Perhaps no hard or soft skill gets as much blame when social situations break down as communication. It’s pretty common to hear disagreements end with “You’re just not communicating well,” or “It must have been a miscommunication.”

Understanding communication

For its apparent necessity, communication doesn’t always include a huge margin for error. There’s actually a good reason for that, and it is because communication is not just one person’s burden. By definition, communication means two or more people exchanging information.

Often understood to be verbal, communication can take on many forms. For instance, I (the author) am communicating with you (the reader). There are many important types and forms of communication. Here are the six most important forms of communication.

1. Listening

We were talking above about how many arguments are blamed on miscommunication (most of them – rightly so). In those arguments, it isn’t uncommon to hear one party accuse the other of “not listening.” It’s not just in arguments, though, that listening is important. Listening is a mode where you are receiving and processing every other form of communication another person, or group of people, is putting forward.

Good listening skills will not only help you in the midst of an argument, but will be beneficial to avoiding disagreements altogether. Understanding that a person’s communication goes far beyond his or her words will help you read into nonverbal cues and possibly extrapolate completely different messages than what he or she is saying in some cases.

2. Verbal communication

As the form of which most people think when they hear ‘communication,’ verbal communication is incredibly important to well being in your relationships. Knowing how to use words to properly articulate your thoughts in a way that is gentle and yet assertive can be one of the most difficult soft skills to master. Understanding your audience can be crucial to elements of verbal communication like word choice, slang usage, etc.

Other instances may call for you to use euphemism, or say something in a kinder and less forward way than you might actually intend. Another verbal communication skill is repeating back something somebody else has just said to you. Not only does this show you were listening, but helps avoid you misunderstanding their meaning if they did not communicate it properly.

3. Nonverbal communication

Did you know that, while verbal communication is extremely important, it only makes up 7% of all communication. Your mind literally only uses words as a last resort when nonverbals clues have been perceived as ineffective communication. Because nonverbal is a bit of a deconstructed term (meaning any communication without words) it encompasses a huge range of elements.

The most studied elements to nonverbal communication are things like body language, eye contact, voice tone or inflections, and distance. Paying attention to the way you are using these elements to communicate will help give you a more straight-forward and assertive communication method. For instance, if you’re involved in a project and trying to communicate that you think it will get done on time (even if you’re nervous about it), a relaxed stance (one foot crossed over the other if standing, shoulders lowered, chin up) and wide hand movements are confident communicators.

On the other hand, if you’re not mindful of this and telling your group that you “know everything will get done” in a weak voice, moving erratically and with your arms crossed, you are actually betraying what you’re saying with your nonverbals.

While your group members may not be able to put their finger on it, most or all of them will be able to say there was something untrustworthy about your assertion. Their minds are doing what all ours do – recognizing nonverbal cues first and prioritizing them higher than verbal communication.

4. Emotional awareness

Like nonverbal communication, emotional awareness is an element of good communication that requires you to be attentive and in-the-moment. Good emotional awareness means being able to figure out the emotions both you and a conversational partner are bringing to discourse.

Our emotions are powerful filters that are going to affect our perception of reality regardless of how hard we try to be unbiased. Knowing your own emotional state will help you communicate better. For example:

A coworker has said something to me that made me feel stupid and like I didn’t know what I was doing. When I go to meet up with a friend later, he’s telling me about this new stereo he bought and mentions it’s a 150-watt amplifier, then follows up with “not that I expect you to know what that means.” The conversation can either continue or break down here.

  1. I lose my temper and storm out. How could he also think that? Maybe I really am stupid!
  2. I acknowledge his comment and respond “Yeah I hear watt numbers thrown around a lot on TV ads, but really don’t know what that all means. Is 150 good?”

In the first scenario, I was unaware of how self-conscious I had been feeling since I had been made to feel stupid at work (which was also likely just a communication breakdown). Because I didn’t stop to think about my own state, the insecurity festered and caused a catastrophic meltdown when my friend triggered those latent emotions.

In the second scenario, I had spent time thinking about how the coworker didn’t really mean I was stupid, and she was having a bad day and probably taking that out on me a little bit, and I really know what I’m doing. I also knew that I was liable to respond negatively to criticism because of my earlier experience. Even though those feelings were triggered, I was aware of them and didn’t let them control my reaction to a completely harmless comment from a friend.

See how important it is? The same goes for others. In the example above, if I had known that my coworker was upset about her favorite baseball team losing a few hours ago, I would know that any mercurial reaction she had was not actually an indication of how she felt. Of course if everybody in this story knew how they were feeling, all of the poor communication would have probably been avoided.

5. Written communication

Most of us aren’t dipping quills into ink any more to write lengthy letters on our holiday in Charleston, or new birth in the family (that’s what Facebook and Instagram are for, right?). We are still confronted with multiple situations every day, however, in which having a handle on effective written communication opens the door to stronger professional and personal relationships.

Whether it’s sending an email to your boss, composing a cordial text message to a friend or reaching out to your friends on Facebook and asking for donations to a charitable cause, written communication is often taken for granted in spite of its importance. It’s also a difficult communication style to master, as it utilizes words alone without any vocal inflections or nonverbal cues. Additionally, unlike in-the-moment communications, written communications may be referenced after their initial receipt which means there’s an even greater importance to understand audience and communicate clearly and respectfully.

The application of your writing may require adherence to an established structure or series of conventions. These rules can vary greatly, but will often need to be minded in order to have your writing taken seriously and accomplish its end purpose.

6. Communicating in difficult situations

Difficult situations can make communication feel impossible, or at least secondary to survival and protecting your self-interest. Both stress and uncertainty can team up to evoke your fight or flight response in personal and professional settings. Here are some situations which could be difficult:

  • For supply-chain reasons alone, you’ve been consistently underperforming at work and now your district manager has asked to meet with you personally.
  • A romantic relationship has been on the rocks lately. Your partner text messages  you and asks if you can meet up tonight to talk.
  • Your son calls you and said he accidentally left the car unlocked in a not-great neighborhood and now it’s gone.
  • You received a letter from the insurance company, letting you know that your claim for the emergency dental surgery you had last month was denied.
  • As a civil engineer, you are called to a city council meeting to explain why the intersection you planned in the suburbs has had a record number of traffic accidents.

Not only does stress make it difficult to examine your emotional state, but there is an impetus present for good communication in these circumstances. It’s like being forced to swim 5 laps…but also your feet are tied together…and also if you don’t make it you drown in the ocean.

Mastering communication in difficult situations is a lifelong process, but every time you do it (…and maybe fail a bit), you learn something that can teach you about how to do it better the next time.

Understanding the distinction between planned conversations that are difficult and unplanned will also help, as you are going to be liable to react differently depending on how aware you were the communication would be taking place.

While planned communication (like the scenarios above) will give you time to assess how to keep your verbal communication respectful, stay confident and assertive in your nonverbals, and be aware of your emotional state, being able to communicate in difficult situations that are unplanned is truly the Olympics of good communication.

A helpful strategy to begin the road toward great communication in difficult, or down right bad, situations is to monitor your emotional reactions when bad or stressful news is sprung upon you. People react differently.

You may be somebody who immediately puts all of the blame on him or herself, and need to remind yourself that disagreements or failures are usually a multi-person effort.

You may be somebody who immediately gets angry, and need to spend a minute breathing deeply and trying as hard as you can to think objectively about the best way to move forward.
Understanding your own communication DNA is the first step toward correcting any issues that may be building walls between you and others, and will help prepare you for the times where you’re not able to think about the best way to respond to criticism or difficulty in relationships.

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