Phelps: Keys to effective communication

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Dr. Harriet Phelps

Getting others to understand our needs and ideas can be complex. The desired outcome is understanding, but how do we get there? What is good communication?

There are several categories of communication, including spoken or verbal communication, which consists of what we say to another person, regardless of whether it’s face-to-face or on the phone. Nonverbal communication includes body language, gestures and how we dress or act.

We pay attention to nonverbal clues in conversation. The tone we use, emotion expressed, use of hand gestures or rolling of the eyes all send a message. Without those cues, written communication can be more difficult.

The goal is to understand and be understood. Understanding does not just happen. It is a process with each person playing their role consciously or unconsciously.

‘I’ versus ‘You’ statements
Using the word “you” implies blame and raises defenses.  “I” statements, on the other hand, imply ownership and take responsibility for our feelings and needs. “I” statements state feelings instead of accusations.

For example, try, “I am upset when you do not make eye contact when we discuss something,” instead of “You never listen to me.”

Rules for communication
Take time to listen to the other person describe their feelings and needs. Avoid waiting for an opening to state your thoughts. Focus on their points. Ask questions from their point of view to understand them. When you understand where they are coming from, describe your own feelings and thoughts.

Use the talking stick method. The first speaker holds an object and talks about the issue without interruption and the other asks questions for clarity and understanding. When that person is done, they hand the object to the other person to speak about the issue for them.

Think about your feelings before you speak. If you are angry or upset, ask why you feel that way. If the other person is angry, ask why they are upset with you. If there is too much emotion, take time to calm down and discuss later without strong emotions.

Discuss or focus on one topic at a time. Hone in on what’s happening in the present. Don’t obsess over past history.

Discuss the issue, not the person. Otherwise, the issue becomes heated, and emotion breaks down the conversation. Use the “I” statements discussed above.

No stonewalling. When we retreat into our shell and refuse to answer, that is stonewalling. The problem remains unresolved. That lack of engagement can escalate the problem.

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The goal is to come to a compromise or new understanding. There is no perfect answer to an argument. Both sides must be prepared to give some and take some to work toward a solution.


This column was first published in the June edition of InMaricopa magazine.