Jackie Gebhardt-Burns, MA, LPC
December 4th 2019
Thoughts on Effective Communication
Have you ever thought you knew exactly what someone meant, only to find out later that things don’t quite add up or that you perhaps thought wrong? If so, you’re not alone! One trap that many of us fall into from time to time is listening to respond versus listening to understand. Why wouldn’t we want to listen to respond? Afterall, we are having a conversation right? The answer to this is a “yes and”. We as human beings may have a deeper, unspoken meaning behind what we say; including not always saying what we mean (or meaning what we say!). Can you think of an example where you didn’t exactly say what you meant and why?
Communication is a process, one which involves a speaker encoding what they mean, and a listener hearing and then decoding what they think is meant by what is said. This allows space for misunderstandings, which is why effective communication involves seeking understanding first, before responding. The danger in moving forward with an assumption (or lack of clarity) is that the rest of your conversation may then lack important context and therefore not be as meaningful. Additionally, this may cause a disruption in the relationship.
Fortunately, the skills to seek clarification and to evoke or draw out another person’s own thoughts and perspectives are ones we use every day. As a foundation for good and effective communication, we want to exercise our active listening skills: asking open, curious questions, offering meaningful reflections or statements of understanding/empathy, affirming strengths and summarizing throughout.
Open Questions: If you’re not sure, and have a question- ask it in an open style, one that encourages elaboration and not a simple yes or no if appropriate:
“What did you mean by…”
“Help me understand …”
“Tell me more about ...”
Tip: Try to only ask 1 question at a time
Reflections: If you think you have an idea or a guess, offer it back in the form of a statement:
“You mean that…”
“What X means to you is…”
Tip: Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think for a moment what they might have meant by what they said. It’s okay to not be accurate - that’s not the point. Your offering is a humble attempt to understand and it is an invitation to add more clarification.
The idea is to check in and not always take what is said for granted or at face value. By leaning into what someone else is saying, we are exercising interest and curiosity, which in turn strengthens connection between two people.
Miller, William R. (2018). Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding. Wipf & Stock Eugene, OR
Miller W.R. & Rollnick, S. 2013. Motivational Interviewing Helping People Change 3rd Ed. The Gulliford Press
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