This should be the golden age of communication. The digital revolution has given people unprecedented ways to connect with one other. But the very tools that enable constant contact across the globe all too often distort people’s priorities, fragment their attention, impair their ability to listen, and interrupt face-to-face conversations. Unfortunately, digital innovations that could facilitate meaningful communication frequently impede it instead. Communication’s golden age remains frustratingly out of reach.
For most people the first adaptation to the digital age -- spending less time on an ever-increasing number of messages -- isn’t working. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to realize more of the digital revolution’s promise of productive and meaningful interactions by reinventing five faulty beliefs about communication:
- Stop thinking that more communication is the answer to your problems; more communication is your problem. Too much -- not too little -- talking is what’s causing communication troubles today. Remarkable digital devices make communication quick and easy, and most people have responded by dramatically increasing the quantity of messages they send and receive. The result is a hypercommunicating environment -- overflowing inboxes, buzzing phones and expedient conversations. But a distracted and overloaded communication environment is notoriously error-prone and is detrimental to meaningful connection. As a result, folks are communicating more, but not better, and their most important work and home relationships are suffering under the strain of increasing conversational errors.
- Forget about what you want to say and focus on what you want to accomplish. The self-expressive ethos of the digital age makes it easy to forget that your underlying objective is what’s most important in your strategic conversations. The things you want to say -- the reflexive words on the tip of your tongue -- are usually fleeting, impulsive and hazardous. Competent communicators keep their focus on what they want to accomplish. When your words serve your goals, you’re much more likely to get what you want.
- Don’t think about starting something new until you are willing to stop something old. You don’t need a new app to improve your interactions or a shiny new device to make communication better. Getting rid of one bad habit can eliminate dozens of conversational problems. Poor questions, distracting mannerisms, interruptions, contradictions and criticisms are among the most frequently occurring bad communication habits. Ask three peers or managers if you do anything in your conversations that aggravates them. If two people identify the same thing, work to eliminate it.
- Don’t think about forging new relationships until you’ve protected your old ones. The fundamental asymmetry of communication is that words build relationships slowly, over months and years of steady interactions, but you can damage those same relationships in mere seconds with hasty and ill-chosen words. That’s why your conversational lodestar is to always protect your underlying relationships. Contain conversations that escalate to the point where emotion trumps civility and restraint. As long as the underlying relationship remains intact, you can always return to the issue later. You’ve spent years building up your most important relationships at work and at home. Protect your investment.
- Don’t applaud what you say; celebrate what you don’t say. The writer Harlan Miller said, “Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid.” The same is true for all relationships. Words get the communication glory, but it’s often the things you don’t say that make the difference between a collaboration that is fruitful and one that fizzles, a special project that you sell to your boss and one that you don’t, and a friendship that endures and one that dissolves. The words you choke back, the fights you never start, and the pointless criticisms that never see the light of day will be the heroes of your personal and professional relationships. Paradoxically, these invisible communication achievements will provide some of the best evidence that your conversational skills are improving.
These five ideas can help you improve your interpersonal communication skills and take advantage of the opportunities for meaningful connection that are all around you. Better communication -- not just more communication -- will help transform the digital revolution into the golden age of communication.
Geoffrey Tumlin is CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, 2013).