Communicating with other people is an activity that permeates almost all aspects of our lives. At the workspace, we have to reason and debate with coworkers and bosses. In family life, we have to seek common ground with loved ones who have different views — maybe we disagree with our parents or grandparents on topics which are important to us, such as religion. At home, we want to be able to enjoy our time with our partners and children without wasting it on perpetual trivial arguments.
At the same time, communicating with others is also a skill that can be developed, and because it’s important in our relationships, it’s also important to our happiness. After all, we have all experienced the consequences of failure to communicate: frustration, endless arguments, even heartbreak.
Despite all this, I don’t recall communication ever even coming up in my education, and I’m pretty sure this is true for most people. This is alarming, and the negative impact this has on society is evident. How many times have you heard an argument end with “I just don’t see how you can think that”, or “why won’t you just be reasonable?”. If you unpack these commonly-heard sentences, you’ll see that they boil down to a complete failure to understand the other person.
I hardly need mention the state of public debate, be it in the UK Parliament, the US Congress, or just on Twitter, where what could be an opportunity to learn from others devolves into shouting matches and partisan football-team-style factionalism. I’m not saying these problems are new or unique to our day and age, but I am saying that we can do better than sowing conflict and squabbling amongst each other.
Even if you agree that change is necessary, you might think that we face an insurmountable problem, namely that communication is too “soft” and nebulous to be able to teach or study. While it’s true that taking a course won’t lead one to deep empathy with co-workers and family members overnight, there are very solid approaches to becoming a better communicator that have been successfully used everywhere from marriages to international conflict zones.
An example of such a strategy is laid out in the book “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall B. Rosenberg, and the ideas are not at all nebulous or mystical. The fundamental concept is that, while everyone has different priorities in their day-to-day life, we all share a set of common needs, such as the need for a sense of belonging, the need to express our creativity, the need to be heard by others, and the need for a sense of security in our day-to-day lives. The point is not to build some kind of comprehensive taxonomy of human needs, but rather to acknowledge that the exact same kinds of feelings that drive us are present in the people we interact with as well. This leads us to frame what the person across from us is trying to express in terms of feelings we can understand, which makes us much better communicators.
People used to a more confrontational style of argument may find the focus on harmony and empathy counterproductive to healthy argumentation and discarding bad views. This is, however, not the case at all, because, in any event, fully understanding your fellow debater’s argument is a prerequisite to refuting it. In the words of Daniet Dennett, “it is worth reminding yourself that a heroic attempt to find a defensible interpretation of an author, if it comes up empty, can be even more devastating than an angry hatchet job”.
Others might object that curious students and enterprising adults alike hardly have time for the added burden of all this added education — “I’m already busy enough”, cries the CEO! But is there anything more deserving of your time than developing a skill that will enable you to avoid frustration, be better at working with others, and make the most of what you can learn from those around you?
Some people might find it difficult to inspect their own feelings, and one can hardly blame them, considering that many of us, boys in particular, are taught to repress those feelings when growing up, lest we be described as “unmanly”. But the introspection is worth it, because the benefits are not at all abstract or touchy-feely.
In workplace debates, having more empathy for others enables us to find solutions that are more evidence-based, rather than clinging onto our own approaches. In family life, being understanding of others’ needs can help us find common ground with family members, even those who support a different political party or hold ideas we find unpalatable. And at home, instead of letting our time get eaten up by petty debates over household chores or jealousy, being a better communicator helps us become a better partner and a better parent. In general, truly hearing others and learning from them is not only an act of kindness, but importantly, also a massive boon to our own self-development and harmony. This principle extends all the way from our personal lives to our foreign policy.
If we can make some of our relationships more harmonious, we will also have done wonders for increasing our happiness. Indeed, the people with the worst communication skills also have, in my experience, the most turbulent, unhappy and stressful social lives.
Let’s make a change in the right direction, and encourage communication to be taught in our schools, as well as trying to develop this skill ourselves. We don’t need the perfect curriculum — even by just underscoring the issue’s importance and offering a path forward, we will do a great service to mental health and productivity.
Not sure where to start? Here’s some recommended reading:
Do you have a recommendation for what should go here? Contact me!