Communication Is So Easy – Not!

6.30.16 communication

Margaret was tired, stressed, and hoping for the best from her equally tired, stressed, and also trying hard husband of four years. But she felt extra burdened, like the final weight of everything was ultimately fell on her shoulders.  They were both nearing the end of their ropes when a sudden project deadline loomed and the stakes to complete were high.

Nick worked on the project to the best of his ability, but it was his first time attempting the job and he didn’t have the necessary skill set yet. But with no time to gain the needed experience or to bring in an expert, his attempt would have to suffice. The real crux of the matter was that Margaret personal standards were quite a bit higher than Nick’s standards, which they both agreed on.

I think it looks pretty good,” Nick commented rather proudly when the project was done.  “Really? I don’t know how you can possibly think that, when I’m close to tears,” Margaret stoically replied.  She was holding back a more pointed and mean response.

This young couple are not infrequently poles apart on the same thing. Communication should be easy enough, but it isn’t, even with those we are closest to and who we strive to understand the best.  Maybe that’s because we don’t really work at communicating well and we just assume that the other person will eventually over time figure out that this is the way we are, take me or leave me, just as I am. Or, maybe it’s that we don’t know how to make changes in how we communicate.  How important can it be any way, in the big scheme of things?  Very important, if you rate happiness as being important.  Relationship happiness is a key component to overall happiness.

As social beings we are all biologically geared towards cooperating and caring about others. We need other people and they need us. Survival dictates that we communicate well with others to get our needs met. In the old days these were physical needs like food (will you share your garden produce?), shelter (will you help me build a hovel?) and security (I’m on your team against our common enemy).  Today those needs with others are now mental, centering on affection (will you love me?), friendship (will you be my friend?) and emotion (will you give me comfort when I’m sad?).

As competitive beings we are geared towards being selfish and putting our needs first ahead of others (survival of the fittest).  Yes, we want the love of others, certainly the love of a spouse, but we must maintain our precious self-esteem. When self-esteem takes a hit, when self-confidence plummets, the selfishness inside of us looks to place the blame elsewhere.  Me – wrong?  Yeah, no, I don’t think so. We want to be right 100% of the time, which is problematic when everybody else feels exactly the same way. In reality most of the time we are probably more wrong than right, because we learn and grow from our mistakes.

The cleanest, most accurate definition of Communication is: moving what’s in your mind into another person’s mind.  That’s all there is to it – creating that same picture from one mind to the next, with all the degrees of understanding/lack of understanding that exists between two minds, or among many minds, if communicating with a crowd.  Easy to communicate well and clearly?  Actually rather hard, because of all the variables that causes different minds to be any amount of legions apart.

You say one thing and you think it’s clearly understood. You forget how your understanding of something is so deeply colored by your experience level. And the other person has a completely different lifetime experience perspective, so by definition no one can understand something exactly the same way as you understand it.  It’s just not possible, and so we have any myriad of communication problems, with no simple one-stop solutions.

The crux of a person’s personality is a product of how they were raised as a child and their unique reaction to those formative years. Two children from the same home can come out as very different adults, neither good nor bad, just different. This we all know and accept.  What’s interesting is how this process occurs, especially interesting if you are a current parent raising young children.

We tend to raise our children similarly to how we were raised, with our parents doing the same thing back through the generations. So any communication problems, poor habits in addressing issues, lack of strong communication skills are passed down through the ages. Coupled with this is that our strong communication skills are not usually developed until we are older and we are well past our child-rearing years, so our young do not always gain the benefit of our newfound communication skills during their formative years. Unfortunately.

This is obvious in generation after generation where weak traits run through families, and the loop is rarely broken.  One person communicates poorly because their parents were poor communicators, and their children continue along the same lines subsequently poorly communicating with their own children, because it’s all they know. It’s hard to change what you’ve known and practiced since childhood; it’s really hard to adopt new behavior when you don’t know it exists. And knowing and accepting are two different things.  There’s really no one to blame for poor communication skills, but everyone in society loses.

Back to Margaret and Nick.  Nick’s values tells him that giving a passable effort is good enough and ‘good on you’ for trying, which is what he heard his whole life growing up. The easy way is acceptable and better than not doing anything at all.  Margaret’s work ethic is along the lines of ‘take pride in your work; anything worth doing is worth doing well’ and she can’t settle for any half-assed attempt, certainly not with her name attached.

