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Understanding is at the Heart of Effective Communication

Effective communication is not always as easy as it seems.  Just ask the mother who, in response to her four-year old son’s question, “Where did I come from?” replied by painstakingly explaining about the ‘birds and the bees.’ With a bored and somewhat impatient look on his face, the four-year old waited for his mother to finish, then repeated his request.  “Billy said he’s from Los Angeles; where am I from?”  Taking time to make sure we understand is often the shortest distance between two points of view.

A couple came to my office recently for marital counseling, seeking to resolve some long-standing disputes.  Both began arguing their views vociferously, yet seemed more interested in competing for my ‘vote’ for their respective positions than in solving the disagreement.  After several minutes of multiplying words but engaging in little actual communication, the husband slumped forward dejectedly.  “We just can’t talk anymore,” he complained.

“Talking is the least of your problems,” I replied.  “Your problem is that neither of you seems interested in trying to understand the other.”

A critical ingredient of any successful relationship involves a desire to understand one another.  Unfortunately, among our many human frailties is our tendency to push forward our own agendas at all costs.  This is particularly true in family relationships or under intense circumstances, and results in people talking past one another rather than to each other.  Such interaction reveals that the weak link in communication is not the mouth but rather the ears, or more specifically, the heart.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, lists heartfelt listening as one of his essential seven habits (Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood). He states “To relate effectively with a wife, a husband, children, friends, or working associates, we must learn to listen.  And this requires emotional strength.  Listening involves patience, openness, and the desire to understand – highly developed qualities of character.”

That such listening demands emotional maturity is clearly evident in cases of marital or parent-child discord.  I often ask people in troubled relationships to engage in an exercise referred to as “reflective listening.”  Their assignment is to take turns listening to each other, then demonstrate both verbally and non-verbally that they understand what has been said.  More often than not, individuals cannot complete the exercise without succumbing to the temptation to argue with the point just made.  Others can parrot back the words but show little empathic “put-myself-in-your-shoes” understanding.

Yes, it takes a considerable amount of emotional energy and restraint to censor the initial desire to become defensive or rebut a differing point of view.  The natural inclination is to defend oneself, afterwards launching a counterattack. While there is a time and place to assert one’s position, it is not here, for timing is critical.  To be contemplating a reply before the incoming message has been sent and assimilated is precisely what characterizes poor communication.

A classic case in point is your friendly neighborhood chatterbox.  We’ve all met someone who, perhaps hungry for attention, displays an undisciplined penchant for mouth work but little ability to listen.  Such individuals struggle with give-and-take of conversation and instead engage in a running discourse about themselves, with occasional “interruptions” by the listener. Chatterboxes are forever “topping;” they’ve always got a story that will top what has just been shared.  Perplexing as it may seem, they seem to be able to relate to any experience you’ve ever had.  For such individuals, their challenge is not self-disclosure but rather self-closure.

Another situation in which less talking and more listening is warranted is when an acquaintance vents frustration about, say, lazy co-workers.  Likely, she is seeking support and understanding.  If instead she is given a dose of advice (“Did you try telling them…?” or “You ought to just…”) or must endure outrage on the part of the confidant (“Man, I wouldn’t put up with that for a minute!”), her frustrations are only liable to mount.  Likewise, showing a comprehension of and concern for a child’s plight will typically breed better results than offering an unsolicited lecture.

Of the many factors critical to effective communication, none generates more emotional mileage than understanding.  It opens the door to greater intimacy, strengthens relationships, and keeps the birds and bees at bay for another season.

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