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Say What?

Understanding the barriers to constructive communication.

by Joanie V. Connors

 

 

Communication plays a powerful role for every essential purpose in life: our happiness, our health, our children's development, our family well-being, and our work effectiveness. This important skill also fundamentally affects our intimate and social relationships, as it negotiates alliances and status in our interpersonal communities.

Whatever communication's purpose may be, there are many skills and other factors that determine how well it accomplishes its goal. Numerous skills are involved in the communication process, but the essential ones include clarity of expression, listening for understanding, and connecting to your audience through trying to understand them.

The purpose or intention of a communication shapes the meaning we wish to convey with it. Intentions have a great deal of power to shape interactions, and the verbal and nonverbal exchanges that come with them. To understand intentions, we need to look at the three dynamics that often motivate them: needs, feelings and power.

 

Needs — Needs are often the goal of communication, creating a powerful drive to interact in order to satisfy them. Unfortunately, people are often unaware of their needs and the role they play in relationships, so they communicate them dishonestly, or without consideration for others' needs.

Pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow considered physiological needs as foremost because of their connection to survival, but also considered emotional needs, such as security, connection, achievement, self-esteem, creativity and fulfillment, to be important to well-being. Other emotional needs that are often considered important include autonomy, play, mental stimulation, meaning, mental health, social support, good work, financial livelihood and education.

When mutual needs are not considered in romantic relationships, frustration often turns to anger that interferes with communication, so shared understanding is lost. Frustrated needs cause misunderstandings in many kinds of interactions, because people generally close down when they are not happy.

When needs are not being met in relationships, or when one person gets their needs met much more than the other person does, then dissatisfaction grows. Frustrated needs may create barriers to future understanding through blocking of messages or infecting interactions with anger and other negative feelings.

 

Feelings — Feelings play a key role in social interactions and communication as they both shape what happens and tell us about our internal reactions to them. Emotions signal changes in our tension and stress levels, help to synchronize our energy for social rituals (parties, church services, school), and help us to fit in with the norms of the situation.

Feelings are also ways of signaling whether our needs are met or not, so communicating feelings provides a good way to negotiate and balance needs. Sharing emotions can help us to process these reactions more openly with each other and then to negotiate conditions for meeting needs cooperatively. This makes it possible to work out more balanced relationships at home and at work.

Remember that emotions shape our state of mind, so be wary of spending much time discussing negative emotions (such as anger, fear and hurt), as they will push your dialog further into harmful directions. The point is to get information from feelings, not to enthrone them or deny space to others involved until one side is satisfied. Not everyone will become happy through our interactions, but we can develop habits to hear each other and work more effectively towards balance and understanding.

 

Power — Communication about emotions often informs us about the power and status of people in the situations we encounter, especially our place in that interaction. Much of our verbal and nonverbal communication is overtly or covertly about power dynamics and the emotions that let us know if we're prevailing or losing status in the power hierarchy.

Power is such an automatic part of communication that it plays a major role in business communication. Studies in organizational communication have examined the difference between upward, downward and horizontal communication, referring to the power positions of the speaker towards the listener. When the speaker is above the listener in the hierarchy, many differences are found in communication style, especially a lack of respect by higher power people for the lower power person and less attention and openness from those with higher power to what lower power people have to say. When the speaker is below the listener in the hierarchy, they tend to try to please the higher power person through what they say and limit damaging information.

Power dynamics are behind much negative communication, especially verbal emotional abuse, criticism and negative labeling. These negative communications are often meant to reinforce the existing power hierarchy, especially to keep lower power people in their place.

Communication also serves to control intimacy distance in a way which reinforces power statuses by giving greater access to those on the same level, and to higher level people we wish to find favor with. People just meeting each other will "size each other up" by asking key questions about status, and then open or close their intimate space according to the answers.

Negative verbal and nonverbal strategies then serve to push people away from intimate connection. Since our physical and emotional health often depend on social support, lower power people often accept more verbal abuse in order to maintain social connections, despite the damage it may bring.

