One of the best books I have found on communication is People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflict, by Robert Bolton, Ph.D. In his book he borrows a list of twelve hindrances to communication from Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training. Below is the list.
Criticizing: Making a negative evaluation of the other person, her actions or attitudes. “You brought it on yourself–you’ve got nobody else to blame for the mess you are in.”
Name-calling: “Putting down” or stereotyping the other person. “What a dope!” “Just like a woman…” “Egghead.” “You hardhats are all alike.” “You’re just another insensitive male.”
Diagnosing: Analyzing why a person is behaving as she is; playing amateur psychiatrist. “I can read you like a book–you are just doing that to irritate me.” “Just because you went to college, you think you are better than I.”
Praising Evaluatively: Making a positive judgment of the other person, her actions or attitudes. “You’re such a good girl. I know you will help me with the lawn tonight.” Teacher to student: “You area great poet.” (Many people find it difficult to believe that some of the barriers like praise are high-risk responses….)
Ordering: Commanding the other person to do what you have done. “Do your homework right now.” “Why?! Because I said so….”
Threatening: Trying to control the other’s actions by warning of negative consequences that you will instigate. “You’ll do it or else…” “Stop that right now or I will keep the whole class after school.”
Moralizing: Telling another person what she should do. Preaching at the other. “You shouldn’t get a divorce; think of what will happen to the children.” “You ought to tell him you are sorry.”
Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning: Closed-ended questions are often barriers in a relationship; these are those that can usually be answered in a few words–often in a simple yes or no. “When did it happen?” “Are you sorry that you did it?”
Advising: Giving the other person a solution to her problems. “If I were you, I’d sure tell him off.” “That’s an easy one to solve. First…”
Diverting: Pushing the other’s problems aside through distraction. “Don’t dwell on it, Sarah. Let’s talk about something more pleasant.” Or; “Think you’ve got it bad, let me tell you what happened to me.”
Logical Argument: Attempting to convince the other with an appeal to facts or logic, usually without consideration of the emotional factors involved. “Look at the facts; if you hadn’t bought that new car, we could have made the down payment on the house.”
Reassuring: Trying to stop the other person from feeling the negative emotions she is experiencing. “Don’t worry, it is always darkest before the dawn.” “It will all work out OK in the end.” (pp. 15-16)
Bolton tells us that, “These twelve ways of responding are viewed as high-risk responses, rather than inevitably destructive elements of communication. They are more likely to block conversation, thwart the other person’s problem-solving efficiency, and increase the emotional distance between people than other ways of communicating. However, at times, people use these responses with little or no obvious negative effect.” (p. 17)
We tend to use these responses when another person is experiencing a lot of stress. It is a learned response that we have picked up somewhere along the way and generally it is a way of getting beyond an awkward situation. But these kinds of responses are particularly ineffective when the other person is struggling.
The responses fall into three categories: disapproving or approving of what another person says (Criticizing, Name-Calling, Diagnosing, Praising Evaluatively), offering quick solutions (Ordering, Threatening, Moralizing, Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning), and avoiding the other person’s concerns (Diverting, Logical Argument, Reassuring). Rather than encourage people to talk, doing any of these things tend to shut people down and discourage further dialogue. We may not even know we are doing this. It may be so important to us to offer a solution and move out of this uncomfortable stage that we miss the real need of the other person–the need for an empathetic listener.
The goal of communication is to gain a greater understanding of the other person’s perspective and feelings about their situation. By identifying and avoiding the hindrances to communication we can work at changing how we communicate and in turn help others feel heard.
There are times when we need to encourage the other person to talk. You might ask, simply, “Care to talk about it?” You might make an observation like, “You look like you’re not feeling up to par.” Or ask if they are alright, or if they are having a rough day. Then take a bit of time to allow them to tell you about it.
There is something powerful that happens when another person is truly listening and trying to understand another’s thoughts and feelings. It is consoling.
When someone shares their struggle with you, focus not only on the words, but also note the accompanying emotions. The more emotion, the more need for a listening ear. Show that you want to understand but use words sparingly. You might say, “Looks like things didn’t go well for you today.” Or you could reflect emotions, by saying something like “That must have made you angry,” or “You look really sad.”
By communicating that we are observing what the other person is feeling we make them feel like we are there with them. They are not alone.
It also helps to repeat what you think you heard by saying, “It sounds to me like….” “What I hear you saying is….” This communicates that you have been listening and that you want to understand more clearly.
Such a large part of helping people is actually about listening effectively. People will often feel helped if someone is just there with them in their struggle. They know you can’t offer immediate solutions. In fact, there are times when talking by itself can help others to see their situation more clearly. They might even come to some personal insights as they talk.
This week I told a friend about an incident where someone behaved very inappropriately. My friend’s impulsive response was, “Stupid idiots!” This might look like a violation of the above hindrances to communication, but it was actually exactly the opposite. He heard my frustration and he mirrored it in his own way. By saying what I had not dared to put into words and he made me laugh. It was just the right medicine.
When someone “gets us” we feel relief. I remember trying to communicate with a person who had been misunderstood in a situation. I paraphrased his experience. I began, “When….” and then I concluded with my observation “It seemed to me that what was happening was….” When I finished, his eyes lit up, as though, finally, someone got it. “That’s it. That’s what I meant,” he exclaimed. There was such joy and relief on his face at finding someone who understood him at last.
In the Bible there is verse that reads, “Deep calleth unto deep…” (Psalm 42:7). The more deeply we understand ourselves and human nature, the more we will be in a position to relate to others. We will be able to touch the deep places of the heart. These are reverent moments that we should never take for granted.