Thinking Out Loud

Interpersonal Communication: Why Is It So Difficult?

Why is interpersonal communication often so confounding, demanding, and just plain hard? From the communication styles perspective that’s easy to answer because when you are accounting for all seven communication components of both individuals there’s a lot going on—words, tone of voice, reasoning, images, feelings, internal awareness, and more.

But that’s not the whole story. Our family cultures teach us through direct experience how to interact, what words to use in which situations, what is acceptable and unacceptable. We learn through imitation, not just the words of the language but the expression of emotion. If a family member cries tears of joy, we see how that works. If a family member never says, “I’m sorry,” how do we learn to apologize? Our formative years have a strong influence on how we communicate.

Likewise, our communities have a strong influence on our communication as we grow and develop. Similar to what happens in our families, we observe, listen, and absorb the sounds, feelings, images, and words in the interaction all around us without even thinking about it.

Then there’s the media from which we hear, see, and absorb the communication of others in countless situations—comedies, dramas, music lyrics, reality shows, documentaries—and in which people interact, demonstrating what happens in relationships, what the possibilities are and, by omission, what isn’t possible. The risk here is that since media events are  staged to look real when they aren’t, so realistically evaluating what is appropriate and effective to say to others in real life isn’t always easy. And of course what isn’t said, we never hear, so we don’t know what’s possible.

Accounting for the relationship effects the communication possibilities be it with a boss or co-worker, a spouse, a child, or a friend. The relationship has a structure, depending on roles, history, personality, gender, and more—all of which need to be considered. We take most of these considerations into account automatically/intuitively but some happens through conscious consideration. I’m not likely to directly tell my boss he made a mess of some situation, whereas with my assistant I will definitely find a way to have that discussion.

Relationships by their nature are complicated, especially personal relationships. All are defined by goals and roles; for example, work relationships are simpler, though not necessarily easier. I say simpler because the tasks that organize our time carry us along and define much of what needs discussion. On the other hand, personal relationships may have tasks that are varied, the emotional needs are fluid, and the way we depend on one another goes deeper. In personal relationships we expect to be better known by the other, so we make more assumptions, which often leads to more emotional entanglements. In work relationships we generally take more care not to make assumptions.

Discussing emotional entanglements, whether at work or home is difficult and something rarely to look forward to. The untangling process is sure to be messy. This messiness occurs in all of our lives to varying degrees and requires great effort, skill, and some luck to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Messiness is normal and unavoidable, although most of us believe that if we knew just the right way to say something we could avoid messiness altogether. Sometimes that is true but the fact is we cannot predict exactly how our words will affect the other person. Interpersonal communication is ninety-nine percent reaction, so only the first speaker can organize his or her opening statement. From then on it is reaction upon reaction, and thinking and speaking on our feet is difficult.

You might think that something so ordinary shouldn’t be so difficult, but it is, and it is important that we accept it as such. This is critical in becoming an effective communicator—being aware of how complex the process is.  This recognition alone can make a huge difference in achieving understanding, which is the goal of interpersonal communication.

To expect communication to be difficult is not pessimistic. Good communication requires using many skills, one of which is the ability to ask good questions (out of genuine curiosity) to achieve understanding. Pay attention to yourself in conversation. How often do you ask questions? Are your questions aimed at making sure you understand or to challenge the speaker or make a point?

Questions geared to gather more information are usually welcomed by the speaker. Since they tell the speaker you are genuinely interested and want to understand, they help build rapport and a deeper connection, which enhances the goal of the communication. Often, however, we don’t recognize the need for more information. We assume we know what the speaker means, so we comment or interject another thought. If we do not know exactly what the speaker was getting at, the likelihood of the conversation going south is pretty good. The need for good questions to clarify the communication seems so basic but frequently does not happen.

In the counseling office, couples often get to the end of a complex discussion and feel discouraged because of the time and effort involved. Of course I understand this and always point out the good news, which is that they really achieved understanding—and further, this is what it takes! It takes a lot of time, effort, and care, using a range of communication skills to build a conversation toward genuine understanding. This is humbling for most people and eye opening, especially considering it’s not a matter of getting so good at it that you can quickly and easily have meaningful conversations about the complex matters in your life. Effective communication takes time. You must allocate the time and develop the necessary skills to achieve success.

True understanding, especially of complex issues, doesn’t come from the first round of conversation, either. That’s why I believe re-visiting is the most important communication skill. When you re-visit a complex conversation, your intentions are clearer, you’ve assessed your mistakes, apologized for any transgressions, clarified beliefs, and focused on what’s truly important to you. If both people do this, the likelihood of a constructive conversation is very high. And, you can re-visit the conversation as many times as it takes!

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