“LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column appears on the 1st weekend of the month, and is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine”.
By Ian Jacobs, M.D
Why is communication so important? When we are close to people, at home, at work or socially, we often think we know them and what they are thinking from their actions, faces, and words, and that they likewise know what we think. But actions, faces and even words can often be lies if communication is not open and honest. Communication is a two-way street and our own upbringing, perceptions and other baggage will also influence how we hear what is actually being said.
Miscommunication, in which the speaker and sender don’t say, mean or understand the same thing is at the root of many of the problems in our society. Likewise non-communication, which we males often take refuge in, is another big problem, as the persons on the other end are left to impute, often incorrectly, what we were thinking.
Nonverbal communication can offer powerful additional meaning to the words we say and can sometimes make a liar of the very words we utter, as they may make it clear that what we say is not quite what we mean. Important means of nonverbal communication include gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, paralinguistics and body language. Paralinguistics is vocal communication separate from actual language- i.e volume, tone, etc. Nonverbal communication is important as it indicates to your listener if you are being truthful, and also, if you are really listening to him. A study out of UCLA determined that 93 % of the effectiveness of communication was related to nonverbal cues and only 7 % to actual verbal communication.
When the nonverbal signs we send do not match our words, our listeners mistrust what we say. Here in the Caribbean one of the more common failings in the area of nonverbal communication is the lack of eye contact. People often avoid looking you in the eye, especially if they think that what they say will displease you. Often, they don’t realize what an untrustworthy message it sends, even when they are being completely ‘above board‘.
Communication styles differ, and can generally be classified as Passive, Aggressive, Assertive or Indirect. While we all use each of the different types from time to time, where we want to be most of the time is Assertive, which is characterized among other things by respectful, clear statement of feelings, needs and wants, good eye contact, a calm tone of voice and a relaxed body posture.
This is an often overlooked part of communication, and when heeded, often confused with hearing. In conversation with others, especially if there is a point of disagreement, we often just wait for the other person to finish speaking their part and then go back to our point, or our perception of their viewpoint, without really actively listening to what they are saying, or trying to see things from their perspective.
Nowhere is this more evident than when our politicians go at each other or when we take up cudgels on their behalves, but it also percolates into everyday communicating.
Active listening is what leads to mutual understanding. It involves attentive listening and sincere questioning to be sure where the other person is coming from and that we understand what he or she is trying to say. It is important to put aside our own biases, and to be aware of any ‘trigger words’ that we hear that might lead to an automatic emotional response on our part that may be quite unrelated to what the person is actually trying to say. We must understand and respect the other person’s value system, even though it may be different from ours. In their shoes, we would probably have the same perspective.
Communication problems have been with mankind for a long time, as evidenced by the quotes below from ancient philosophers:
“In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”
“If evil be said of thee, and if it be true, correct thyself; if it be a lie, laugh at it.”
Good Communication requires that we respect the other as a person, who has had different experiences from us, and may see the world differently from us. He may be wrong from our perspective, but deserves respectful listening from which we ourselves may gain some new truths or attitudes, or at least a better understanding of how he and many others may think. We have no corner on the Truth.
Ian Jacobs, M.D is a pediatrician in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis