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How To Improve Communication By Really Trying

By Lynn Colwell

Do you ever feel misunderstood? Do you explain your side of things in what you believe is reasonably well-phrased English only to have the other person respond in such a way as to prove he/she did not get it? I'll admit to having this experience and I find it extremely frustrating, which is why a recent happening held so much meaning for me.

After Christmas, I spent two weeks in Europe where I struggled valiantly to make myself understood employing my exceedingly rusty college French. (I was a French major and graduated with seven years of the language under my mortar board, but that was a long, long time ago and I've barely said so much as a "bonjour" in 40 years.)

Somehow, my accent remained elegant. (Thanks Mademoiselle Chamberlain.) But my prior vast vocabulary was reduced to that of a toddler and embarrassingly, I was unable to express myself in anything but the present tense. Neither yesterday nor tomorrow existed for me in Paris.

I realized that most of my listeners had little idea what I was talking about. When I intended, for instance, to mention my hair, I often discussed my horse. The puzzled look on one shop owner's face told me he had not the faintest idea why I had asked for a glove that would fit on a loaf of bread (pain--pronounced pan) instead of on my hand (main--pronounced man).

Upon returning home, I felt a rush of kinship with my fellow citizens. For the most part, without thinking, I speak in the tense I mean to with words that slip from my lips like water and incredibly, people understand! Giddiness overtook me one day when shortly after my visit, I entered a drug store day, and my request to a clerk for a toothbrush was met by a lovely smile and a finger pointed to Aisle 6. I heaved a sigh of relief. I call it the Rite Aid Miracle.

That kind of effortless communication, it struck me, is what I have always expected and assumed takes place between two people. But standing in that drug store, it occurred to me how frequently words, instead of connecting people, create barriers to our understanding.

I had thought, while I was in France, that language was the obstacle. On returning home, I realized the truth. Communication is much more than an extensive vocabulary and graceful grammar. Culture, habit, skill and yes, even hormones, affect our ability to convey meaning to others.

Achieving understanding is not simply a matter of clearly stating our needs and desires. The problem is that once the words leave our mouths, they move through invisible filters in the other person's brain. There (assuming they are heard at all), they are interpreted, enhanced, turned upside down and often given new meaning based on our listener's life experience, feelings toward us and dozens of other personalized quirks. This is why, when we ask our mate if he wants to go out with the Smiths on Saturday night and he responds, "Sure," we assume the matter is settled. But when we suggest to said mate on Saturday afternoon at five, that he might want to start getting ready, he looks at us as if we've just moved into the house from Jupiter.

We cannot assume that another person has received our words in the way we intended them. We might be more successful in conversations with others if we did as we might in attempting to converse with someone who does not speak our language very well. Since I've returned home, I imagine the person I'm speaking to hardly understands English. In this way, I do everything possible to help him (OK, my husband), understand me. I try different ways of saying the same thing. I ask whether I have been understood. I have become much more alert to that look in the eye that tells me he is currently on Maui despite the fact I can see him in front of me in our living room in Idaho.

The real secret here is that we need to take responsibility not only for what we say, but for how it is interpreted. It would be nice if I had better news, but this is it--one more way to ensure we can get what we need is by consistently checking that we are both speaking the same language.

About The Author
Lynn Colwell is a life/personal coach and writer. After a career including public relations and corporate communications with hospitals and high tech companies, she decided to devote herself to making a difference in people's lives.

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