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communication is free

This article first appeared in Choice Health magazine.

"When we feel free to communicate, creativity has no limits", Ann Lowe, Director and Programme Manager for The Resilience Programme

As I write this article, I’m struck that there are four mediums of communication in my home office alone. Like many people, I carry both a work and personal mobile which sit on my desk on the days I work from home. I use my iPad in my downtime – but for the most part it also sits on my desk unused because downtime is a rare commodity. I have a laptop to work on. In total, there are 7 methods of connecting to the Internet in my two bedroomed house. So then why do I feel more disconnected than ever?

Today I have watched my partner leave for work, and welcomed in the gas man for our annual inspection. Other than those face to face exchanges, my days’ interaction with the ‘outside’ world consist of copious emails to work clients and colleagues, and a couple of meows back at the cat who I think wants biscuits (but I can’t be sure). My mum wants to chat for more minutes than I can spare, and there is a world of news and culture out there which I’d love to hear about if only there were more time.

As a self-employed writer for a number of small businesses, I can’t help thinking I should be better at this! Luckily, I love my work and so it’s rare I get stressed, and also… I know I’m not alone.

The digital age has seen the development of a network of communications which puts us in contact with almost anyone, anywhere, in an instant. We know this to be true because it is happening all of the time. There is a free exchange of information like never before and more and more people are feeling able to put their thoughts and opinions out there through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites that I haven’t yet felt compelled to explore. However, it could be argued that our inability to understand one another – either from a cultural, racial, gender, class or political perspective - has never been greater. We only need read the fallout generated when a well-intentioned Tweet gets taken the wrong way to see how our attempts at communication can go so badly wrong. Why, even as I write I am aware that my attempts at self-conscious humour will be perceived as a grumble about my job. I’m not moaning: honestly.

What exactly is communication?

At its basest level, communication is the point at which a thought or idea shared by one person is understood by another. Through communication we can share our experiences with one another, make connections and attempt to translate our thoughts into reality. A more comprehensive and academic definition of communication is provided by David Bohm in his book ‘On Dialogue’. Bohm says that communication is:

‘…a process which explores an unusually wide range of human experience: from our closely-held values to the nature and intensity of emotions; the patterns of our thought processes and the function of memory to the manner in which our neurophysiology structures momentary experience. Perhaps most importantly, dialogue explores the manner in which thought—viewed as an inherently limited medium, rather than an objective representation of reality — is generated and sustained on a collective level.’

So how do we get it so wrong?

A common problem within communication is that we can bring limiting beliefs or psychological bias to our interactions with others. These beliefs or biases often exclude a wide range of possibilities and restrict our options. For example someone who has a mental model that is excessively optimistic will tend to communicate based on a very positive assessment of the situation, which could cause them to overlook things that could go wrong. On the other hand a person who views the world and people as implacably hostile towards them will tend to act in a paranoid way. The crux is that we bring our frames of reference and agenda to the table when we try to communicate with others, which can inhibit the transmission of a message, increase misunderstanding and decrease creativity or problem solving.

Further examples of limiting beliefs to be aware of are:

Arrogance               "I must be right", "I know all the answers"

Denial                     “I don't want to believe it so I'll ignore it"

Pessimism             "It will never work", "I can't do it"

Depressive thinking         "I'm worthless, useless, unpopular, unlucky, a loser"

Entitlement                        "The world owes me"

Victim                      "I'm weak, vulnerable and people abuse me"

Martyr                      "I deserve to suffer"

Damaged                "No one will accept be because of my defects"

Impostor                 "I'm a fraud, I'm going to be found out"

People pleaser      "I have to try hard to make people like me"

Excess                      "More is better"

Biases are tendencies to think in a certain way that leads us to potentially make distorted or irrational judgements. They may be motivated by need, desire or wishful thinking.

Looking at what we get right

Despite my admission that for the most part I muddle through life in a frenzy of written words, I’m lucky enough to work within a small team of people who on the whole communicate well with one another to get things done. As a team, we are tasked with improving communication within organisations, between individuals, teams and sometimes with external customers. To do this, we need to be able to communicate effectively and have begun 2014 by asking ourselves ‘what makes the flow of communication between us work so well?’ We’ve come up with a variety of answers to this question, including the trust and respect we have for one another, the commitment to our common goals and our belief in the work we do, however there’s one stand out reason why communication works for us….  We all feel able to contribute our thoughts and ideas, we feel listened to and valued and we put time and effort into making sure this is so.

What is the point in all of this?

We’ve learned through working with our clients that when people feel free to share ideas, organisations can grow and develop. The people within these organisations have a sense of contribution and connection to what they are doing. There is increased creativity and problem solving capability. Organisations adapt to change and become more resilient. The people within these organisations have a sense of ownership: and all therapists will know the magic that can happen when people take ownership.

What tools can be used for improved communication?

We’ve established that a breakdown in communication is caused by differences – which may be about beliefs, values, ideas, or desires. Conflict might also arise when people have different needs that others are unaware of or don’t understand. One simple method of improving the outcome of your interactions is to borrow some tools from Conflict Resolution. Below are some tips to get you started:

Listen and respond

Build rapport by listening and responding appropriately:  

“Can you tell me what the problem is?”

“I understand that you are very upset and angry about this. “

Gather information, and check your understanding

“When did you first realise that the phone was faulty?”

“Did the phone show any faults when you bought it?”

Acknowledge the speakers’ feelings

“I can see that you are angry about this”

“Your children must have been very disappointed”

Agree what the problem is

“So am I right in understanding that you realised the phone was faulty when you took it home?

Summarise the other person’s position and own position

Accept responsibility

“If the phone was broken when you bought it, that is clearly unacceptable and we will make a full refund”

Admit to mistakes and apologise when appropriate

Agree action plan

“Are you happy for me to check the CCTV footage and ask our technical team to explore the problem? “

Maintain self-control, and manage your own emotions

Be calm, patient, and respectful

Build an agreement that works

Seek a win-win solution

Look for a creative solution

Build options