Learn Effective Communication

Since communication is the primary way we relate, a key component of building relational literacy—the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating—and therefore reducing infighting is learning to communicate effectively. Let’s look at some of the foundational practices for effective communication. 

Focus more on the process than the content of a communication

All communication has two parts: the content and the process. The content is what we’re communicating about, and the process is how we’re communicating. We tend to overfocus on the content—trying to find the right words and string them together in the right way—and underfocus on the process. But the process matters more than the content.

Think of a conversation you had six months or a year ago. Chances are, you’ve forgotten much of the content, but you probably still remember how you felt in that conversation. The process of a communication determines how we feel.

When our process is healthy, we can talk about anything without arguing. And when it’s not healthy, we can’t talk about anything without arguing. (You may know people who agree on almost everything they discuss, yet still find a way to argue with each other.) So learning how to create a healthy communicative process is essential to preventing infighting.

In a healthy process, our goal is not to win, which means making the other person lose. And it’s not to be right, which means making the other person wrong. Our goal is mutual understanding.

A healthy process is the same no matter what the content of a communication is. It doesn’t matter whether we’re discussing if we should go out or stay in on a Saturday night, or if we should use direct action or political lobbying to advocate for change. If our process is healthy, it will be the same in both instances. 

In a healthy process, our goal is not to win, which means making the other person lose. And it’s not to be right, which means making the other person wrong. Our goal is mutual understanding: understanding what the other person thinks, feels, and perhaps needs, and enabling them to understand us. The only reason we communicate with others is because we’re not mind readers.

The formula for healthy relating

A healthy process reflects the formula for healthy relating. 

This formula applies to all interactions and relationships (relationships are, in fact, a series of interactions). And it applies to our communication, since communication is the primary way we relate. 

In a healthy interaction or relationship, we practice integrity and honor dignity. This leads to a greater sense of connection and security. 

Integrity is the alignment of our behaviors with our core moral values of compassion and justice. We practice integrity when we act according to these values. Put simply, when we practice integrity, we treat others the way we would want to be treated if we were in their position; we treat them with respect.

Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else.

When our communicative process is healthier, we’re more likely to have productive discussions that deepen our understanding and enhance our sense of security and connection with one another, and we’re less likely to engage in the divisive debates that fuel infighting.

Relating (which, as noted, includes communicating) is not an either-or phenomenon. It exists on a spectrum. Rarely is an interaction or relationship fully healthy or unhealthy (dysfunctional). Rather, it’s more or less so.

On the healthy side of the spectrum are relational attitudes and behaviors. On the dysfunctional side are nonrelational attitudes and behaviors. Nonrelational attitudes and behaviors are those which violate integrity, harm dignity, and cause us to feel insecure and disconnected.

When our communicative process is healthier, we’re more likely to have productive discussions that deepen our understanding and enhance our sense of security and connection with one another, and we’re less likely to engage in the divisive debates that fuel infighting.

The formula also applies to how we communicate with ourselves. For better or worse, we’re always communicating with ourselves, and most of us do so in a way that we wouldn’t tolerate were it to come from anyone else. 

One simple and powerful way to both improve your communication and enhance your sense of self-worth is to become aware of your internal dialogue, or self-talk. Once you’re aware of it, you can restructure it so that it’s empowering rather than shaming.

At first, it can be useful to set an alarm to go off several times during the day, or to place sticky notes around the house, to remind yourself to pause and ask yourself questions such as the following: “What am I saying to myself?” “Does my internal dialogue reflect compassion and curiosity, or is it judgmental and shaming?” 

Use whole messages

A highly effective and practical way to help ensure that our communicative process is healthy is to use what Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning call “whole messages” in their excellent book Messages. Whole messages are based on the principles of nonviolent communication, as put forth by Marshall Rosenberg, and they’re designed to create an atmosphere of objectivity, respect, and trust and to prevent us from defining reality (appointing ourselves the expert on what another person is thinking or feeling).

Whole messages contain four parts: 

  • Observations: What we’ve observed with our senses—what we’ve seen, heard, and so on. Observations are reports of objective facts, not speculations, interpretations, or conclusions. For example, you might express an observation by saying, “It’s ninety degrees Fahrenheit,” or “I left my phone at home today.”

  • Thoughts: Our conclusions or perceptions based on our observations. Our thoughts are our subjective interpretations of what we’ve observed, and they may include our value judgments, beliefs, and opinions. For example, you might express a thought by saying, “Relationships take work,” or, “Denmark has an interesting political history.”

  • Feelings: Our emotional experience or our bodily sensations. You might say, for example, “I feel ashamed of what I said to you yesterday,” or “My knee hurts.” Often, we say “I feel” when we really mean “I think.” For example, we might say, “I feel like more and more people are attacking others on the internet these days,” when we’re actually expressing a thought.

  • Needs: What we want or hope for. Many of us are ashamed of having needs and have never learned how to articulate them, so we try to get our needs met through indirect means. However, expecting others to meet our needs without our having clearly communicated them is unfair, and it’s a recipe for disappointment and conflict. When you express a need, you might say, “Could you stop by the grocery store on your way home? I’d really love to make pasta for dinner tonight, and we’re all out,” or “When you said that you planned to pull the plug on our current campaign I felt like you made a unilateral decision that affects the whole team. Can we put aside some time this afternoon to talk about this?” Like observations, thoughts, and feelings, needs should reflect your experience, so expressing needs shouldn’t include blaming or judging someone else. In addition, expressed needs should be concrete and direct, and meeting them should be doable.

Practice compassionate witnessing

When we practice the formula for healthy relating, we increase the chances that we’ll practice what psychologist Kathe Weingarten calls “compassionate witnessing,” which is listening with compassion and empathy and without judgment, all with the goal of understanding rather than being right or winning an argument. Compassionate witnessing is validating: we’re saying, “I see you. I empathize and I care.” To be truly seen is a great gift, one that’s sorely lacking in most of our lives and in the world at large. 

Compassionate witnessing can transform our lives, our advocacy, and our world. We can practice it on different levels—toward ourselves, toward others and the broader culture, and toward animals and the environment. Virtually every injustice has been made possible by people who turned away from a reality they couldn’t or wouldn’t face, and virtually every social transformation has been made possible because a group of people chose to bear witness and encouraged others to do so as well.

When we practice compassionate witnessing—and effective communication more broadly—we validate and empower one another and strengthen our sense of security and connection. We create an environment in which infighting is starved of fuel, and we help to create more resilient and impactful groups and movements for justice.

These are just a few of the foundational principles of effective communication. There are many more tips and tools, and we highly recommend learning more. To start, you can check out Messages: The Communication Skills Book.

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