Communication matters. We use it every day in a multitude of ways, from the gargantuan-sized cyberspace of texts and messages on our phone, to the way we sit and stand in a room, to how we initiate sex, how we write papers for class, hang out with friends at parties, to how we make eye contact with a someone across the room. Our entire mind and body operate on communication.
So what makes a good communicator? We asked assistant professor of communications studies, Josh Pederson – who focuses his research on interpersonal communication, relational communication, supportive communication, coping and personal networks – to find out.
(This interview has been edited for brevity)
How does a person become a better communicator?
Good question. Some of the ways we think of good or bad – it’s all relative. Where other communication scholars will say, “Well, there are certain goals and purposes you might have,” some people might be really good for certain types of goals and purposes. Are you effective at presenting a business plan in a room full of stakeholders? Or are you good at sitting down with a friend who has an awful day and being there for them? Those are totally two different contexts. You might be a good communicator in one sense and not so much in another. In communication studies, we get weary of saying, “Just do X, and Y will happen.” It seems less prescriptive than other social sciences or even the physical sciences. You take this medicine, your cholesterol goes down. You don’t take the medicine, your cholesterol won’t go down.
But, generally speaking, there are some things we teach students to think about when it comes to communication. Awareness of how you are communicating is important. We don’t realize the ways in which we say something might affect someone else. If I want to notice, I want to be attuned to what the other person is responding to. You can kind of tell if someone is not interested: they are getting bored, you get a sense from someone. Turning your senses to that nonverbal response – that’s one way to think about communication. Raise your awareness.
Listening is another big one – listening for argumentative sense, to counteract an argument. We also listen for entertainment sense, like music. Those might not be the most effective in a situation where you are listening to a friend’s problem at work or with a romantic partner. You have to focus more in those situations. Remove the headphones. Put away the phone. Have that person be the focus. You have to slow down a little. Oftentimes I think we are really busy; we think we need to be on to the next thing. Taking a moment to sit down with somebody can be really important. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can be difficult. Consistency is important, too. Ask simple questions, open-ended questions like “You have been talking a lot about your job. Seems like things are rough there. Tell me more about it and how you feel about it?” or “Sounds like you’re really stressed about this class. Tell me what’s going on?” I think just sitting and listening and being with that person and being focused on that person you are with.
In romantic relationships, is it usually a lack of, or bad, communication that contributes to conflict?
There are a lot of situations where you can have issues when we think of communication. When we say, “Just communicate better,” what does that mean? How does that play out? So, it’s not the best advice. When we think of healthy, long-standing relationships, there are certain things that the research says. One is relationship maintenance. Maintenance happens through talking. Talk on an everyday basis. Some things are strategic; others are routine. Routine you don’t have to think about.
Generally, positivity seems to be really important. Having not just that sense of cheerfulness, but also being pleasant. If you are negative, or “Oh me,” or “Everything sucks,” that’s not pleasant to be around – so having this positivity about yourself and other people, and in that relationship: talking about the good things, the happy moments that you have shared, telling stories about special times you have had with each other.
Openness is another thing. Talk about how you feel. There’s lots of stereotypes about who talks about their emotions and who doesn’t: Women just want to talk about their emotions, and men don’t. But that’s not the case. Men and women both want to talk and share their emotions. They may just pick different times and situations and settings to share. I think being OK with sharing how you are feeling about something is really important.
We think about conflict. There’s whole areas of research on this. I say just slow everything down. The more emotionally flooded, we get overwhelmed, angry and frustrated. We have to slow down and ask each other how each is feeling about each other. In any conflict, try to find what you have in common rather than the differences.
When there is initial attraction, how do you get the courage to communicate with that person?
Think about something that you might have in common. Think about what you all are doing in that space, whatever that is, and start there. Start with a shared interest, because it will be easier to talk about it.
The other advice is “Life is short. Just try it.” I mean that’s hard – so hard, right? It’s easier to say because there is so much uncertainty and anxiety and “What will this person think of me?” and so on. There might also be mutual friends. What will people say if things don’t go well? But, I think it’s important to be observant and not creepy. Start somewhere with what you notice to start a conversation.
In sex, people are also nervous about talking about it. It’s a taboo topic. I know there is a good deal of research about communicating about sex. When we are about to have a sexual encounter, talking about what that looks like ahead of time, both parties end up being more satisfied, even when there is a lot of talking about anxiety or stress about talking about it. Whether that’s about safe sex, or preferences, or other things, or when should we do certain sexual encounters, it might seem awkward to talk about it at first, but then after, the payoff is much better.
A Quick Guide for How to be a Good Partner. Follow SEAL:
Give up your time. Go to a sporting event your partner loves, a mini road trip, listen to their favorite music, run an errand for them, consider trying a sexual experience they want to try out, ask them what they want for their birthday, give them a present on Tuesday afternoon, do the dishes, cook food you don’t particularly like but know your partner does. Mix in a few surprises and spontaneity in there, too. New and novel keep things interesting and break up routines. If your partner and you are trying to compete, it works out because you’re both trying to make one another feel good.
So, not just emotional empathy, but communicating empathy. Express it. This one takes some skill. People are not usually communicating empathy. Use those open questions here to try and push that communication. Use your imagination. Express that you are trying to imagine what it feels like to be your partner. Ask them how it feels and what their experience is about any given story to help your own understanding. Crack your knuckles and get focused, because this takes your whole body and mind to pull off.
Nonsexual affection here. Nonsexual hugs, kissing, written notes left on the counter, scribbles on a napkin that describe how amazing someone is. Use the words “amazing” or “wonderful” to describe your partner. Tell them how you feel, how good they make you feel. Hold hands, take walks, lean on each other on a park bench. Affirm and give affection to their whole person. Tell them they look good, how smart they are, what they are doing well. Hand out those affirmations.
Be aware. Give focus to your partner. Ask them how they feel, ask for a story about a time in their life. Be there when they have had a bad day. Put away the phone. Put it in a cupboard, place it in your backpack or bury it in the backyard. Give your ears, mind and eyes to your partner. Respond to them with open questions, follow up and ask stuff that’s interesting to you. Repeat the info back to them to make sure you got it. Open those ears.