Are You Just Talking or Are You Communicating?

 In Communication

Several years ago my two young children, my husband and I were traveling in the car. The traffic was heavy and my husband was tense at the wheel. The kids were giggling and playing in the back seat and in frustration my husband said “will you kids please be quiet so I can focus on the traffic”. The kids responded by lowering their voices and playing in a less rowdy fashion. Their father became more agitated and said, “Quiet down NOW!” The children lowered their voices a bit more and continued to giggle and play. Their stressed father then turned around and yelled “I said BE QUIET!!!, at which point the shocked children stopped talking completely and the mood in the car was incredibly tense.

When I later reflected on this situation I realized that what had happened was a failure to communicate. When my husband used the word “quiet” he meant silent, but our children interpreted it to mean less volume. A very uncomfortable situation was caused by the lack of a common word definition.


What happened in the car that day is very common when people attempt to communicate. We often think we’re having a meeting of the minds, and later discover there was no connection at all.   How often have you walked away from talking with someone thinking they understood what you said, and then found out s/he had no clue what you were talking about?

Although common, situations such as this can be avoided if we use a few simple techniques. The first is to realize that both participants in a conversation have a role to play..

Most people assume that the person doing the speaking is the one who is communicating. In reality communication is a two-way street and the roles of both speaker and listener are equally important. Fortunately there are several things each can do to insure that the process of delivering and receiving information flows smoothly.


The first thing is for both participants to be mentally present and pay attention. This sounds obvious, but how many times have you been in a conversation where you’ve been distracted by things around you, are thinking about how you’ll respond, or wondering what you’ll have for dinner? If both participants aren’t fully present and completely tuned in to the conversation, clear communication will not take place.


The second thing both participants can do is to be aware of their body language. Studies have shown that over 75% of communication is nonverbal. Things such as eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression and how you hold your arms, all communicate your level of interest in what’s going on. To facilitate good communication, both speaker and listener must maintain good eye contact, use a pleasant tone of voice, make sure their body is in an “open”, friendly position, and smile and nod to indicate they are on the same page. 


The third thing both speaker and listener can do is to give feedback to each other. This may be nonverbally, as we just mentioned, or spoken. The listener can clarify word definitions or ask questions if something is unclear. The speaker can define words that might be confusing or misunderstood, and ask if there are questions or if clarification is needed. Since we all come from our own experience and perspective, we often hear what we’re expecting or wanting to hear rather than what is actually said. If this skill had been used during the interaction between my children and their father I’m sure there would have been more understanding and probably no conflict.


The fourth thing both speaker and listener can do is be aware that communication happens on at least two levels. There is the content level, which is the literal meaning of the spoken words, and there is the process level, which refers to the feelings beneath the words. In the situation with my husband and children, the content was that he wanted them to be quiet. The process was that he was tense and stressed with the traffic situation and needed their help in coping with it. If the listener is aware of both levels it will add to his/her understanding of what the speaker is conveying, and can help him/her respond in the most appropriate way.

When you are listening and what you’re hearing on both levels is the same, you are probably receiving the intended message. However, often the message is different, and this can lead to major confusion on the part of the listener. A common example of this is when you ask someone how s/he is doing and in a sad, slow voice they reply “I’m fine”. The words say all is well, however the nonverbal cues may be telling you the words aren’t true. When the process and content are not congruent it’s important for the listener to pick up on this and ask about what’s really going on.

Both participants can also further communication by summarizing what they are saying or hearing, and giving occasional feedback to each other to insure they’re both on the same track.


One last hint is for the speaker to be specific and brief about what s/he’s saying. We’ve all known people who tend to ramble and add unnecessary details when they talk. They are usually difficult to understand. A good speaker follows the rule “Be Brief, Be Bold, and Be Gone!”

So, when you interact with your employees, customers/ clients, family and friends are you effectively communicating or just talking? Do you clarify? Are you fully present, using positive body language, defining your words and giving feedback? Do you listen fully and with an open mind?

Communicating effectively takes work, but the rewards are great. I think you will be pleased to find that when you make the effort to communicate clearly your relationships will suddenly become easy and uncomplicated. Why not give it a try?

Please comment so others can benefit from your wisdom and experience. 

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