We all have times when we feel unheard or misunderstood. It can be seriously frustrating when it seems like everyone else is missing the point or that your words aren't connecting. But what if it's your communication style that's putting up barriers?
You might be keeping people out without even realizing it. Luckily, we've got some tips for a quick self-awareness check and communication tune-up to get you building better relationships every day.
We all know about ‘blind spots’ – when our position or perspective stops us from being able to see what's there. Not recognizing our communication blind spots can create walls between ourselves and others. This can make us feel baffled at our communication failures – 'why can't I close this deal at work?' – and ultimately unappreciated, misunderstood and disconnected from others.
In a conversation between you and someone else, there are actually four ‘people’ involved: Each person has a conscious and an unconscious mind taking part. Blind spots happen when we’re being driven by our unconscious. It can be a learned behavior – such as interrupting or talking over people – or a preconceived idea about how our words are received.
Solution: Listen to constructive criticism
Do people say things like, “You never listen” or "You won't admit when you're wrong"? It might be time to examine this feedback. You can even ask outright about your communication flaws. You’ll most likely disagree at first – but that’s the blind spot reacting.
Once you know the issue, you can address it. For example, if you don’t listen to others, make an effort to practice ‘active listening.’ Active listening means being fully present, sometimes asking a clarifying question instead of giving our opinion immediately. Be mindful, be considerate and people will notice the difference.
We don’t have to take on everything people say, but when it really is our behavior or assumptions getting in the way, it's time to make a change.
Think about your friends, family and close acquaintances. Are they all of a particular race, age or culture? Are the people you hang out with at work similar? This makes it less likely you’ll be exposed to new perspectives. It’s natural to enjoy being around people who are like us, but it can make us become uncomfortable with anything new. It might even mean you have cultural barriers to communication.
Solution: Stretch your comfort zone
It's never too late to expand your horizons. Make a conscious effort to meet people you wouldn’t usually mix with. Maybe start volunteering or take a class in something wildly different from your everyday activities (choir and crochet? Why not!)
Comfort zones feel good, but when we expand them we become better at understanding different world-views and ways of communicating.
Open yourself up to meeting great new people.
As author Brené Brown says, “Empathy drives connection.” Sounds obvious, right? But the tricky thing about empathy is we often think we’re empathizing when actually we’re sympathizing.
Sympathy occurs partly because we’re conditioned to believe that we should feel good all the time. This can make us uncomfortable when other people speak truthfully about their struggles. We feel an urge to ‘solve’ the problem and make it go away.
We might also be insecure about our emotional abilities. A recent study published by the American Psychological Association found that people don't want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions. Why? Because most people feel they’re not very good at empathizing.
Solution: Don’t try to fix everything – just be present
Empathy is about staying out of judgment and doing what Brown calls “feeling with people.” Recognizing the difference is key: Sympathy is trying to make things better, whereas empathy is about understanding and trying to share someone else’s feelings.
According to Brown, sympathizing often starts with an “at least” statement. Such as when someone tells you they broke up with their partner and you say, “Well, at least you’re young enough to find someone else.” Try not to use “at least” statements or push a 'silver lining.' It doesn’t build connection and it'll probably make you seem uncaring or shallow.
The best thing we can do is just listen and not always try to have a solution. Empathy sounds more like, “I don’t know what to say but I’m glad you told me.” We don’t need to have all the answers. We just have to be ready to value other people’s emotional experiences.
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