Chris Cooper PhD

Notes About Communication Skills

Many of the difficulties we have in interpersonal situations can be improved a great deal by looking at the communication skills employed. The following is a brief sketch of some basic practices of good communication.

THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS
Good communication is more than technique. It has to do with conceptualization, courage and conviction.

Conceptualization: Full duplex communication
“Full duplex,” a term borrowed from electronic data communications, indicates that the system is running with data passing in both directions. Each node is both a transmitter and a receiver.

We humans most often think of “communication” as a way to get our point across – a way for us to be understood. This neglects half of the process. In order to be good communicators, it is crucial to be good listeners. That entails listening with a sincere effort to really understand what the other person is saying – and further – what the other person means.

Courage
To be a good communicator involves vulnerability on two levels and requires courage. First, to truly explain oneself to someone else, a person must look inside and determine what is truly meant. This, together with the process of allowing the openness to explain one’s meaning to another person, is often no small task.

Second, to hear what another person is trying to tell you, it is necessary to lower defenses and allow sometimes-difficult information to come in. This, too, often feels uncomfortable or threatening and requires courage.

Conviction
Conviction connotes a firm belief that working on communication skills will be of benefit. Without hard work, practice and thought, well-established habits will be all but impossible to change.

TECHNIQUES
Some “dos and don’ts” of speaking and listening can be useful when employed in conjunction with the attitudes developed from theoretical foundations.

Do Use “I” statements. Don’t tell the other person what he or she is doing or thinking. (“I feel unheard” rather than “You don’t listen.”)

Do recognize variations. Don’t speak in absolutes. (“I often feel unheard” rather than “You never listen.”)

Do focus on the other person while he or she is speaking. Don’t use the time while the other person speaks to formulate your next answer.

Do make an effort to understand the other person’s unique experience. Don’t try to give advice based on your similar experience. Your experience is a basis for understanding, but go beyond that. (“I am trying to understand what you experienced” rather than “I know exactly how you feel! That happened to me!”)

Do ask tentative questions. Don’t attack. When people feel attacked and hurt they tend to react by raising defensive walls, making it harder for you to reach them. Try to be gentle and help them lower those walls. (“I’m wondering when you will have time to take out the trash…” rather than “Why don’t you take out the trash? You must be really lazy!”)

Do lower the intensity of the exchange when you feel attacked. Don’t escalate the emotional level. When you feel attacked you, too, have an impulse to raise defensive walls and throw a bigger bomb back at the other person. Instead, focus on what just happened. (“I felt really attacked just then rather than “Yeah?! Well, you are twice as lazy as I will ever be!”)

HOW THERAPY CAN HELP
The communications skills each of us use are the result of years of imitating others and become well-established habits. In therapy, you can work more effectively at changing those habits and develop a greater understanding of yourself and your own internal processes. This happens in the following ways:

Therapy provides a place to examine in detail the communication patterns you have acquired, and provides help in developing strategies formulated for your particular communication needs.

A therapist can act as a coach – helping you analyze the progress you are making at implementing the changes you want to make – and helping you fine-tune your program.

Therapy provides a safe place to explore your inner world and inner process so you can better understand your defensive responses. In therapy, you can explore those “buttons” that always get pushed and begin to divest them of their power.

Therapy provides a safe place to practice newly developed skills and try out new ways of communicating.

Therapy provides support and encouragement while you are navigating difficult issues and beginning to resolve them.