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05.11.2015 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How to be a Proactive Communicator and Get Results that Matter

When our son Michael was somewhere around nine, we made the hard decision to go from a walker to a wheelchair. It felt like giving up. I was worried sick that he’d be ostracized because of the chair.

Turned out, the wheelchair wasn’t the barrier. Michael had trouble pronouncing his consonants and was sometimes difficult to understand. I quickly realized that his inability to clearly communicate was the biggest roadblock to building relationships.

When the mind works fine, but the words don’t come out right, people stop listening. When people stop listening, your world becomes smaller. Somewhere in that gap between knowing and speaking, a person can get lost.

It’s the same for us in business. We have a message to share, we have a life to live, work to get done. We may not have articulation issues, but we often don’t know how to get our point across. People stop listening. We get angry or frustrated. The relationship disintegrates and melts away.

Communication, then, has the power to restore or create problems. We’d better get it right as it’s vital to how we experience life.

Develop A Communication Perspective

Like a rushing river, patterns of communication have an ebb and flow. We can choose to learn the rhythm of those patterns or we can drown.

What I’m talking about here is communication literacy and how proactive patterns can literally help us create a better world for ourselves and others (Pearce, 2012).

Being proactive means that we have to train ourselves to be fully present in the moment. If we’re not attuned to what the other person is saying and feeling, we can turn the flow of conversation in the wrong direction.

This ebb and flow of communication requires mastery. To sit back and hope that our message will be received as we intend can spell disaster. Emotions get in the way, and things can get messy.

Having a communication perspective on life helps us see patterns of communication “as substantive creative acts rather than simply a way to transmit information" (Pearce 2007; Marrs, 2012).

Pay Attention to How the River Turns

According to Barnett Pearce (2012), one important thing to consider is that “We are always and necessarily coordinating the way we manage our meanings with other people.”

Here’s a silly example:

Some years ago we had a dog that was rather emotionally needy (yes, it can happen to dogs, too). My husband wasn’t particularly fond of this dog.

Every evening, as I walked through the door, the first question I’d ask: “Did you take the dog out yet?”

He’d offer up a curt response: “No. I just got home a few minutes ago. I haven’t even had a chance to change my clothes much less take the stupid dog out!”

Barnett would ask, “What are you making here?

I was inadvertently making my husband wrong. What he most likely heard was, “Why didn’t you take the dog out yet you lazy so-and-so. Why do I always have to do it!”

My choice of words created a pattern of tension between us. So, I changed one word.

One subsequent evening: “Do I need to take the dog out?” The response? “Yes. I haven’t had a chance to do it yet.”

Get the point?

We have the power to change the outcome of our conversations with one another. In communication, we call these changes “turns.”

When we learn to pay attention to the turns, we can make different communication choices that create different outcomes.

Practice The Artistry of Language

Communication mastery is more than just recognizing the turns. Here are some other elements that will move you closer to artistry:

Start with intention

Intention begins with awareness, and it’s also a fluid process that may change from moment to moment. Perhaps you start with an initial intention of getting to know someone. If the person is talkative, your intention might shift to being a better listener. Or, if the person is hostile, your intention may be to say something that will calm him down. Artistry allows you to purposefully shift the turns of the conversation in a direction that “makes” whatever it is you’re hoping to create.

Choose your words carefully

The turns in the conversation are created via body language, tone of voice, eye contact, attitude, gestures, and yes, the words you choose to speak. One word or phrase can change the direction of a conversation. People often remember, react to, and even judge you based on one word or phrase.

It takes considerable practice to develop awareness of your words. Start by noticing how people are responding to your message. In time, you’ll start to see how your patterns and use of words are landing on others. You can then begin to play with other words or phrases that will generate different responses.

Beware of the reptilian brain

This is our Lizard Brain (Marrs, 2012). It’s that primitive part of the brain that’s conditioned to shift into the flight or fight response whenever we’re cornered. Our emotions take over, and we react.

This is a great thing if we’re under attack by a Ninja turtle. In everyday life, however, that same part of the brain can cause us to say or do some pretty stupid things.

Note how and when your emotions rise up. Are they interfering with your ability to communicate? You’ll start to see that certain people or situations trigger the reptilian response. With that first moment of awareness comes the opportunity for change.

Being a proactive communicator is a process. We never get it right all the time. Practice and train as though your experience of life depends on how you communicate.

Because guess what? It really does.

Resources and References

Maars, P. (2012).  Taming the lizard:  Transforming conversations-gone-bad at work.  In C. Creede, B. Fisher-Yoshida, & P.V. Gallegos (Eds).  The reflective, facilitative and interpretive practices of the coordinated management of meaning.  Langham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Pearce, W. Barnett. (2012).  Evolution and transformation:  A brief history of CMM and a meditation on what using it does to us.  In C. Creede, B. Fisher-Yoshida, & P. V. Gallegos (Eds).  The reflective, facilitative, and interpretive practices of the coordinated management of meaning.  Lanham, MD:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Pearce, W. Barnett.  (2007).  Making social worlds:  A communication perspective.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. May 11, 2015