The Secret To Effective Communication
I’ve been reading some really interesting books on language recently. Specifically a couple by Stephen Pinker. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, or seen any of his lectures, you should. If you want to watch a couple of his talks, head on over to ted.com and do a search for his name. You’ll find a couple.
One of the things he mentioned in one of his books is how people will rarely use confrontational language. For example, if you are sitting at the dinner table with friend or family, even if you’ve known them your whole lives, you would rarely make a direct command to pass the salt. Most people use an indirect command, or even an indirect request.
So instead of simply saying:
“Hey, Joe, pass me the salt.”
We usually say something like:
“Could you pass me the salt?”
“Would you mind me the salt?
Or, (if you just watched the movie “Office Space,”) you could say:
“Yea. If you could just pass me the saltâ€¦ that’d be great. Yeaâ€¦”
The underlying principle I’m getting at here is that humans rarely will confront each other with language. So we’ve developed all kinds of “weasel words” and “weasel phrases” to sneak in our requests to save face for both ourselves, and the person we are asking. Maybe this stems back from our evolutionary days of living in small groups of people, where getting rejected and ejected from the tribe meant certain death, so we have a deeply built in aversion to confrontation.
The most obvious form of confrontation is war. During times of war the enemy is dehumanized and animalized to make it easier to kill them. Nevertheless, there have been stories of soldiers from opposite sides of the battlefield forming instant bonds in unique circumstances.
Even when arguing with spouses, loved ones, or bosses and co-workers, we couch what we really want to say with these weasel words and weasel phrases.
For example, if you yell at your husband “you’re always late!” Is that really what is bothering you? If he were late because he was working overtime in order to get a better salary so you could afford a bigger house in a bigger neighborhood, would you still be angry? If he was a doctor, and was the best neurosurgeon in the world, and sometimes had to perform marathon surgeries, would you still be angry? Maybe, but probably not.
So when somebody yells “You’re always late!” The issue really isn’t being late, the issue is what the person assumes “being late,” means. And usually this means that they don’t care about the person enough to not be late.
So why don’t we just say “You don’t care about me!” That would cut right to the chase, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. What if we said “you don’t care about me,” and they said, “Yea, you’re right. I don’t.” Then what?
By focusing on the “being late” part we avoid directly confronting the deeper issue. Just like being reluctant to ask for the salt, we are much more reluctant to face a deep fear of a horrible and painful rejection.
So we get in fights over being late, leaving the cap of the toothpaste, and leaving the toilet set up or down or whatever. We dance around the issue that we are afraid to face directly.
But guess what? Your biggest fears almost never come true. The things we are terrified of the most will probably never happen. Even if they do, they won’t be nearly as devastating as we think they will.
This can be difficult to accept, let alone learn how to deal with. People spend years in therapy just to uncover what their deeper issues are, and then years more to figure out how to deal with them.
Just realize that when you are fighting with somebody, you are rarely fighting about what linguists call the “surface structure” of the argument. It’s usually not about being late, or leaving the cap off the toothpaste.
If you can take some time, on your own to find out what you think that really means, then you’ll have much more of a chance of dealing with it appropriately and effectively.
One easy trick that you can use today is from an old assertive method. Just express how you feel when somebody does something you don’t like. Avoid assigning meaning to their actions; just let them know how their actions make you feel.
This too, can be difficult as it raises fears of rejection. But you’ll be surprised what a positive effect it will have on other people. No longer will you be putting them on the spot or putting them on the defensive. You are simply letting them know how you feel and allowing them to choose how to respond.