But if she continues to beat Nick up over the years about his inferior work output, he will cease to listen, become unmotivated, and will stop trying altogether.  “If it’s not good enough for you, do it yourself” is the common voice of one who is protecting their self-esteem.  But this response is not a conversation starter, rather it’s a nonstarter. And not talking through the years turns into ‘we’ve grown apart’, often culminating in divorce.

Communicating well and consistently is hard but not impossible.  Every relationship is like a garden; it needs tending, weeding, and a good amount of attention to thrive and stay healthy.



Get a Clue! – Follow THE Unwritten Code

6.23.16 unwritten codeWhat you don’t know the communication code?  Yeah, right, like I believe that! Everyone alive knows the Code, unless you’ve grown up away from civilized society, raised in the woods by wolves, or if you are a toddler.  But none of that was true of the car salesman who sat in front of me.  HE used to be the hotshot GM of a large conglomerate of dealerships.  HE used to oversee 900 sales employees.  HE just told me how successful he was for 4 decades in sales.  So how come he is now somehow amnesiac about playing by the proper rules?

We all know the Code’s unwritten rules: First, I ask you about your family; you then go on for a moderate amount of time about how brilliant, beautiful, and successful your only daughter is, while I listen politely, feign interest, nod encouragingly with a little smile on my face.  Next – please, everyone, chime in together since we all know full well what comes next – you then ask me about my family.  I then get a brief brag period, and we feel like we have done the rapport dance needed to go about the business at hand.

Next, feeling like we are now friends, or at least on friendly terms, I ask for some negotiating piece, so I feel good about the exchange of a large sum of money.  You then give me an inch, if you can, or if you really can’t, you at least say you can’t in an apologetic tone of feigned would-if-I-could language.  Those are the game rules, no surprise to anyone.  And with them firmly in place communication runs along smoothly, because everyone is on the same page.

Here’s what happened instead with this bozo

Him: blah, blah, brilliant, beautiful, successful… for way too long

Me: polite silence and nodding, doing my part quite well

Him: OK, are you going to buy this car or aren’t you?

(break in the conversation for puzzlement – What??!?? Are you serious??)

Me: Well, how about if you allow us more for the trade-in to cover the cost of the extended warranty you’re raving about [and I know you get a hefty chunk of overpriced commission on]?

Him: Nope, the price stands period. [not even an effort towards being conciliatory!]

Call 911 now because I’m just about to jump out of my chair and strangle this fat s.o.b. with his own gaudy necktie.  Why don’t you just play nice, instead of disparaging the reputations of decent car salesmen everywhere with this typically gauche behavior?

The next occurrence happened in line at a store’s customer service counter: the elderly gent at the front of the line was taking his time buying lottery tickets.  A store employee gets 4th in line behind my husband, striking up a conversation with him about this, that and the other thing, including people taking too much time buying lottery tickets.

After the elderly man concludes his purchase, this guy jumps in front of my husband and requests of the woman, now next in line, to go in front of her “because he only has one transaction”!  Look around, buddy, everyone only has one transaction, and they’ve all been waiting longer than you have – but your time is somehow more valuable than theirs?

Again I wonder, how do you not know the blatantly obvious code of proper communication and behavior?  Oh, right, you’re a wolf’s child, sorry I didn’t realize you were THAT guy.

Everyone knows that the unwritten rules for this situation state:

1) Wait your turn, unless you are gravely injured and need immediate medical attention

2) Give the elderly additional time out of respect, unless #1 is true

3) Don’t cut in front of a woman when you are an able-bodied man

4) Don’t cut the line at all, especially with a lame reason for rude behavior

Look around – there is ignorant behavior happening every day, everywhere.  We are that society, with too many members who have conveniently ‘forgotten’ the rules of polite behavior, which allow us to co-exist with a modicum of pleasantness.

And those who need to return to ‘finishing school’ – or who never attended in the first place – are too boorish to even know that they need a lesson in civility.

Know anyone who could use more than a little touch of class?


