Tag Archive | listening

Purpose and Expression

The Yelling Coach

Many years ago, I was part of a team of psychologists researching social interaction between the coaches and players of a leading professional soccer team. It was the habit of one of the coaches to sit on the bench during a game, yelling profane criticism at the players in an effort to motivate them. When the data were analyzed it was found that the main effect of these supposedly motivational tirades was that all the players  avoided that part of the field that was in earshot of the coach!

This is a good example of a common communication problem – using expressive communication in an attempt to influence.

There are two broad categories of communication, expressive and purposeful.

Expressive communication entails the simple expression of thoughts and feelings. It is not primarily designed to provoke a response or to influence others. It is meant to be a statement of some aspect of our personal experience. Expressive communication does have value. By talking out loud, feelings and thoughts come into sharper focus. The act of expressing feelings helps define exactly what those feelings are and let’s others know how you feel. This is one of the great benefits of keeping a journal. Expressing is thinking. The expression of feelings can also help to relieve the pent-up tension and internalized pressure that accompanies strong emotions. Venting has great therapeutic value as the work of Dr James Pennebaker attests

There is also something else that is important about expressive communication – it’s easier and more natural.  Most people like to talk about themselves: That is a subject that is endlessly interesting to them and it requires little effort. Expressive communication does not require consideration of anyone else. Expressive communication is egocentric communication.

Purposeful communication, on the other hand, is designed to influence others, whether that is to buy our product, accept our proposal or simply agree with us. There are several problems, however, with purposeful communication.

First, because it is simply not an egocentric expression of our selves, it requires more effort. For one thing, effective purposeful communication means listening to your audience and tailoring your message to their needs.

Second, many people are often very unclear that they have a specific purpose.

Third, most of us are never trained in how to communicate purposefully. How many courses have you taken in listening skills, non-verbal communication, establishing rapport and techniques of influence?

A lack of training in purposeful communication leads to a reliance on expressive communication even when it is not appropriate. As children we have a naturally expressive rather than purposeful style. If you are never trained in anything different, however, the expressive and egocentric styles will predominate.

One of the biggest communication mistakes most people make, therefore, is that they use expressive and thus egocentric communication even when they are trying to influence others. This leads to miscommunication, frustration and failure. As if this is not bad enough, many of us  are unclear about the exact  purpose of our communication. So we are not sure what it is we are trying to achieve and we are not using the right tools to reach goals we have not articulated!

The use of expressive communication to influence others is often accompanied by what can be best described as “magical thinking.” Magical thinking leads to the conviction that influence is possible when the only grounds for believing this is your fervent desire for it to be so. In my counseling work I often came across individuals who had unrealistic expectations about their ability to change others in their lives. One of the great frustrations in life is the recognition that we cannot control another person unless they are compliant. (It is also one of the most liberating ideas, too, if you embrace it)

Simple expression of feelings and thoughts rarely  influence others.  Your reality is your reality and it’s often not shared by your listener. We  imagine others will immediately empathize with our expressive communication but that rarely happens or is generally powerful enough to exert real influence.

Purposeful communication requires building a bridge between speaker and listener so that their worlds can be connected. Without that bridge, speaker and listener are separate, unconnected entities.

Listening: How to Get Someone To Open Up To You

Many years ago, at the beginning of my career as a therapist, I was working with a couple. The wife’s main complaint was not an uncommon one — “my husband doesn’t reveal much of himself, so I never know what he is really thinking and feeling.” Indeed, her husband was a pretty quiet guy and after a few sessions I was wondering whether he truly was alexithymic (that’s one of my favorite words so I had to put in here! )The word means “difficulty talking about emotions.”

Some time during our fifth session he did express a very personal feeling. No sooner were the words out of his mouth before his wife launched into a rant on why his feelings were invalid and unreasonable. Whereupon, the man stood bolt upright and announced, “That’s why I never say anything,” and left the office never to be seen again.

For a young therapist it was a great demonstration of the fact that if you want people to talk to you about important thoughts and feelings, you have to create an environment where they will feel safe to do so. Very few people will reveal themselves if they think they are going to be criticized, ridiculed or simply not taken seriously. At the heart of effective communication and listening then, is the ability to create an atmosphere where the other person trusts you will be respectful of what they are about to say. When I think about trust in a relationship, the ability to trust your partner to respect what you are saying maybe the most important trust there is.

Sometimes, people bring that fear and mistrust into their interactions, in which case you will have to work extra hard to reassure them that they are safe to reveal themselves. One implication of this is that wherever practical you need to ensure that you have the time and mindset to create a trusting environment. The automatic brain response to something we don’t agree with is to attack, so creating the right trusting environment takes practice and effort. It’s not typically the default setting. So if you are tired, stressed, distracted or overwhelmed, the chances are that you are not going to be a patient listener and under those circumstances perhaps the conversation is best delayed.

Many people are raised in environments where there is little respect or trust and as a result feel very inhibited from talking intimately about themselves. A partner who can create a trusting environment to reverse that learned inhibition offers a great, nurturing service, that will go along way to creating intimacy. And talking of intimacy, physical intimacy follows from the intimacy that is generated where two people can trust each other enough to have an open and honest interaction based on trust and respect.

So think about your interactions. I expect there are some people you feel very safe with and others you don’t trust at all. Could you do better at creating a communication environment where people feel safe to talk to you? If you are a walking attack waiting to happen, don’t expect people to trust you.

Respecting someone else’s views and feelings — and even understanding them — is not the same as accepting them or tolerating them. This confusion between understanding and accepting often interferes with the ability to create a trusting communication environment and will be the subject of a future blog.