Communication: What You Said and What They Heard

Martin was the fifth child. A darling, beautiful, happy little cherub, and oh-so expressive. Until he was two and a half, Martin would gesture, grin, or grimace and his siblings delivered whatever he needed. Speak? Why should he? One night at dinner, his father had had enough. Martin pointed, his father slammed his glass on the table. Glasses, plates, silverware, even family members, shook. “If you want something, use your words!” As everyone held their breath, Martin looked up, completely cool, and said his first words: “Pass the potatoes, please.”

Martin’s father knew that communication was an integral part of his child’s development. The question we will never know is, how long had he known how to speak? And what else did he know?!? It’s more than vocabulary (“What does a cow say?” or “What’s the magic word?”) Communication is a two-way process by which we exchange information, ideas and feelings. Healthy relationships compel us to want to know what the other thinks and feels.

Mastering the art of communication is easier than we think. There are only four main areas we need to practice—Delivery, Verbal, Non-verbal and (often forgotten) Listening.

Begin with Delivery: the when, where and with whom communication should be shared. When: Misunderstandings should be addressed as soon as you are able. Where: Somewhere private; having an audience will feed tension and your message will be lost in what feels like an attack. With whom: Always take it to the source. When we share grievances with anyone else, problems are not resolved and often lead to misinterpretations that could actually compound the problem.

Verbal: Tone, tempo and linguistics. Speaking too loud or too fast may catch your listener of guard. Likewise, words can soothe or scorch. Chose them wisely. Some words are triggers, landmines you may be unaware of. Here are a few you might use and avoid:


Yes, Please, Thank You
Can, Do, Will, Should
Admire, Respect, Agree
Good, Great, Super, Terrific
“I believe in you”

Don’t, Can’t, Won’t
You … Couldn’t Wouldn’t Shouldn’t
I can’t stand it when you…
Avoid any and all name-calling

Non-Verbal: What is your body saying? Every culture is a little different. These are typically American body language interpretations:

Action & Interpretation:
Arms crossed:  Feels defensive, but it looks offensive
Avoiding eye contact:  Indicates evasiveness (what are you trying to hide?)
Sitting side by side:  We are equals
Sitting across a desk:  Power play; puts a barrier between us
Standing over someone:  Condescending
Open face, posture or open hands:  Appears genuine, interested, authentic
Good eye contact:  Demonstrates mutual respect; that you are listening

Often overlooked in relationships are our Listening Skills. Everything we see, feel and hear is interpreted through our own filters. These filters could be trigger words, our history with that individual, or maybe even timing. Each time you are called upon to resolve a conflict or listen, try to push away these filters. Listen with fresh ears and remember these rules:

  1. Listen without becoming defensive
  2. Listen without interrupting
  3. Listen without judging
  4. Listen without over-relating
  5. Listen without discounting
  6. Listen without trying to solve the problem for the other person

Communication then requires that we not only consider what we say, but also how it is received. Personally or professionally, at the end of the day, positive relationships are what this journey is all about.