Why You Care That Language Revolves Around 3

6.16.16 the world of 3

The other day my daughter was looking on social media and read somewhere that Paul McCartney had died – no!  It’s not true – let’s make sure we’re not advancing any bad rumors here.  Sir Paul is NOT dead, likely he’s in fine health.

But my other daughter quickly said, “Yup, things happen in threes.  First it was Prince, then Ali, so…”  How quickly we are to believe something simply because of the irrational concept that ‘things always happen in threes’.

Why is it that we think this way?  Why is the brain so apt to enjoy the comfort of things happening in threes, when there is no rationality for this line of thinking?

As a small number, 3 is an easy recall and so it is processed smoothly. In linguistic lingo this is a concept called cognitive fluency, simply meaning that we like things that are easy to think about – duh!  Of course – who wants to think about hard stuff?

It used to be that not so very long ago we could recall a string of 9 things, hence our 9-digit Social Security numbers.  But as the times became more complex, with ever more things to remember, our capacity to recall dropped down to 7 things, i.e. phone numbers (back when area codes were all the same for a state and didn’t need to be remembered).

Then the complexity of the world escalated further and the 7 item recall capacity dropped down to 4-5 things that we could easily hold in short-term memory, which is where we are in today’s uber-data world.  Throughout it all, 3 remained unwaveringly easy.

Those 3 little pigs, Goldilocks and that family of 3 bears, 3 Billy goats gruff – our childhood stories and nursery rhymes reinforced the concept of the world built around 3.  When you have 3 items – not 2 that feels like something is lacking, or 4 that is starting to strain our memory – then it feels like all is right with the world and things are as they should be.

So why is this good to know in the world of communication?  When you are communicating, if you remember the rule of 3 you will be most effective in your communication. Give 3 reasons to back up your argument; if there are only 2 strong reasons come up with a third.  Really.  If there are 4 strong reasons, go with the 3 strongest ones, and omit the fourth weakest one.

When describing something list 3 supporting details.  Was he tall, dark and handsome?  Well he wasn’t short and squat, but maybe he was short, squat and pimply. Get how ‘short and squat’ is just a little too brief and feels like something is missing without the third trait added on?

It’s like the brain is waiting for the third item to process, which is much more comfortable than not having it.  And cognitive comfort, fluency, and ease of understanding (see how I came up the third item here, which wasn’t immediately obvious what it would be, but was necessary to have – 3!) leads to a perception of accuracy. When something is smooth and easy to process, it rings to the brain as truer than not.  This has no rational basis whatsoever, but there it is nonetheless.

Which is why my daughter was so quick to believe that the recent demise of Paul McCartney was likely true.  Logically it makes no sense that one celebrity death would have any bearing on another famous unrelated person’s life, yet something in our brain says “that feels about right”.

This is the concept of closure, pattern completion that the brain strives for constantly. As we try to make sense of the world around us, the brain seeks patterns to gain understanding and put the unfamiliar into the familiar.  The pattern of 3 is such a strong one that it literally begs for completion.

The format of “___________, ___________ and ___________” is important to maintain in writing, in all communication, for best effectiveness.  Maintain it and you will not only have credibility, but perceived accuracy as well.  Ignore the Rule of 3 and your communication will unnecessarily suffer.



Order Up Some Different Word Order

6.9.16 word orderThe words you choose to communicate with are important, and the order that you put the words in can pack the biggest punch.

Think movie titles, which need impact to be remembered.  The musical concept of ‘perfect pitch’ becomes the movie Pitch Perfect, a related but different musical concept, and 100% on target.

Consider this sentence:  It’s not more thinking about yourself, it’s thinking about yourself more.  What, huh?!? – that one’s a mind bender; better read it again to catch the comparison.

Some may think the expression is basically saying the same thing twice, just convoluted the second time, but note the clever distinction. ‘More thinking about yourself’ implies that there is an inadequate amount of self-thinking happening.  ‘Thinking about yourself more’ implies a lack of self-consideration, which is about the quality of the thinking.

Here’s a classic truism: No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.  While this maxim is frequently used in sales training, it is applicable across much of communication.

Sure there are more direct ways to say, “Show them that you care before talking or they won’t listen to you” but notice how much more impact the clever expression has.  Sentence formation counts – if you want your words to carry power and influence.

