You are unsatisfied with your life.
You're anxious. Depressed. Bored. Restless. Unsettled.
You click you your old friend YouTube for some solace and belonging.
"That's it," you decide, "today is the day I change my life!"
There are no guarantees in life except death and taxes, so the saying goes.
I can't help with taxes, and I can't really do anything about the Grim Reaper either.
But when someone we love is bereaved and mourning, there is something we can do.
We can write them a note or letter, or these days, maybe post a message on Facebook offering our condolences.
Too often, we end up with something sincere but generic and forgettable, the dreaded "thoughts and prayers."
No doubt the sentiment behind a "thoughts and prayers" message is sincere.
But each generic "thoughts and prayers" message is a missed opportunity to deepen our connection with someone we love, to offer them real consolation, and to lift their burden, if ever so slightly.
You’re on the outside of the circle. You want to join in the conversation but you don’t know how.
What is the best way of joining in without interrupting or seeming rude?
Or, you are talking with two friends, and the person speaking finishes their turn. There’s a silence.
Who talks next? Will the speaker take another turn? Is it your turn? Someone else’s turn?
The rules of conversations can be confusing, sometimes making you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, and sometimes leaving you feeling awkward, either not knowing what to do with long silences or instead talking over other people who are trying to talk.
I am going help you master the art of turn-taking in conversation by teaching you the three simple rules that govern every conversation.
You have to give a big presentation at work. You have to make a speech at a wedding. You have to introduce a guest speaker.
You want to be seen as charismatic. You want to make a good impression.
You want the audience to respond. You need applause!
Body, Self, and Story in Chronic Illness
Many of you are living with a chronic illness. If you are young, it’s likely to be depression or anxiety, or maybe cystic fibrosis or asthma or type 1 diabetes.
If you are older, it may be hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, or arthritis.
The doctor says it’s incurable, that you have to live with it the rest of your life.
You can live with the physical pain and inconvenience of daily regimens and clinic visits, but there is a deeper source of anxiety and suffering that the doctors and pills and procedures don’t seem to deal with at all.
You’re in a tough situation.
You want to be kind and thoughtful, but you also need to get your point across.
You want to preserve the relationship, but you also want to tell the truth.
You don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you need them to change their behavior.
You don’t know what to say.
We’ve all been in these tough situations. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn’t. Is there any kind of general advice we can follow that will help us handle difficult conversations more effectively? I think there is.
Social Perception Versus Message Production
In my last post, I talked about the development of communication skills from childhood to adulthood, and I described how we might use the lessons of normal development to improve our own communication skills.
I noted how our mental maps of the social world tend to get better as we mature. As people learn and grow, they acquire more dimensions (i.e., more adjectives) for representing the social world.
The dimensions get more abstract, and they get more interconnected. The analogy was that we move from low-resolution, black and white to high-resolution color maps of the social world, and the improved representations help us navigate the social world more skillfully.
This developmental progression is mostly about perception. But at the same time, there is a parallel process of development in our ability to produce effective messages.
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.
Opportunities to Comfort Are All Around Us
Life is not easy. We all experience pain, disappointment, and loss. One of the great joys of friendship, and the great satisfactions of life, is to be able to comfort a friend or family member in their time of need.
And of course, when we ourselves are hurting, we long to hear soothing words from our friends.
These words, if chosen well, have tremendous power to ease our pain.
With the rise of social media, it seems we have more opportunities than ever to offer words of comfort and support.
The social social world can be very scary. It feels like, at any moment, we could make fools of ourselves. For some of us, this fear is just a nuisance. We just go on with our lives, trying not to think about the possibility that our fly is unzipped, or that we'll say or do the wrong thing and reveal ourselves to be much less cool, polished, and poised than we liked to think we are. But for others, the fear of being humiliated can rise to the level of full-blown anxiety, a feeling so strong that it makes them avoid socializing entirely.
Cooperation and Communication
One of the of the most impressive properties of human communication is the ability to mean more than we say.
And communicating indirectly is not rare. Most of the content of what we communicate is not said directly but is instead inferred by the hearer. What we say is just a clue to what we mean.
The rest is pieced together by the hearer, using common sense, knowledge of the world, knowledge of you and your past relationship, knowledge of cultural norms and conventions, and knowledge of certain rules about when to make inferences and when to stick with a literal interpretation of what is said.
But how do we know when to take a person literally and when to search for inferences beyond what was said explicitly?
We are all looking for an edge, to improve our relationships, advance in our careers, be happier.
In my work training health professionals to talk with patients and families, I have stumbled on a powerful and simple way to perform at a higher level, especially when it comes to communicating in difficult situations.
In my academic job, I try to make healthcare safer for patients, especially when it comes to using medications. And I work on improving the way healthcare systems respond when things go wrong and patients suffer unexpected harm.
Some of us are great communicators. Some of us are, how should I say, somewhat less than great. All of us can improve. Communication skill can continue to improve throughout our lives.
I assume that anyone reading a blog called "How Communication Works" is interested in improving their communication skills. In upcoming blogs and videos, I want to talk to you more about how we measure communication skill, how communication skill develops, and what you might do to advance your own skills to the highest level.
