Effective communication more than exchanging words or ideas

Effective communication is something that counsellors are asked to assist with on a daily basis...

I  am writing to you to help me resolve a debate that we have been having with our teenage son. Trying him to get him to tell us what is going on in his life and how he is feeling is an almost-impossible process.

We told him that we felt that he needed to work on his communication skills and he responded that he could communicate just fine (or at least that is the gist of what he said in a less-printable way). We are now debating what effective communication really is and agreed that we would see how you would respond to the question.

What is effective communication between two people? Is it more than just making your point in a way that can be understood or being able to speak the same language? Thanks for your help!

Thanks for the question. I am not sure that I can resolve your debate. However I will try to provide an answer your question as best I can.

Effective communication is something that counsellors are asked to assist with on a daily basis. The challenge is, as I am sure you have discovered, there are many different definitions of what constitutes effective communication and they often depend on the context or goals for the communication.

In a relationship with another person, however, effective communication is about more than just exchanging words and ideas. It is often about also sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences in a way that supports the relationship.

In such a context, I would suggest that effective communication consists of two things — effective listening and effective self-expression.

Often, discussions of effective communication will focus more on one of these two parts at the expense of the other. However,  I would argue that effective communication cannot occur without both.

Effective listening is about listening to understand. Understanding is not the same as agreeing and many of us make the mistake of thinking that we have to challenge what someone else is saying if we do not agree or support their views.

However, we are not listening in these cases.

Listening is also about more than just paraphrasing and repeating back the works that are said. When we are truly listening and we are listening effectively, we are seeking to really understand that the other person is saying and the experience (thoughts, feelings and emotions) that they are trying to express.

This is hard to do and  it is something that most of us do not do very often.

Effective self-expression is about expressing ourselves in a way that takes ownership of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences and perspectives. It is about using “I” statements.

Yet it is also about more than that.

Our language and culture encourages us to express ourselves strongly and definitively. I am doing that here.

Yet, when we speak we are sharing a view based on our experience,  perspective, thoughts and beliefs. Taking the time to own that rather than speaking as if what we were saying was ‘the answer’ in any given situation helps open up and deepen the conversation.

It is about saying ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I have a different perspective,’ rather than ‘you are wrong.’

Used together, effective listening and self-expression create effective communication. By themselves they are also useful tools but individually they do not constitute effective communication.

It is not just about hearing what is said or getting your point across. Effective communication is a two-way exchange that is about both listening and speaking.

This is such a big topic and worthy of much more space than I have here. There are many books and online resources on effective listening and effective self-expression out there that you may find of further use if you wish to explore these ideas further.

So, as I said in the beginning, I am not sure that I have been any help in resolving your debate. However, keep up the discussion and keep working at opening up the door to ongoing conversation with your son.

All conversations do not need to consist of effective communication to be valuable. Sometimes just listening or expressing ourselves is the goal. Sometimes some lively debate and engaged interaction is the goal.

And sometimes, just communicating — effectively or not — is a worthy goal in itself.

If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara-Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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