How Communication Works (blog)

Communication is central to all of our lives. Communication skill, or the lack of it, is often the difference between success or failure in your career, and joy or misery in your personal life.

I want to bring greater joy to your personal life and greater success to your professional life, and I want to do it by teaching you how to communicate more effectively.

My name is Bruce Lambert. When I was 13 years old I looked like this.

When you look like that at age 13, you either learn to communicate or else you get beat up a lot. Luckily, I learned to communicate. Eventually, the braces came off and I got a better haircut and slightly more stylish glasses.

For the past 30 years. I have been teaching, consulting, and doing research on health, communication, and technology

Because of my background, people often ask me for advice about specific situations, e.g., How can I get my kids to listen? How can I comfort my girlfriend? How can I correct my employee's behavior without hurting his feelings? How can I break bad news to patients and families? How can I start or maintain a conversation? How can I communicate more effectively with my boss? How can I speak clearly without being condescending? How can I enjoy social situations without getting anxious or self-conscious? How can I be more persuasive?

In the last five years or so, I have been traveling around the country teaching health professionals how to talk to patients and families under the most difficult circumstances imaginable---when a family member has been seriously harmed or even killed by medical care, often as the result of an error in diagnosis or treatment.

My colleagues and I have had great success in training doctors and nurses how to handle these situations more effectively. To do this we use actors to play the role of family members, and we ask the doctors and nurses to role-play difficult conversations in front of an audience of their colleagues. We then do a live debriefing with the actors, the professionals, and the audience, a kind of 'tear-down' of what worked, what didn't, and what might be done differently.

What I noticed in these training sessions is that many experienced and successful professionals struggled to say the right thing. Many didn't fully grasp what was happening in the situation at a deeper level, or why some approaches were likely to be successful and others were not. There was a great appetite for explanations and descriptions of the basic principles and processes of communication.

Beyond Tips and Techniques

All over the web you can see lists of tips and techniques for improving your communication skills. But what's missing is a framework and vocabulary for understanding, in a much more fundamental and general way, how communication works, how interaction works, and how the social world works.

There is a better way.


In the last 75 years or so, scientific progress in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and communication has produced a wealth of insight into these questions, insight that can help you not only to respond to specific situations, but to master all sorts of different social and communication challenges.

If you can begin to understand how communication works at this fundamental level, you can use this knowledge to find creative and effective solutions to your most frustrating communication problems. And it won’t involve memorizing techniques. Instead, your skill will flow from a deep understanding of how the social world works.

A Map of the Territory

My goal with this site is to provide the kind of information that's normally only be available from a college level course or degree in communication, but to do so in a way that is practical, relevant, and and fun.

Here are some of the topics I plan to cover:

  • Language is not a code.
  • The social world as a stage
  • How are identities are formed and changed in social interaction
  • The importance of saving face and losing face
  • Politeness
  • Indirectness: How we mean so much more than we say
  • The structure of turn-taking in conversation
  • The relationship between perceptions of the social world and communication skill
  • The development of communication skill over the lifespan
  • How to comfort and console other people
  • How to have difficult conversations
  • How to persuade and influence others
  • And much more

I will start by trying to give you the big picture, a map of the territory of the social world, explaining the most fundamental principles in communication theory. This map will be the basis for all of what comes afterwards, all of the skill development.

What do You Think?

I would be grateful for your feedback about whether this sort of information might be useful, and if so, what your priorities would be for the topics I should write about first. What are the most challenging, frustrating, and important communication problems in your life? What is it about the social world that puzzles you the most? What sorts of communication tasks and situations are hardest for you? What have you done in the past to improve your communication skills? What worked and what didn't?

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