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Saying What We Mean is Easier Said Than Done


Communication Chaos?


Sorry, I have to leave out the over 6000 spoken languages. Just dealing with English is confusing enough. Effective communication – finding the words that best get across what we mean, and skilfully interpreting what we hear – is in need of a little more than labeling with a trite saying. Language litter – the messy, inaccurate, use of words that often confounds clear expression and understanding – abounds.

There’s plenty contributing to talking at each other instead of talking to each other. Double and triple definitions for the same word, overlapping descriptions, misinterpretations, words used where they don’t even belong, all add to the muddle. To pare things down, begin with our sense of perspective. How we mentally focus – a largely automatic process – and the way we describe this process – leaves a lot to be desired. There sure isn’t a clear way to discuss this key player in the game of comprehension.

We use one word – focus – as though it’s all one thing. The qualities of, and the ways we use, perspective haven’t been nailed down in the categorization and description department. I think it’s about time. How about you? Context has quite a bit to do with how we interpret. A more exact way to think – and talk – about the process would be really helpful.

I know, I know, categorization has been taking a beating –for sure, there are places where it’s way over-done. But at the same time, words – the most basic labels – are, apparently, needed to communicate. Should we skip it all and head straight for the Vulcan mind meld?

Then again, we do have speech genes. Are they epigenetic adaptations, or were we meant to have language? Like we have two legs, two arms, two eyes …?

Big questions with few answers, to date. But we can narrow it down. A little extra time spent figuring out how best to focus, interpret, and then say, generates insights that otherwise might not come to mind – new ideas that make finding the words even easier.

We do have most of them – the words, that is – but the use is often scrambled. For openers: paying attention and observing are different. How often are you asked for your attention – the mode you use to sort out information and make sense of it – when what you’re really expected to do is watch and listen, simply take in information? Technically, we aren’t supposed to be attending – thinking – when we’re listening.


But …


We naturally switch back and forth between observing and attending constantly. And we do this far faster than listening, understanding, then developing well thought out responses, can take place. Recall the times when what you could have said – or what was really meant – popped into your mind hours, or even days, after a conversation. It takes time to process. We can only respond quickly with what we already know. Anything new will come to us later.

Context also makes a difference. What can be recalled in one context, won’t necessarily come to mind in another. Who hasn’t gone blank on a test, only for the known answers to arrive shortly after the test was over? Developing better context awareness is darned useful.

Our brains don’t seem to appreciate the plodding pace of conversation. Just listening all by itself – say during a lecture or speech – is awkward when the brain insists on blazing ahead on it’s own while we’re trying to hold up our end at conscious speed.

How often are you asked to listen – observantly gather information – then expected to answer questions immediately – before you’ve had any time to sort things out in attention mode?

Ever been told you’re not a good listener? Who is? Even though we’re supposed to be observing, we still have to attend to understand what we hear. We also need to remove our personal context from interpreting – so we won’t fill in the blanks with our own meanings – where we aren’t sure of the speaker’s. Now add on having to remember what to ask for clarity’s sake when the talk is finished. All at the same time we’re suppose to be listening, unless we interrupt to ask every time we need to confirm intention and meaning.

We’re also simultaneously processing visually … and a few other things. It’s easy to see that what’s routinely expected in the observation department is a pretty tough row to hoe. The less aware we are of the automatic processes, the harder it is to optimize. So developing better awareness is the start-point if the goal is to improve communication.


So How Can We Better Manage Communication on the Way to Awareness?


On topics we’re well enough acquainted with, conversation runs smoothly. The further we get from the safe areas, the bumpier the course. It’s not surprising that we tend to stick to the superficial much of the time. There’s not much to understand, so keeping the chit-chat going uses minimal resources. As topics shift into less well known areas, the more effort it takes to grasp the meaning of what we hear, sort it out, and respond sensibly. We then start hitting the wall on points we aren’t familiar with – consciously, at any rate.

New information takes time to process properly. And what was learned long ago can be pokey about coming to mind, as well. But far too often, as soon as we pause to think, we’re accused of being slow. If we don’t have a ready answer, there’s bound to be someone jumping to the conclusion that the time needed to process is a sign of dim-wittedness.

Time for a deep breath. Now, let’s go for some flow.

For more progressive conversation:


1 Keep in mind that your rapid-fire processes are doing essential work, not sabotaging you*

2 Set aside a little time to meditate. This helps develop notice of when you’re observing and when you’re in attention mode – processing. As you become more aware of the difference, you’ll find yourself on much better footing at both listening and talking time.

3 Reasoning skills also run on automatic. The more conscious you become of them, the easier it is to consciously notice validity issues during conversation. Or reading, watching TV – or talking to yourself, for that matter. We tend to do this automatically – intuitively. But this way doesn’t supply the words needed to consciously get the point.

(Reading about reasoning methods helps get them out of long-term storage and fresh in your mind where you can put them to more effective use. A little effort now will save time and add understanding idefinetly. You’ll listen – and express yourself – more accurately, too.)

4 Get a few standard answers together ahead. Use when you need more time to think things through before answering, but your audience isn’t aware enough of communication reality. A few examples:


This idea deserves more thought, let’s come back to it later.

I don’t have an answer right now, let’s move on.

I’d need more information before I could say.

I’ve never thought of it that way, could you tell me more?


5 Ask questions if you don’t understand. It’s a lot more accurate than than second-guessing.

Now for the return serve:

6 When it’s your turn to talk, cut your listener lots of slack. Stay on topic. Welcome – even encourage – questions.

7 If your discussion partner needs more time, share this key comment for creating a more comfortable and progressive atmosphere: It’s fine if you want more time to think about it.

8 When with agreeable company, start a conversation about things that add understanding to conversations – and leave plenty of room for clarifying word meanings. Get behind the over-used labels and find the gold.

9 Remember: When you do need to pause and someone condemns you for it, at least you know the conclusion isn’t valid.


Communicating is so taken for granted, it seems it’s only noticed when it’s not going well. A little time spent examining how you’re going about it doesn’t just boost awareness of what you can improve on. Those you communicate with pick up on some of the more effective ways themselves. Some will appreciate your ability to listen better than most. And no matter what, your awareness expands.

Saying what we mean is an ongoing exploration. As the accuracy increases, the understanding grows right along with it.

*Automatic thinking processes are too often interpreted as having flaws that interfere with our reasoning. There’s not much solid research to back this idea, despite all the talk. Just being more mindful of the reasoning methods we’re using gives us a really useful tool to make improvements in real time conversation.





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