Many people erroneously think that only humans communicate. This cannot be farther from the truth. Practically all of God’s creatures communicate with each other (or at least with members of their own species) in one way or another. Birds sing and chirp, monkeys cry, dolphins use clicking sounds and dogs, apart from barking to communicate with other dogs, use their eyes and body language to communicate with humans.
Humans do nothing else except communicate all of the time through different media, from voice messages to written and visual media.
Apart from being called Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens, Man has also been called Homo Liguisticus because of his power to use language creatively, and in seemingly unlimited variations, to communicate with other human beings. The problem is that the function we take most for granted, namely our ability to communicate with others, is the one we fail at most often. This happens because although we start communicating with those around us from our first hours on this earth, we often do not succeed in conveying our message clearly and unambiguously to the receiver. It has been often said that Communication is an action that we perform most often and that we fail at most frequently.
When we communicate the Sender starts from an idea or set of ideas that he wants to get across to the Receiver. These ideas are then encoded in language and are transmitted to the other party. The Receiver gets the message and decodes it. It often happens that what we send isn’t always what is understood. This leads to frustration for both parties and could end up in a situation of conflict. This situation leads us to think that communication is not an innate or automatic gift. Instead, it is a skill that has to be learnt and constantly practised. This is why there are good communicators and bad communicators. The former succeed in formulating a message and conveying in such a way that it is understood in the way it was intended. The latter, on the other hand, formulate one thing and communicate something that is not quite consonant with the intended message. “I know what you’re saying but I don’t understand what you mean” is unfortunately too often the case with human communication. Sometimes this is intentional as in the case of diplomatic or political talk; but most often it is not.
It is essential that we eliminate most of what we receive and retain only that which we deem important in that particular moment or situation. An even more complex situation occurs when we process information in terms of our values, beliefs, fears, prejudices and collective memories. In such cases we have a dangerous tendency to distort the information in such a way that we create a completely different message to the one that we were intended to receive.
It has been calculated that only 7% of what we communicate is the result of the words that we say, while 38% of our communication to others is a result of our verbal behaviour, which includes tone of voice, timbre, tempo, and volume. Surprisingly, 55% of our communication to others is a result of our non-verbal communication, our body posture, breathing, skin colour and our movements and body language in general. To give a simple example, we all know that there are a thousand and one ways in which we could say “Good morning” to another person. We could sound friendly and smile, we could sound gruff and look away and we could also sound sarcastic or downright aggressive as when a manager confronts and employee who is caught arriving late.
According to the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) model of communication, A human brain or the nervous system, receives a huge amount of information, around 2 million bits per second. However, only 7 bits are consciously ‘assimilated’ in a period of one second. The information is processed after which it affects our thoughts, physiology and behaviour. When the information enters the mind, it is filtered and either deleted, distorted or generalised.
DELETION OF INFORMATION
If the human brain had to try and store all the input signals it receives per second it would surely blow up. Hence it is essential that we eliminate most of what we receive and retain only that which we deem important in that particular moment or situation. A classical example is remembering names of people one meets or is introduced to at a party. Very few people have the gift of remembering names of the people they meet at parties and whom they will never think of ever meeting again. Even less so is the ability to remember people’s dresses, colours, items of jewellery and a million other bits of information received by the brain but fortunately not retained.
DISTORTION OF INFORMATION
An even more complex situation occurs when we process information in terms of our values, beliefs, fears, prejudices and collective memories. In such cases we have a dangerous tendency to distort the information in such a way that we create a completely
different message to the one that we were intended to receive. Thus if your boss fails to notice you and say good morning at the office you could take that as a sign that something is terribly wrong and that you’re soon going to be fired. Alternatively, people with a more colourful imagination could construe that the boss is not well perhaps because he is suffering from some serious illness or because his wife is filing for divorce and such similar nonsense.
We are all guilty of sweeping statements and generalisations like saying that “ all men are liars” or all women are frivolous and untrustworthy” simply because you may have had a negative experience you would project that as a universal truth. Generalisations are often the cause of deep-rooted phobias. We resort to these oversimplifications in an effort to exorcise bad experiences or to hide our reluctance to face facts and to dig deeper for the truth. Moreover we tend to resort to generalisations due to the effect of ideas, values, memories and beliefs that are already present in our mind.
When we communicate badly or fail to get our message across in the way we intend or when we interpret a message badly, we often create misunderstandings which, in turn, may lead to conflict between the Sender and the Receiver. Some may argue that conflict is part and parcel of our human psyche and that it is as natural as eating and drinking. While it is true that conflict is a very common aspect of our lives, it is equally true that it exists mostly due to our inability to communicate well and effectively with each other for reasons already mentioned above and for other that we shall mention further on. Thus, one important way to avoid conflict is to communicate well.
CONFLICT AVOIDANCE STRATEGIES
Although conflict is unpleasant and stressful there are a few communication strategies that one can adopt to resolve most difficult situations. These are based on the theory known as Interest-Based Relational Approach. This type of conflict resolution respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position. The main points of this theory are:
- Make sure that good relationships are the first priority: As far as possible, make sure that you treat the other calmly and that you try to build mutual respect. Do your best to be courteous to one-another and remain constructive under pressure.
- Keep people and problems separate: Recognize that in many cases the other person is not just “being difficult” – real and valid differences can lie behind conflictive positions. By separating the problem from the person, real issues can be debated without damaging working relationships.
- Pay attention to the interests that are being presented: By listening care fully you’ll most-likely understand why the person is adopting his or her position.
- Listen first; talk second: To solve a problem effectively you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position.
- Set out the “Facts”: Agree and establish the objective, observable elements that will have an impact on the decision.
- Explore options together: Be open to the idea that a third position may exist, and that you can get to this idea jointly.
Mr. Ray Cassar holds a B.A.(Hons) degree in English Literature and Linguistics and a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Malta. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Education and the Teaching of English Overseas (TEO) from the University of Manchester, which he attended as a British Council Scholar. In addition he holds a Certificate in Human Resources Development from the Institute of people Development in London and a Diploma in NLP (UK).
Throughout his career Ray has held various senior management positions with a variety of Maltese and International companies. He is currently a TELT examiner and teaches Business English at a local language school. He also works as a freelance Management Consultant and Trainer, specialising amongst other areas in Business Planning, Communication Strategies, Interviewing Techniques and Team Building.