We’d all like to improve our communication skills. The best example of natural improvement is what happens to kids as they grow up.
Kids are not as not as articulate as adults. They have smaller vocabularies. They are less polite. They are less tactful. They don’t always know what to say. They sometimes say the wrong thing.
But as they mature, they get better fast.
If we understood how kids improved so quickly, we could use their secret to improve our own skills.
Kids Improve Their Communication Skills by Enriching Their Map of the Social World
What drives improvement in communication skill from childhood to adulthood is the development of a detailed, abstract, and integrated map of the social world.
Think of communication as navigation. The social world is full of landmines, hidden obstacles, threats, and opportunities. A rich and detailed representation of the world functions as a map that lets us navigate around these obstacles so we can get safely to our destination. As our maps of the social world get more detailed, we get better and better at navigating and maneuvering.
The theory that describes the development of these mental maps is called constructivism. The main idea is that each of us has a mental map of the the social world. This map is made up of interpersonal constructs.
Constructs are dimensions for representing social situations and other people. Each dimension is anchored by two adjectives, e.g., kind/cruel, patient/impatient, short/tall, honest/dishonest, generous/greedy, etc.
As we mature, our maps of the social world improve in three ways.
- We acquire more constructs, so our representations have more detail.
- The constructs become more abstract, e.g., from short/tall to conformist/bohemian; and
- The constructs become more interconnected (e.g., he is respectful, but only to powerful people).
Research shows that as our maps of social world become more detailed, more abstract, and more integrated, we become more skillful as communicators.
Higher resolution maps allow us to navigate more effectively.
Seeing the World in Low-Res Black-and-White versus in High Resolution Technicolor
Two visual analogies might help. The first has to do with image resolution, the number of pixels in an image.
The image on the left has only one pixel of resolution. The one on the right has 10,000 pixels. Think of people with few constructs as seeing the world in low resolution. People with many constructs see the world in high resolution.
When someone says they have difficulty communicating well because they “can’t read people,” we should think of this image. Imagine how hard it would be to read people and situations if we only perceived the world in low resolution.
The second analogy has to do with color depth, the number of different colors in an image.
As the number of colors increases, we see the image in all of its nuances. The background becomes clearer.
We sometimes say that people with poor social skills are too “black and white.” When we hear that, we should remember this image.
What makes great communicators great is not that they have memorized scripts about what to say in every situation. What makes them great is their ability to see the social world in high resolution and in technicolor. The skilled communicator sees opportunities and possibilities, as well as threats and risks, that the less skillful communicator never even notices.
How to Improve?
The key to improving your own communication skills is to improve your representations of the social world. I'll talk more about this in future articles, but to begin:
- Study lists of descriptive adjectives (e.g., bohemian, pensive, deliberative, ponderous). Learn what they mean.
- Learn their opposites (e.g., introspective/shallow).
- With each person in your life, ask yourself whether the adjective applies to them.
- Read more Jane Austen novels or other literary fiction.
- Cultivate a curiosity about other people's interior lives: their plans, their goals, their intentions, their thoughts, and their feelings.
Measuring Communication Skill
One of the most thoroughly-studied measures of communication skill asks people to think of one person they know well and like and one person they know well and dislike and then, in no more than 5 minutes each, to describe them in as much detail as possible.
A less skilled communicator might produce a description like this (these are both real examples):
“Kind, intelligent, passionate”
A highly skilled communicator might produce a description like this:
“amazing, intelligent, kind, loving, accepting of all, great mother and grandmother. always says and does the right things. supportive, interested and interesting. never too much to ask. growing old and wiser in a very graceful way. accepting of change and diversity. rarely slows down and always there for others. self sacrificing and confident. does not sweat the small things. always dressed perfectly but comfortable in anything. Never met a stranger. best friend to all. loved and respected and admired by her peers and students and their families. invited to every event and more weddings than imaginable. Throws best parties, dinners, sleep-overs and bonfires. Best grandmother ever. loving and devoted wife for over 40 years. best travel friend. always makes time . never rushed. straightens up in minutes. life saver (really) and great sister.”
Simply counting up the number of different adjectives people use in these descriptions turns out to be a valid and reliable way of measuring communication skill.
The person who produced the second description sees the social world in high resolution technicolor. The person who produced the first description has a much less detailed map of the social world.
We shouldn’t be surprised when the person who produced the second impression also tends to produce better messages, and is a more skillful communicator in general.
If these tasks sound familiar to you, it’s because this is the task I invited you to complete in a previous blog entry about measuring communication skill.
I will be sending out those results in the next couple of days to those of you who completed the task. And in my next blog entry, I will talk about the results and what they mean.
Until then, think about how you can enrich your maps of the social world.