Communication Skills Part 2: Pay Attention, catch the Meaning!

Do you remember the first blog entry about communication skills? You may have already figured out with which one of the four “ears” you hear best? Or which of the four aspects are pivotal, when you “send” a message yourself?

Today we are going to take a closer look at the potential consequences when one of the four ears becomes the primary means of communication. Because depending on that choice, miscommunication can easily be the result and in the worst-case scenario one can easily careen from one argument into the next. On the other hand (particularly in love relationships but also in commonplace inter-personal day-to-day life) it can be very helpful to consciously put special emphasis on one of the four ears.

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Let us begin with the “Factual Information Ear”, the ear that primarily deals with the clear facts contained in a transmission. It wants to understand every detail of the facts and circumstances, comprehend the possible causes and extrapolate potential ramifications. Friedemann Schulz von Thun (who developed the four aspects model) writes that “particularly men and academics” prioritize this aspect of a message thus neglecting the other three sides. Some communications theoreticians derisively call this ear the “attorney ear”. The attorney ear functions perfectly when the problem that is being discussed is actually based on facts (for instance if your washing machine is broken and you are trying to reach an agreement about its repair with the repairman), but sometimes it can also cause downright grotesque dialogue contortions at times when the real problem actually lurks at the inter-personal level. In love relationships an excellent example is the popular question posed by the female to her partner: “Do you think that I am too heavy?” Every man who has ever faced this conundrum knows that he can only lose with responses on a factual basis (body-measurement-index numbers, dress sizes, statistics of any kind, etc.). If he can’t manage to quickly switch to the appeal content of the message (“tell me that you love me and that I am the most beautiful woman in the world for you!!!”) and react convincingly on this level he won’t be looking forward to a harmonious evening.

The “Relationship Ear” is not all that innocuous, either: The inherent risk when using it is the fact that we tend to feel personally affected – and unfortunately also quickly offended. The Relationship Ear is tuned in on how the other person sees me, what he/she thinks of me; how I perceive that he/she is treating me. When this ear takes over it can easily happen that we take things personally even though they may not be meant that way. Whoever primarily hears with this ear runs the risk of not considering the facts in their entirety but concentrating on the relationship content of the message. At one point he/she sees through a millstone and pretty soon is always on the lookout for that which just has been said but which may well not be recriminating, criticizing or even a rejection. Therefore this ear is also occasionally called the “Self Defense Ear”, because it quickly makes the person focusing on it super sensitive and continuously forces him/her into the permanent justification corner vis-à-vis others: “No thank you, I really don’t want another piece of cake!” – “I knew going in that you wouldn’t like my cake, we should have gone to a café! I am just a lousy cook!”

Similar difficulties lurk for those who are downright “Appeal Ear Listeners”. The Appeal Ear could also jestingly be labeled “Good Samaritan Ear”. Those who primarily listen with it are constantly primed to guess what others may be expecting of them regarding their thoughts, feelings or actions. In most cases these folks are inspired by the pressing wish to meet all these expectations and please everybody. (You can imagine that these people have problems to say “no”) That can lead to someone consistently placing the needs and wishes of others above his/her own and frequently taking on responsibilities no one ever actually asked for – in anticipatory obedience, so to speak. They are focused on their surroundings to the point that they forget all about occasionally listening to themselves and asking about their own needs and wishes. As women we earn the black belt of appeal-listeners! Some psychologists claim that this is also attributable to evolution: A newly born cannot tell when it is hungry, is tired or in pain – a mother must intuit why it is crying. Surely a useful feature but when it gets exaggerated to the point where one jumps up and in response to the question (asked by the adult and perfectly able to walk dearest beloved): ”Do we still have beer in the fridge?” calls on the way out of the door: “No, but I’ll fetch you some out of the basement right away!” then something went a little out of control . . .

Last but not least: the “Self Revelation Ear”. This ear can be very useful if one knows how to deploy it correctly. It pays attention to what the counterpart is saying about him/herself: How is he/she, how he/she is feeling, what is happening with him/her, what kind of a person is he/she anyway? It offers lots of daily possibilities in relationships to deftly deal with germinating conflicts in their early stages and keep them from escalating into something unpleasant. If the husband is able to hear the self-revelation aspect in his wife’s question: “Do you think that I am too heavy” (= “I feel insecure, I need your validation, right now I am not happy with the way I look”) he’ll have a much easier time to react positively and supportively. Otherwise he may just be exasperated, roll his eyes because he can’t understand why women always have to talk about their figure, anyway. When my partner comes home at night and immediately complains like a madman because I left the car lights on it would potentially be helpful to understand that for something that insignificant to get him all hot under the collar, he probably had a lousy day at work. Then I may even manage not to immediately respond in kind but react a little more serene. In this respect the Self-Revelation Ear can be very helpful in averting lots of conflicts. Having said this, on the other hand too much of that can also be unhealthy. Some people overdo it with this ear to the point where any feedback from others just bounces off. Because it may be easy although it makes no sense taking the attitude: “When he/she says that I am arrogant its just because he/she is insecure him/herself!” And it gets to be totally counterproductive if one uses the self-revelation component as a weapon in order to somehow expose and show the other person up in order to then subvert his/her arguments: ”You only get all bent out of shape when you find my socks on the floor because you come from a controlling family! Your mother is the same way!”

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Each ear is important and useful however here little training also goes a long way. Namely by trying not to judgmentally empathizing with the other person’s emotions and thought processes. (Here the difficulties especially apply to the “non-judgmental” part, you’ll appreciate that once you consciously try it yourself). An old American Indian proverb says: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins!” And that is exactly the point – understanding the other’s world, see it through his/her eyes as much as possible. A good method for that (in addition to this moccasin business) is the so-called active listening. If you feel like it, why don’t you practice that on occasion:

  • Let the other person finish what he/she is saying! (Even if he/she is sometimes a little verbose or you feel somehow offended.)
  • Suppress spontaneous expressions of opinion! (Especially for impulsive and extroverted types a very tough thing to do! Keeping your mouth shut when something is on the tip of your tongue and you feel like exploding is truly an art!)
  • When the other person is speaking be ostensibly and visually attentive! (In these situations empty phrases such as - “hmhm”, “aha”, “wow”’, etc. are permitted. However, active body language, eye contact and non-verbal signals such as nodding or a slightly towards the other person inclined posture are even more important.)
  • Repeat that which you have heard in your own words! (“Did I correctly understand that . . .?” – “You mean that . . .” Now the other person has the opportunity to immediately correct any potential misunderstandings. He/she also sees that you are with him/her and appreciate his/her concerns – probably the most important component of successful communication.)
  • Put into words what you believe is emotionally resonating! (“It appears to me that you are very angry.” – “When you tell it like that you seem to be very sad.” That also helps to avoid misunderstandings and signals to the other that you are sincerely interested in him/her. Watch your “I” verbalization – you are only reflecting your impression and not an actual irrefutable fact!)
Sounds easy when one reads it – but in every-day-life and being personally and emotionally involved it is not so easy to do. But it‘s truly worth it – I like practicing it with the participants in couples workshops and the changes it sets in motion are often amazing. Obviously this works only if taken seriously, characterized by a serious commitment and your counterpart does not get the feeling of having his/her leg pulled or being ironized. Try it, if you feel like it!

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

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