In the last couple of weeks I participated in several communication training seminars. As a trainer I have a huge responsibility to communicate in a correct, honest, benevolent way. Apart from one judgmental word, I was disciplined enough to stick to these principles. But what happens when I’m not in the trainer role? My words don’t create the message in the other I intended to make—a usual experience with my kids when I feel my words go in one ear and out the other. As a communication trainer, I’d like to figure out what goes wrong in these situations.

My goal with communication is to deliver a message to the other person, but many obstacles can hinder me and the other from this happening. I’d like to guide you through all the layers where communication does not reach its purpose.

Vocal communication and metacommunication

Words are only the tip of the iceberg. My vocal communication (tone, volume and speed of my voice) and my metacommunication (gestures, mimic, posture, distance from the other) create a message in the listener which outweigh the sentences I say. In an emotionally heated situation only 7 percent of the words spoken make up for the understanding that’s perceived by our partner. The more in sync your words, vocal and metacommunication are, the better the comprehension.

If I request something in an angry manner, it’s no surprise that their counter-emotions (anger or anxiety) will occupy them rather than performing the requested task.

Thoughts differ from what we end up saying

Now that I’m aware of my non-verbal communication, it’s important to catch myself before speaking. I intend to pass a certain message to the other, however I might not actually say what I’ve intended to say. I could have chosen inappropriate words or couldn’t express myself precisely—the spoken word can vary greatly from the thoughts formulated beforehand.

My son to his father: You said you take this toy apart to fix it, but to be exact you should have said: I take this toy apart to see whether I can fix it or not.

The environment

Do you remember the whispering game we used to play as kids? We stood in a line and passed on a message whispering it into the ear of the one standing next to us. The last one to receive the message would say it aloud—amusement was guaranteed. Many times the environment isn’t suitable to pass the message properly: I need to whisper or there’s much noise around outside or inside (the lack of attention or busyness of the other I consider to be inner noise). Important messages deserve to be said in a quiet setting to an attentive listener.

Talking about an important issue is meaningless on a busy street or during an engaging game.

My partner’s part in our communication

Let’s suppose I had it all right: integrity in my verbal and non-verbal communication, perfect match between my intended and actual words and the environment was undisturbed. My message can still be misinterpreted.

My partner views the world according to a particular set of filters unique to her / him, and my message will go through these filters before comprehension takes place. The filter(s) might simplify, complicate, distort or dramatize my words—and I don’t have much influence here. I can prepare by heeding my partner’s biases, preconceptions, values or needs, and choose my words accordingly, but still the words she / he hears will undergo a process unknown to me.

My kids amplify situations that could be of challenge to them (a longer hike, a new place to visit, an unknown environment), so upon introducing such a situation, I make sure to connect it with something familiar to them.

Lastly, my partner will create meaning out of my words. This meaning will be in line with her / his perception of the world, it will be in her / his realm of understanding. The process of interpretation can also distort the original message I want to pass on.

The answer I get here: Gee, I didn’t know you wanted me to clean that spilled milk on the floor!

Alright, I need to expand their realm of understanding to cleaning as well. A new training program needs to be designed.

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image: Communication is built via Shutterstock