“One cannot not communicate”, said a wise man by the name of Paul Watzlawick once. A simple sentence with a lot of power.
Let’s look at human communication more closely: Googling the word “communication” results in 2 580,000,000 hits – which is every bit as extensive as the complexity of human communication.
The first and most succinct example for Paul Watzlawick’s statement is the interaction between verbal and non-verbal communication. Even when our mouths are closed, we are communicating. Our facial expressions, gestures and body posture often say more about our moods than we wish or want. For instance, all of us have probably had the experience at one time or another of sitting across from a person who seemed friendly enough but we still had a strange feeling of unease – as if the verbal statements weren’t quite matching up with the non-verbal body language.
But how do we know what is “true” and what isn’t? Where does this strange unease come from? How do we decide whether to trust a communication or listen to our alarm system’s shrill cry? The answer is simple – we have learned over the course of our life. As babies, our entire communication is non-verbal. We learn to interpret the smallest change in behavior within milliseconds. And as we mature and add the spoken word to our repertoire, we learn to connect the two components, and to anchor them deeply in our subconscious. When body language that we learned as “normal” doesn’t match up with what we are hearing, it sets off an alarm in our subconscious within milliseconds.
That brings us to another essential component of communication: The topic of sender-receiver. We know that we start to learn how to communicate – i.e., how to transmit information as well as how to receive it – starting from the first day of our life. And not only that – as we learn, things are continually enriched with emotions, memories are added, fears built up, and great pleasure is connected, and then it is all deeply anchored in our subconscious.
That makes our communication as individuals as unique as our fingerprints because the journeys of our lives are also so individual. Before something can truly become a spoken word, it has to go through the individual filter of the person who is transmitting the information. We encrypt the message in terms of our own (and thus unique!) reality. And the recipient of the information? They decode the message through the filter of all of their unconsciously learned “facts” and create their own reality. Communication could be so much more optimized if the sender didn’t have to encrypt and the recipient filter the message – that’s obvious. It would be so easy, if it weren’t for our subconscious. But controlling this is one of the biggest challenges there are.
Do not try to manipulate people by putting all your energy into observing how they sit, smile, breathe or hold their hands. You might manipulate the conversation, but not on a trustworthy basis. Instead, you’ll have that yucky feeling that something doesn’t quite fit. Our subconscious communicates with us, unfortunately, only very cryptically by giving us a “gut feeling” that cannot be explained.
Try to give the person across from you what he or she needs in the moment. Understanding? Explanations? Exact plans? Or maybe even a clear “STOP!”.
“And if all this is in vain?”, you may ask yourself. Yes, there will be situations when this is the case – and again we realize the complexity and individuality of human communication.
Guest contribution: Christina Beck, Communication Trainer