 

 

Barriers to Communication

 

Regardless of communication skills or intentions, there are numerous barriers that can still block or distort understanding. Here are two important kinds of barriers to remember:

Noise — This is a term for all the things that interfere with understanding in communication. These can include environmental interference (loud sounds, bad weather), emotional preoccupation, fatigue, illness, poor hearing, mismatched wording and cultural misunderstandings. Noise can make it very difficult to hear one another, so there is less exchange of meaning.

Abstract concepts — The abstract nature of many of our concepts is a common source of misunderstandings and other difficulties in communication. When we find we have a different understanding of an abstract concept, such as love or truth, than someone else, we're likely to argue that our view is right and theirs is wrong. Few people realize that their understanding of many things is not the same as how others understand them.

Abstract concepts have conceptual meanings that are often far removed from physical reality. Abstract concepts such as love or truth are not physically palpable or measurable. They are based on meaning found in our experiences and are mental creations. Unfortunately, most people don't realize that their understanding of so many things is personal, not universal.

Because they are individually interpreted, abstract concepts are largely based on culture and background, and there is lots of potential for mismatches. Societies, generations, families, cultures, races, classes and genders have unique points of view and belief systems, and each is liable to dozens of biases and prejudices that affect all of us. These preconceptions are often impossible to separate when we are talking about matters of values and ethics. Even fundamental values may be interpreted differently by members of the same family.

Language can be the source of misunderstandings when we use words that are above or below our audience's level of understanding. Speakers can make their listeners feel inferior by using words that are too technical or complex. The best communication is matched to the understanding level of those you are interacting with.

 

Misunderstandings

 

There are many ways that these elements and intentions can clash with each other and send the wrong message or contradict a positive message that is intended. Problem communication frequently happens in spite of good intentions, when the message does not come out as the sender wished because their nonverbal signals are anxious or they use the wrong words. Also, communication can have mixed effects, conveying both positive and negative messages by lacking clarity or conveying tension, which can be very confusing to the listener.

Another complication is that most communication also has multiple layers, including many messages about power, emotional significance and the present environment. Additionally, there are many emotional tones that can flavor an interaction in infinite positive and negative directions.

It's important to remember that nonverbal aspects of communication account for 75% of our messages. This is often where some communication goes wrong, as tension, defensiveness and anger may contradict our words through signals like crossing arms, frowning or making nervous gestures.

The arousal of anger often causes problems when stress chemicals make the speaker regress into self-protective habits of disrespect, blame and negative labels. Defensive and overly needy people may unconsciously strive to undermine power, intimidate and blame their problems on others. Under threat, our human propensity is often to treat the other person as a thing that we see as a means to get to our goals.

 

Negative Communication

 

Communication with a negative emotional tone drives and empowers the negative and fearful side of relationships. Reasonable differences of opinion are seen as threatening when that negative atmosphere is activated, leading to defensive wars of blaming so that every disagreement becomes a harmful conflict. Verbal abuse such as angry ranting, harsh criticism, humiliation and name-calling can result, inflicting a great deal of damage and too frequently leading to escalating harm. Harsh verbal abuse also plays a grooming role in physical and sexual abuse, destabilizing the recipient so they feel less worthy and may deserve being bullied and violated.

Much negative communication is not consciously motivated to harm others, as criticism and blaming are usually old habits that are byproducts of people's upbringings. Negative communication can also be subtle, often working quietly to undermine others' power and/or self-esteem in individual situations. The motive may be to "win" recognition or power through that interaction, but there is little awareness of the effects of these put-downs, criticisms and disrespect, as they slowly work to erode the recipient's self-esteem, trust of others and energy.

 

Joanie V. Connors, PhD, is a counseling psychologist who specializes in interpersonal issues and trauma from an ecosystems perspective. She has a private practice in Silver City (phone 575-519-0543) and occasionally teaches as an adjunct faculty member at WNMU.

Next issue, she will explore strategies for overcoming these challenges and engaging in constructive communication.

 

 

Body, Mind & Spirit is a forum for sharing ideas and experiences on all aspects of physical, mental and spiritual health and on how these intersect. Readers, especially those with expertise in one or more of these disciplines, are invited to contribute and to respond. Write PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, fax 534-4134 or email editor@desertexposure.com.

 

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Desert Exposure or its advertisers, and are not intended to offer specific or prescriptive medical advice. You should always consult your own health professional before adopting any treatment or beginning any new regimen.

 

 

 



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