Our cultural learning tells us that talk is about influential talk—saying the right words in the right way.
We often think of conversation as a contest if someone disagrees with us. Our minds are wired to think of ourselves as better-than-average in everyday situations, and when our thoughts are challenged, we naturally think of ourselves as right. All of these tendencies compel in us a view that talk is fundamentally simple and that if someone doesn’t understand us, it must be their fault. But there is a great deal more to our talk than our surface assumptions suggest—to become better, we need to know more and blame less.
In these lectures, I hope to take talk out of the realm of the automatic and make us all aware of what gets in the way of being effective communicators. Getting better at this vital skill is challenging but not impossible. We will focus not only on how we perform the magic act of speaking but also, and perhaps more importantly, on those situations where the magic doesn’t seem to work.
Effectiveness in communication means three things: First, we got what we wanted—a moment of positive emotional connection or a tangible result. Second, we’ve been understood from our point of view (and that was communicated back to us). And third, the other party seems fine with the exchange—there were no indications of uncertainty, frustration, fear, or anger.
You don’t generally notice all of the background structuring that makes your talk understood. You have a picture in your mind of a particular reality that you want to communicate. To speak, you have to quickly pull together a collection of words whose single, clear meaning will describe your image, and you have to assemble them into a recognizably ordered, nongraphical message. You then utter the sound elements representing these verbal symbols in a way that you assume the other will recognize; along with these utterances, you also transmit a set of nonverbal gestures (hand gestures, facial movement, and voice intonation). You send all of this to the ears and eyes of another person in certain belief that that person will hear and see everything you said and stay mentally focused for the entire message. The listener must then decode your message correctly, picking your meanings (not theirs) from the archive of meanings they have accumulated based on their previous experience (not yours). The listener must also avoid misinterpreting any of your words because of unintended and unconscious nonverbals and then translate this verbal message into the same picture in her mind as you have in yours, without any distracting internal thoughts, feelings, or beliefs of her own.
Communication experts are aware of how humorously disconnected the common view of communication can be from the complex reality. Here are the amusing communication “laws” written by Osmo A. Wiio, a Finnish professor of communication: (1) Communication usually fails, except by accident. (2) If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes damage. (3) There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant by your message. Think of these as Murphy’s laws of talk: If anything can go wrong, it will. Rest assured that throughout this course, I will point out such pitfalls and give you ways to overcome them.
- Think of a situation where you talked directly with another about something you wanted or needed, but you didn’t get it. As you recall the scene, notice the first emotional reaction you remember having. Was it positive or negative? Did you call up a label for the other person or the way he or she talked to you? We will look at these natural reactions as we move through the first section of the course.
- Is there a situation in the recent past where looking back, you feel the other person didn’t really listen to you and what you had to say, and had the person listened to you, the outcome would have been better— for you and for the other person? How do you feel about this situation now when you recall it? Remember this feeling—we will return to the importance of listening later in the course.