A good way to show wit is to take a common expression, a cliché, and transpose two key words groups with each other.  Never put off for tomorrow, what you can do today becomes: Never do today what you can put off for tomorrow – an effective way to flip the meaning.

At first the brain assumes it’s the standard cliché, then realizes it’s been taken for a ride with an incongruent flip.  Rewind and replay to catch the meaning of the new juxtaposition.

When words are constructed to make us stop and think, they have power.  Our brains evolved to take mental shortcuts whenever possible, to save our energy (the brain is an energy hog) for the important thinking processes coming; those shortcuts tell our brain not to listen to mundane, rote, yeah-yeah-I-got-it sentences.  We quickly move on mentally – “oh, sorry, I stopped listening…”

Clever language constructions wake up our brain to do the work of processing the unfamiliar.  We want to understand and our brains enjoy working, which makes linguistic word play interesting and fun.

Need to make a power statement to carry some punch? Add instant impact with a surprising word order shift.  Practice makes perfect, or should I say: Make practice perfect – oh, just try it!  Those old clichés could use a reboot, and you’ll come out looking like a witty writer 🙂


It’s Sooo ANNOYING When…

annoyingYes – you – you’re annoying me!  For the love of god, STOP doing that …please!

Many things annoy many people – sometimes little things that people do simply drive you to distraction.  Sometimes something you didn’t find annoying before, now you realize has become quite annoying over time.  These are usually minor things that at one time in the not so distant past you may have even considered to be cute, but no longer; now – annoying!

Annoyances come in all shapes and sizes.  Sounds, smells, verbal expressions, nervous tics, and a myriad of other possibilities someone at some time has thought “how annoying” about another person.

Then there are the universal annoyances:  Fingernails on a chalkboard – painfully annoying.  Certain laughs (Jeff Bezos is reputed to have quite a distinctive guffaw).  Nasal / high voice pitches.  Idiosyncratic personal habits.  OK, maybe that last one falls under pet peeves, which are annoyances, but are more individual than universal.

My favorite declaration of “So annoying!” is when things go wrong, which can happen daily and multiple times a day, especially with technology snafus – and annoyingly there’s no one to blame or point to as the cause of those annoyances, which is simply: sh*t happens, an annoying part of life!

Which leads to the lightbulb answer of what causes something to be considered annoying – we are annoyed by pattern disruption.  Yep, we are great creatures of habit and we like our patterns fairly predictable.  Not routine ruts, which can be boring and ho-hum, but predictable patterns held up to what we expect to happen. This allows us to make sense of the world and our place in it. And when everything is right with the world, it spins along nicely according to predictable lines, we happily go our merry way.  But when the pattern disrupts – how annoying!  Why did that happen?  What else, not so good, is this a predictor of that might soon follow?

An annoying sound is one that doesn’t fall into our acceptable range of OK, which could mean trouble.  A weird laugh or voice pitched wrong indicates a natural flaw which has potential to impair the gene pool.  Also true of offbeat personal habits – less than perfect DNA is not attractive mate material.

So it turns out that humans are pretty shallow beings, but this is Mother Nature talking, not our conscious thoughts.  We are just her messengers – and we get annoyed.  With so much going on and so much data to process and interact with, we can get annoyed a lot.  A lot of can go wrong in a day to raise the annoyance-meter.

A key to self-communication is to not let minor annoyances bother us.  Just let them roll away and not allow them to ruffle a perfectly good day, since they are trivial (I did say minor annoyances), frequently occur, and likely can’t be changed anyway, so don’t give them any mental real estate.  Tune them out like a static radio station.

The thing about annoyances is that they sap away energy needed for other things, and turn positive energy into negative energy, a waste of a good resource.  Negative emotions are proven to do physiological harm in elevated blood pressure, cortisol levels (stress), and immune system impairment.  So there is harm in allowing yourself to get overly annoyed and nothing good to be gained.

So when you see that next pattern disruption coming your way – and there will always be one coming, and another one coming after that – don’t get annoyed.  Just smile and let it pass you by.  Or if that doesn’t work, then repeat this mantra: I will not get annoyed, I will not get annoyed, I will not….

Have an annoyance story to share below?