But before I do that, I want to give you a chance to assess your own skills.
The best way to understand the social world is to view it as a stage. We are the performers and the audience. The roles we play are based on our many identities. In every performance, we seek validation and social support for our identity. Performances can succeed or fail. Success means increased self-esteem, confidence, and the ability to claim that identity for another day. Failure means, embarrassment, loss of face, humiliation, and difficulty sustaining the identity that was most closely associated with the failed performance. Below is a link to my first YouTube video blog entry. I hope you'll enjoy it. If you do, please like the video and share it with your friends.
Some communication tasks are easy, and some are hard.
An example of an easy communication task is to describe your home or apartment. Faced with this task, most people complete it easily. Interestingly, most people approach it in the same way—they provide a verbal “tour” of their house:
As you come in the door, there is an entry way. To the right is the dining room and to the left is the living room. Straight ahead is a short hallway with the stairs to the right and the entrance to my office straight ahead...
Easy communication tasks involve few goals. There is only one dominant goal in the apartment description task—describe it accurately. Maybe there are sub-goals, e.g., be amusing, be brief, make your home sound nice.
When I ask people what they want to learn about, the most common answer is ‘how to handle difficult conversations,’ or as one friend put it, ‘how to tell people things they don’t want to hear.’
Let’s use an example given to me by an old friend (and blog subscriber!). This person runs a company and often has to refuse plum assignments to valued employees or has to let long-time employees go when they are no longer a good fit for the company.
Imagine a valued employee comes to you asking for a plum assignment outside their normal area of expertise, e.g., your best salesperson wants to lead a big new marketing campaign. As good as she is at sales, you know she does not have the skills to do this important marketing task, and you cannot afford to risk the company’s reputation by letting her perform in an area where she is out of her depth. What do you say?
In the recent posts, I’ve talked about face and politeness. In this post, I want to talk more about the factors we consider when we decide how polite to be when doing a face-threatening act (FTA). I’ll discuss how the amount of politeness we use reflects back on us and allows others to make inferences about us, about the act we're performing, and about the nature of the relationship between us. This is important because it introduces a major theme: the relationship between communication and identity, between what we say, how others perceive us, and how we understand ourselves.
Now that you have a basic grasp of positive and negative face, you can begin to understand what politeness is really about. Politeness is a set of strategies for managing threats to face, for doing face-threatening acts (FTAs).
Face-threatening acts are those routine, everyday communicative actions (e.g., requesting, apologizing, advising, criticizing, inviting, complimenting, etc.) that, by their very nature, pose a threat to the speaker's or hearer's positive or negative face wants.
Consider requests. When we make a request, we tend to use some form of politeness, often the simplest and most conventional form, the word "please." Why do we do this?
A request asks another person to do something they would not ordinarily have done. In doing so, it threatens negative face, the desire to be left alone. The speaker knows this, and being a person with tact and social skill, acknowledges the threat to face by saying please. Please is a shortened form of "if you please." So "pass the salt, please," is really "pass the salt, if you please."
Politeness Is a Window into the Inner Workings of the Social World
Politeness is a core communication skill. As soon as we begin to learn language, our parents teach us to say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'excuse me' and 'I'm sorry.' It's no mistake that we learn politeness so early. Our parent intuitively sense that politeness skills are central to our being seen as decent people.
Being polite allows us to show basic human decency to others, even strangers. Receiving politeness acknowledges and reaffirms our humanity. Politeness makes a risky and sometimes frightening social world just a little bit safer.
Politeness is more than etiquette. Understanding politeness provides insight into fundamental truths about the social world and what it means to be a person—someone with a self and an identity. Because it is in part governed by rules, politeness also illustrates how the social world is at times rule-governed.
As the sun sets on another week, I've just finished doing two days of in-person communication skills training.
We were working with 60 doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff to teach them how to talk with patients and families after the patient has been seriously harmed by medical care.
These are extraordinarily difficult conversations, about life or death topics, often with millions of dollars at stake.
The Big Picture
The purpose of this site is to help you achieve your own goals by improving your communication skills. Better personal relationships. More success at work. Deeper connections with your parents, kids, spouses, friends, and lovers.
As in the previous post, I will give you tips, techniques, and strategies for handling all sorts of common communication tasks. But more than that I want to give you the big picture, to teach you how communication works in general. In the long run, you will rely less on tips and techniques. Instead, you will use your in depth understanding of communication and the social world to analyze and solve even the trickiest communication problems.
“I never said that!”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“You’re taking me the wrong way.”
A man shows up at the emergency room: nauseous, vomiting, heart racing. When the nurse asks what is wrong, he says it might be a bad reaction to the nicotine patch he is using to quit smoking. He takes off his shirt, and the nurse sees ten or more nicotine patches all over his torso. Asked why he had so many patches on, he said that the doctor told him to put the patch on a different place every day. So he just kept applying patches to a different part of his body every day. Nobody said anything about taking off the patch from the day before. How was he supposed to know?
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.