Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations by Barbara Neal Varma

There’s something satisfying about saying just the right thing at just the right time – and if it’s in front of the VIPs in your life, all the better. But sometimes even Distinguished Toastmasters find themselves caught up in a failure to communicate. Fortunately, experts in the field of interpersonal communication can offer a few scientifically sound strategies for what to say when: Your boss asks you how that important project is coming along, or your significant other starts a significant squabble, or that special someone you’ve adored since the third grade suddenly walks into your Toastmasters meeting.

Hollywood has its scriptwriters; politicians, their pundits, and now you’ve got science on your side. Here are a few well-spoken words from the experts to help you with this crazy little thing called communication:

What can I do to become a better communicator today?
Simple: Think about it. “I’ve found that people don’t reflect enough on their communication and proceed on the assumption that they’re doing it quite well,” says Gary Ruud, a professor of speech communication at California State University at Fullerton. “They assume what they’re thinking is what people are getting.” To be a better communicator, Ruud contends, you have to be brutally honest with yourself – a truth that Toastmaster Diana Ewing discovered early on.

“You can’t let nervousness get in the way of projecting your message,” says Ewing, who is president of the UniMasters club in Lake Forest, California. “No matter how much someone likes your speech, they have to be able to hear and understand what you’re saying. You can’t assume it’s automatic.”

Ruud says to improve your communication in general, you must first understand there are a variety of ways to say the same thing. You can choose to phrase it in a way that will have the best possible outcome. “Maybe that’s why I got into this discipline,” he says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in my room and think of ways to get things from my parents. I was doing it intuitively, but as we grow older we forget all the options we have. To be better communicators, we need to recognize how creative we are.”

Don’t forget to listen, too; but go beyond mere words. “Listening is important, but people tend to pay too much attention to content,” says Ruud. “They should listen more holistically to include feelings and emotions and the unstated things in a conversation.” Unstated things? “Is the other person nervous, happy, bored? We don’t communicate in isolation. It’s about two or more people working together to create a mutually beneficial outcome.” 

What do I say to make a good impression at work?
Experts say it’s not so much what you say – although that’s important, too – but how you say it, especially in the world of business. Exact numbers vary, but most communication studies reveal that a message’s meaning is interpreted through nonverbal cues (body language, facial expressions, etc.) more than 50 percent of the time – more so if the speaker’s message is perceived to be ambiguous. Suppose you sound surly when you say, “I love this job.” It’s obvious you mean the opposite, right? The savvy businessperson understands the rules of communication and uses them to his advantage, adding a note of confidence to his walk, his talk, his direct gaze from across the boardroom.

“The interviews I do with homebuyers for my business are better because of the skills I’ve learned in Toastmasters,” agrees Ewing, a freelance writer. “I’m more relaxed conducting interviews than I used to be, and I try to relate to the people I interact with.”

Ewing also believes there’s an extra business-speak benefit to be gained from the spontaneous practice afforded by Table Topics: “It’s surprising how much I like the off-the-cuff speeches. I found I can think on my feet, and now I welcome the challenge of doing that.” 

What do I say to the one I love?
In the movie Shrek, the ogre tells his sidekick, Donkey, that ogres are like onions, having many layers to their personality that when peeled away reveal a sensitive inner core. If ogres are like onions, then people in love are like ogres, revealing themselves layer by layer in a disclosure dance that psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor have proved is bonding. “Closeness develops,” they contend in their landmark study on relational closeness, “when the participants proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange.”

Ruud, the professor, says the “it-takes-two” view is vital for romantic relationships. “Don’t think of communication as an individual activity. It’s a relational activity – you don’t communicate in isolation,” he explains. “It’s about both of you working together to create a mutually beneficial outcome.”

Dating tip: Use listening cues – lean forward, make eye contact and nod your head once in a while – to let your date know you’re paying attention. The object of your desire will believe you’re a great conversationalist even though you barely said a word. 

What do I say during a conflict?
“Don’t say ‘calm down,’” Ruud advises. “That has the opposite effect.”

So what do you say in a clash of words? Employ the almighty “I.” Here’s how it works: When you’re in a conflict situation, ignore the instinct to lay blame and use “I” messages instead. An “I” message is a statement that tells the listener what you see, think, feel or want in an objective way that doesn’t assign blame. Resist saying, “You’re late again – is that watch just a paperweight on your wrist?” and offer instead: “I would like you to join us at the dinner table on time.”

Then, still calm, express how you interpreted the action you observed: “When you’re late, I feel like you don’t consider family dinner time important.” Follow up with a request for confirmation or clarification: “Is that right, or…?” Using the “When you do X, I interpret it to mean Y” formula gives the gift of insight to the other, a potent step toward conflict resolution.

Ruud adds, “Try and understand why they feel the way they do and say something to acknowledge that such as, ‘I understand you’re frustrated.’ Also, practice the art of nexting.” Come again? “If during a conflict, [the people arguing] asked themselves what they could say next to make this a more positive outcome, they’d cut the discord down by half.” 

What do I say to my friend?
To foster a friendship, say things that indicate interest, care and support. Inquire about your friend’s latest life adventures, ask about the things you know interest your pal, and, when he’s feeling down, offer to help. Listening is an important part of effective communication. In times of trial, utter words of both sympathy (genuinely feeling sorry for someone) and empathy (trying to feel how someone else feels). “Part of being attentive is knowing what your friend needs and providing that,” Ruud says.

Just as Toastmasters start their critiques on a positive note, celebrate your friends by saying things to affirm your respect and affection for them such as “I’m really glad we had a chance to get together today. You can always make me laugh.” (Gentlemen, if that’s too Oprah, try, “Hey, good to see you again” and then get back to watching the game.)

“That’s the thing that makes Toastmasters work,” Ewing says, remarking on the program’s camaraderie and support. “You feel comfortable to go in there and make a mistake, because no one’s judging you. They want you to succeed. Even shy speakers start to blossom after their third or fourth speech and all the encouragement.” 

What do I say to my kids?
Children’s level and quantity of communication will change over time – no flash (teen-speak for late-breaking news) for anyone who’s raised a child. Parents already know that as language forms, a child is eager to express herself, shouting out the latest learned word with enthusiasm, especially when in a fancy restaurant or smack dab in the middle of the congregation. But then, like a fog, the silent teen years descend and Mom and Dad might find themselves eager to hear those gleeful shouts again instead of the morose monosyllabic replies to questions raised at the dinner table.

Some say the availability of the latest in communications technology is partly to blame, causing kids to text rather than talk – and in an abbreviated, symbol-filled lingo all their own, designed to KPC (Keep Parents Clueless). So how to break through the teen barrier? “Recognize that technology is here and use it to stay connected,” says Ruud. “Cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging; in some ways they’ve increased communication. If a family has a healthy relationship, technology can actually help. My friend’s daughter texted her the other day to say, ‘You’re the best, Mom.’ She was thrilled.” 

Favorite Quotes:

Writing is telepathy.”
– Stephen King

Serious art is born from serious play.”
– Julia Cameron

Barbara Neal Varma is my favorite author.”
– Mom


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