By Aron Eisenpress, SHARE Secretary
Communication: When it works, you don’t give it a second thought. When it doesn’t work, you wonder what happened. In this article I’ve shared some thoughts that may be helpful in your communications with others.
First, recognize that communication is not just about the words we use; facial expressions, body language and intonation add a lot of information that we take in both consciously and subconsciously. Thus, communicating face-to-face is seen as being quite effective, and text messages that use only words can be problematic. On the flip side, if you do only have words, you need to take more care to ensure that the other person understands your meaning. For example, sarcasm does not work well in text messages.
Second, listening is important. Without listening, you are just dumping data on someone, and you won’t even know if your communication is being received. By listening carefully, you are able to follow up when someone doesn’t understand or is uncomfortable with your ideas, with how you are presenting, or with some other aspect. And if you choose to step over this discomfort, make it a conscious choice. Even in a presentation, you will be “listening” to your audience to understand whether or not you’re clearly explaining your point.
To that end, confirm and acknowledge your audience. If you aren’t responding to a specific call to action in an email, consider confirming its receipt. If a conversation you had with someone made a difference to you, acknowledge the other person for it. Actions such as these reinforce communication.
Make sure that you listen closely when you communicate so you don’t ascribe meaning where there may be none. Focus on what is actually said and done, and be alert when your brain tries to add meaning. For example, if you don’t get an answer to an email, does that “mean” that the other person hates you and is refusing to answer you? Or does it just mean that you didn’t get a response? Perhaps your email didn’t even reach the other person.
Third, watch out for your automatic brain patterns. Your brain is wired for survival, and some of its automatic responses do not help when it comes to communication. Your brain will look for a match in your previous experiences and quickly categorize what you’re hearing or reading. You may then construct a narrative in your mind and unconsciously try to fit what you’re experiencing into that narrative, preferring the narrative over what’s actually happening in the present. By the time your brain has done all this, you and the other person may not even be on the same topic or working under the same assumptions. If this happens, it can be easier for a third person to notice it and realign the conversation.
Fourth, be clear. Ambiguity may be good in a mystery novel, but it doesn’t help in day-to-day communication. Your use of a specialized vocabulary — the technical terms we use to bring precision to our communication — works against you if the other person is not proficient in that domain.
Lastly, consider the scene in “Alice in Wonderland” when Humpty Dumpty says rather scornfully, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Don’t take your listener into Wonderland. Words matter and words have unique meanings. Use the right ones to communicate what you mean.
Aron Eisenpress works for the City University of New York’s Office of Computing and Information Services as a mainframe systems manager. He is a long-time SHARE attendee and volunteer, and he currently serves as the SHARE secretary.