The Risks in Effective Communication
Date: April 30th, 2012
by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.
We hear and read much about the importance of effective communication but little about its risks. Social scientists tell us that effective communication is a characteristic of individuals who are “psychologically healthy,” of groups that function effectively, and of organizations that prosper and survive.
First, consider the importance of communication to the individual. People who are psychologically healthy are ones who are “in touch with themselves.” They are aware of their feelings, their attitudes, their values, and their beliefs. They are more in communication with themselves than are the psychologically unhealthy people. The unhealthy who enter individual therapy to become more fully-functioning go through a process of learning to communicate with themselves. They gradually explore deeper and deeper into their feelings and attitudes, discovering new ones, finding feelings that conflict or feelings previously denied. Also, after completing successful psychotherapy, people report that having learned to “communicate better with themselves” they can now better communicate their real feelings and attitudes to others. Psychological health, for the individual, means the ability to “talk clearly with oneself.”
Groups, and that certainly includes families, seem no different. The ineffective group is one whose members are not communicating with one another. Consequently, such groups cannot solve problems easily—and find it difficult even to identify their real problems. These groups often have “hidden agendas” that never get communicated; their members withdraw into silence and passivity; or what does get communicated is often only superficial and meaningless. Groups that seek a consultant’s help or those who enroll in leadership training programs to become more effective, like individuals, go through a process of developing more effective communication. Gradually then, conflicts can be exposed, interpersonal hostilities come to the surface, creative thinking appears, basic issues can be identified, and decisions get made. Thus, group health, as well as individual health, seems to be brought about through learning more effective communication. We have learned that this is also true for families. Thousands of parents who have taken our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) class report that learning to practice open, honest two-way communication contributes immensely to an improved family life and to happier, healthier relationships with their children.
If, then, it is true that effective communication is so important for individuals, groups, organizations, and especially families, we should be aware of the risks involved. These risks derive from the very nature of the communications process itself.
One way of looking at effective communication is to consider it a process involving two elements: (1) Clear Sending (effective expression) and (2) Accurate Receiving (effective impression). There is a different risk involved in each of these elements.
Risks in Clear Sending
Many different factors affect whether or not a person sends clear messages. For example, the sender has to talk loud enough to be heard. He also should code his message in words that are familiar to the receiver—that is, the receiver has to know the sender’s code. In addition, we know that a single message is usually easier to understand than several messages sent at once. A message can also get lost if the sender clutters up his communication with too many asides, conditional statements, and details.
Although these factors are important, they are not as crucial in their influence on “sending” as another less understood factor—that is, the degree of “congruence” of the sender. Congruence refers to the similarity of what a person (the sender) is thinking or feeling, inside, and what she communicates to the outside. When a person is being congruent, we experience her as “open,” “direct,” “honest,” or “genuine.” When we sense that a person’s communication is incongruent, we judge her as “not ringing true,” “insincere,” “affected,” or just plain “phony.” The human receiver apparently is a very sensitive judge of the degree of congruence in a sender.
Logically, it would follow that the greater the incongruence between inner feeling and the actual message transmitted by a sender, the greater the chance of a receiver missing the message, or hearing an ambiguous message. The inconsistency between the words he receives and the other person’s inner feelings (sensed from non-verbal clues from the sender) confuses the receiver. For example, a leader who inside is feeling irritated, frustrated or resentful toward a team member yet tries to communicate patience and acceptance will send messages that are incongruent. The team member usually perceives both the ambiguity of these messages and the insincerity of the leader.
The risk in being congruent in communication is simply that the sender becomes known to the receiver as she really is (inside). The sender exposes her true self—she becomes transparently real to herself and others. People must have courage to be who they are—that is, to communicate what they feel and think as of a particular moment in their existence, for when a person does this—and here is the risk—she opens herself to others and their reactions to her. Her listeners learn how she really feels. If they are involved at all, they may not like to hear her feelings about them. We also know that honesty in communication puts a demand on the listener to be equally honest. Most people are threatened by such a demand. So some people are frightened away by congruence in another person. That is an additional risk of clear sending.
Risks in Accurate Receiving
Let’s move now to a consideration of accurate receiving. What is meant by this, and what is the risk involved?
Some years ago, psychotherapists called our attention to a new kind of listening—”Active Listening.” [Reflective Listening was the original concept created by Dr. Carl Rogers, the term Active Listening was coined by Richard Farson—Tom was the one who incorporated it into a program (P.E.T.), hence introducing it to the world.] More than passively attending to the message of the sender, it is a process of putting your understanding of that message to the severest of tests—namely, forcing yourself to put into your own words the meaning of the sender’s messages and “feeding back” your words to the sender for verification or for subsequent correction. Active Listening obviously requires the receiver to suspend his own thoughts, feelings, evaluations, and judgments in order to attend exclusively to the message of the sender. It forces accurate receiving inasmuch as the listener finds that if he is to understand the message in terms of the sender’s meaning, he must put himself into the shoes of the sender (into her frame of reference, into her world of reality). The listener thus hears the meaning intended by the sender. The “feedback” part of active listening is nothing more than the receiver’s ultimate check on the accuracy of his listening, although it also assures the sender that she has been understood when she hears her own “message” fed back to her accurately.
Active Listening, however, carries its own risks. Something happens to a person when she practices Active Listening. To understand accurately how another person thinks or feels from her point of view, to put yourself momentarily into her shoes, to see the world as she is seeing it—you as a listener run the risk of having your own opinions and attitudes changed. In other words, people actually get changed by what they really understand. To be “open to the experience” of another invites the possibility of having to reinterpret your own experience. The person who cannot listen to others is “defensive” and cannot afford to expose herself to ideas and views that are different from her own.
In summary, effective communication carries two risks: the exposure of the way we really are and the possibility of becoming different. Few of us find it easy to take these risks. This is why effective interpersonal communication requires both inner security and personal courage.
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