Tag Archive | Pennebaker

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.

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