As a communication professional, I’m often asked about what makes for good communication. I would much prefer to talk about what isn’t. I can do both by talking about what I see as some myths about communication, and the realities behind them.
Myth #1: Silence is Golden. My mother used to always tell me … well, maybe not always, just when I opened my yapper once too often. She would say, “Children should be seen and not heard!” Maybe your mom said the same thing to you. Her thought in saying this is that if a person doesn’t say anything, then he or she isn’t communicating. I couldn’t get in trouble if I just didn’t speak. A more grown up version of this old saying is, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” Here again, society is telling you that if you just keep your mouth closed, then you can’t make a fool of yourself.
The Reality: In both cases the common misconception is that talking is communicating, and not talking is not communicating. But think about it. Children should be ‘seen and not heard’ means that the daredevil 5th grade boy climbing to the top of the garage to jump off is not communicating anything. And does biting your lip to keep from saying something you might regret tell your conversational partner your opinion just as much as if you let loose with your true feelings? The truth of the matter is that we “speak” with more than just our voices. Our facial expressions, jittery hands, vocal pacing, posture, and a host of other nonverbals can communicate just as loudly as our words. As long as we perceive our partner perceiving us, and our partner does the same, then we’re sending messages back and forth. In the words of a famous communication theorist, Paul Watzlawick, “One cannot not communicate.” Anything we do once perception of perception is established, can communicate something.
Myth #2: Meanings are in Words. “I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.” Students are constantly trying to wiggle my words. If I say an assignment is due on Tuesday, they will turn it in at 11:59 p.m. If I say that it’s late, they say that 11:59 p.m. is still Tuesday. Should I have said Tuesday at class? Of course, I should. If meanings are in words, then everyone who hears a particular word, phrase or sentence would mean exactly the same thing by it.
The Reality: The fact of the matter is that meanings are not in words. If I told a cat lover that I went out in the back yard and climbed on a cat, that feline fanatic would likely call the ASPCA on me. If I said the same thing to a cat hater, he or she might snicker. And a construction worker might think I was just going back to work if I climbed onto the Caterpillar tractor. Even a moment’s reflection tells us that “meanings are not in people; meanings are in words.” The word “cat” means different things to different people.
Myth #3: Communication Solves All Problems. “You have to talk about it.” “Let’s talk this out.” “We haven’t solved this problem yet, … but we’re talking.” Friends, business associates and spouses use the refrain, “We just don’t communicate anymore.” It’s as if the golden key to resolve all the worlds’ ills is to talk about it. Then presto, the problem is solved. No matter what the roadblock, impasse or problem, more communication is the solution.
The Reality: Communication can solve the worlds’ problems, … but it can also be the root of evil. Communication can make things better … or worse. The main effect of communicating—of communicating well—is not to solve problems. Its main effect is to make positions clearer. And making positions clearer can help solve the problem, or make it worse. People can have the clearest, most transparent communication possible. Now comes the difficult part … resolving the problem. Unless the problem is itself communication, communication can have surprisingly little effect on a problem. For a married couple, there’s not enough money at the end of the month. For friends, there’s not enough time to spend with the other. For neighbors, there’s not enough peace and quiet in the neighborhood. Communication can help, but that’s about it.
Myth #4: Communication skills exist. Perhaps this is the most mythical of the myths of communication. At least it is the myth to which there is the most disagreement. Let me explain. The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us a skill is, “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice …, to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.” The thought is that communication skill is an ability that makes itself known through the execution of certain behaviors.
The Reality: There are behaviors that we call skills, yes. Take, for example, what is often taken as the epitome of skill—perspective-taking. The ability to take another’s perspective or point of view when speaking with him or her is an absolute necessity for good communication. Thus, whenever one executes an episode that involves “perspective-taking,” it is a skill. But the same behavior of perspective-taking can be used to harm another person, such as when it is used to “con” the other. A skill is actually an attitude-plus-behavior amalgam. It is a behavior that is used with a certain attitude—empathy, or concern for the welfare of the other—to back it up.
Terrence Chmielewski, CJ Faculty Member