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It's not just what you say, but how you wrap it that matters

It turns out that helping couples to communicate with one another is helpful training for helping business partners and team members to improve their communication with one another! If high-conflict couples can learn how to shift the way the speak and listen to one another, so can people who work together.

I start with the assumption that, ultimately, we communicate to be understood. If I know that you don't speak French, I probably shouldn't communicate to you in French. You are unlikely to understand most of what I say (in French or in any language you haven't learned). Maybe someone who has learned the language would understand, but you are unlikely to - you might even start to tune me out or get upset that I'm not paying attention to whether you are understanding me. Communicating in a way that maximizes your desire and ability to understand me is going to be much more effective.

The example of a foreign language may be an obvious, clear (I hope) example, but what if we speak the same actual language but I "wrap" my message in a dismissive and/or condescending tone, for example, "What made you think THAT was a good idea?" Although I may think that I've just asked a question, you may well hear it as a criticism and you may not feel encouraged to answer - or you may answer in a way that isn't, shall we say, helpful. What could have been a curious, helpful question had it been phrased as something like "I don't see how you came up with that solution, could you help me understand what led you to it?" has now potentially created a fight or flight response.

Another common example is thinking that we are speaking calmly while the people hearing us experience us as speaking loudly, or even shouting. In each of these cases, the way we "wrapped" what we are saying risks becoming the focus, making it harder to pay attention to the actual message we are trying to share.

There are many ways we inadvertently get in the way of what we want to communicate. And, unfortunately, it ends up becoming an additional obstacle if we think that we are the best judges of how we are communicating. "I was perfectly clear" or "I wasn't attacking you" is likely to just get in the way if the person we are hoping will understand us believes "That didn't seem at all clear to me" or "I just felt attacked." Asking questions like "Was that clear?", "How is this landing for you?" and "Does it feel like I'm understanding you?" can help us get feedback in the moment about whether we need to re-calibrate our beliefs about how a discussion is going.

The good news is that none of us consciously decides that "I'm going to communicate in a way that gets in the way, as much as possible, of other people understanding me." Typically, a combination of old habits, lack of attention to and understanding of the impact of the way we speak, and our ability to recognize and manage what's happening inside of us as we communicate contribute to our communication difficulties. Once we recognize that there are ways to improve the odds of being understood, that it isn't a binary choice of communicating ineffectively or staying silent, it becomes much easier to make progress and to begin shifting from ineffective conflict to effective dialogue.