Communication Methods

Successful communication is a multi-person effort.

That’s true in the sense that it requires both (or all) people to be engaged, to be interested in the act of communication.

But it’s also true in the sense that we, as individuals, need to be aware of the other people involved and keep their interests, priorities, and perspectives in mind, just as we do for our own.

In practice, this may mean pointing at something uncomfortable, something previously unaddressed, something difficult or cumbersome, and saying, “I think it’s a good idea that we talk about this.” Making it clear that communication would be beneficial in the first place.

If the other person cannot be convinced that mutually participatory conversation is necessary, it may mean that a change in your state of affairs (job, partnership, friendship) is necessary; what you’re putting into that relationship could be more valuable than what you’re getting in return.

It could also mean that a recalibration of your dynamic with that person is warranted, along with an adjustment of your investment level and expectations.

Once the other person is on board, though, developing and maintaining an awareness of who that person is, what they care about, and how they communicate, can provide you with a framework for interaction that makes even difficult, uncomfortable conversations confrontable.

For most of us, this type of intentional empathy requires conscious effort, because it means stepping outside our own concerns and looking away from our own lenses, our own ways of seeing the world, to gaze through someone else’s looking glass; to speak in someone else’s language, for a time.

In the context of communication, this means accepting that, perhaps, your gift-giving and gift-receiving proclivities might not be universal, and that although you believe you are showing your affection for someone when you shower them with presents, the person on the other end might be reading that message differently. They may see your presents as an indication that you’re trying to buy them, or that you’re trying to solve problems with money, when what they would really like is more of your time—more time spent with you.

This miscalibration of intention and perception can occur within any type of relationship or connection with another human being, at any level of commitment or casualness.

A coworker may misread your jokey familiarity as a lack of respect, rather than as cordial friendliness.

Perhaps your mother seems cold and distant from your perspective, but from her point of view, she’s expressing her love by being your rock: not behaving outwardly emotive, but always there for you when you need her, come what may.

It may be that you’d like to be friends with your neighbors, but their idea of friendship is cordially waving hello in the hallway when you see each other, and your idea of friendship is weekly board game nights.

Often, calmly and non-pushily bringing up the subject of how the other person sees the world will make a great deal of difference in remedying this miscalibration.

This confrontation needn’t be confrontational: simply asking the other person about preferences, their ideals, can cast light on the situation. This illumination can help you both see where your collective wires might be crossed, and it can allow you, if appropriate, to then share you own perspective: to indicate that you didn’t realize they were big gift-givers, and that you come from a background where people show their love by making things for each other, or being a quiet, calm rock for the other person, instead.

In some cases, this interaction will help you avoid doing something annoying or harmful that you were accidentally doing, completely unaware that such a thing could be perceived in that way. The best option, should that be that case, will almost always be to offer a contextualized apology: “I’m so sorry, I saw things this way and thought I was accomplishing this, but I now know that you see things this other way and prefer this other way of doing things. I’ll stop doing that thing I was doing.”

This type of interaction could also present you with an opportunity to shift your stance and try something new.

Even if you’re not a physically expressive person, working on your hug game might be a worthwhile investment, especially if you’re more accustomed to letting your gifts do the talking.

If you’re comfortable with constant flows of conversation, but your cubicle-mate is not, you can exercise your communication muscles and figure out other, perhaps non-verbal, perhaps less-verbal, ways to bond—even if that means stepping out of your comfort zone a bit.

It’s important to remember that there will be situations in which someone else’s needs simply won’t line up with yours, and in those cases it’s okay to shuffle the larger deck, rather than focusing on your own hand, as I previously mentioned. You needn’t reshape important aspects of yourself to suit someone else’s preferences, any more than someone should fundamentally change themselves for you.

But in many circumstances, the potential changes will be mere tweaks to our trained, reflexive behaviors, not substantial overhauls of foundational components of who we are as people.

Even someone who considers themselves a chatterbox can learn to communicate in other ways, via other mediums and at difference paces, without losing themselves as a consequence. Expanding one’s range in this way is like a watercolorist deciding to learn how to paint with acrylics or oils: it’s another permutation of the same thing, it’s all communication.

It’s also beneficial to remember that in addition to changing over time, our needs can also change throughout the day, across the span of a week, and so on.

This can be uncomfortable and disorienting to note in ourselves and in others, but it’s just a variation on the same theme that we can address in the same way: by bringing it up without judgement or accusation, asking earnest questions, and adjusting our communication methods accordingly.

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