Simple Guidelines to Communicate More Effectively
I was sitting on a bench at the playground this afternoon while my husband and our two year old played. There was a three year old boy there with his son and the two children were sharing the tire swing. The father of the other little boy spoke to his son. He said “aren’t you getting tired?” and then a few seconds later “we need to go in and start dinner soon” and then again a few moments later “don’t you want a juice box?” and then finally “we’ll need to go in and check on mommy soon.” My impression from this series of questions and statements was that dad was ready to leave the playground and go home, and he was hoping his son would agree. It was interesting to note that he never actually said “it’s time to leave the playground now.” I doubt his three year old was able to understand the message the way I did. We left before they did so I'm not sure how the situation worked out, although I assume they did eventually go home.
Communication can be really challenging. I find that often people talk around what they mean or ask indirectly for what they want, and then are surprised and hurt that others don’t respond the way they wish. So I would like to offer a few simple guidelines for effective communication.
The first guideline is to think about the nature of what you are saying. A teacher told me once that if something wasn’t true, kind and helpful you should not say it. I have found that meeting all three criteria tends to cut down on conversation too much (after all, a conversation about the latest episode of a TV show around the break table at work is unlikely to be helpful) but that trying to ensure you are meeting at least two of the three will generally keep you on the right track with what you are saying. I've found this works across multiple settings; at home, with friends and at work.
The second guideline is an acronym for the qualities of effective communication – effective communication is H.A.R.D. In this acronym “H” stands for honest. Effective communication is honest. It doesn’t exaggerate, it doesn’t avoid unpleasant points, and it doesn’t try to deceive by omission. The letter “A” stands for assertive. Effective communication is assertive. Assertive is a word that some people shy away from, feeling that it is not nice or polite. In general though, being assertive is actually one of the kindest ways to approach another person. Being assertive means being clear about who you are and what you need or want. It means taking responsibility for your own feelings and wishes and not relying on other people to make you happy. The next letter “R” stands for respectful. Effective communication is respectful of the other person. It doesn’t call names or use swear words. It doesn’t take one mistake and generalize that into a character flaw. It understands that the person you are speaking with is a fellow human being with feelings and hopes and wishes and that these things matter. Finally, the letter “D” stands for direct. Effective communication is direct. It gets to the point and doesn’t hint or beat around the bush. It also stays on point and avoids going off on tangents about past events or other concerns.
An example of effective communication using the H.A.R.D. principles between parent and child might be something like this. “Son, we have five more minutes to spend at the playground, and then we are going home.” It is honest in stating the reality of the situation. It is assertive because the parent isn’t asking permission from the child or pleading his case. It is respectful in addressing the child with courtesy and also in alerting the child that a transition is about to take place. It is direct, it gets right to the point about what the parent wants to see happen in the next five minutes.
Another example, between spouses, might go like this. A husband says “Honey, I know it is my night to do dishes. However there is a really important sports game I’d like to watch this evening. I know we usually like to have everything cleaned up by 9pm, however, I’d like to either offer a trade for your night to do dishes or I’d like to do the dishes after the game is over.” Again, it is honest. The speaker is clearly stating the situation and isn’t trying to disguise the fact that it is his night for the chore or the motivation for wishing a change. It is assertive because the husband is clearly stating what he would like to see happen. It is respectful; the husband speaks politely to his wife. It is direct in getting right to the point about the chores process that evening and not dragging in the fact that he watched the kids alone three weekends ago while she took care of her sick sister or the idea that Mr. Smith down the street never does any dishes, which would not be the point of the current conversation.
Some people, when I have suggested this approach, object that this sounds too formal or too silly. My response to this is that when you are having trouble with something it is often good to go back to working from a formal set of rules. This is much like learning an algebra problem in school or learning to write an essay for English class. Once you have become highly skilled at using the formal method you are likely to find that you are able to loosen up a bit while still retaining the essential principles. If you consider yourself a good communicator already I encourage you to think about these principles; I believe you will find you are already using them intuitively.