of at the time.

This is because the context of each piece of communication has many sides to it. It depends on who is communicating, for example, if it’s a child, a person in authority, a stranger, if they’re from a similar culture, the context, mood of the persons involved, and many more. It is very easy for miscommunication if any of these points above don’t match up, but even if they do, there is still room for error. It’s about being aware of this and trying to improve your own communication skills. It’s time to start practicing.

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is a western trained clinical psychologist by profession; has been living in Sydney for over 40 years; interested in wisdom traditions in particular Indian philosophy and how it can inform us to lead a happy life; in her columns she has tried to synthesise her personal and professional experiences in dealing with everyday situations
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