You’re Probably Underestimating How Hard Good Communication Is

People talk about “Public Speaking” or “Oration” as skills, and they are. We call people “gifted communicators” if they’re generally skilled at conveying complex information or ideas in ways that even those without topical expertise will understand. 

We get, on some level, that communication can be hard. But the above is mainly about one-directional communication. It’s what you’re engaging in when you write blog or social media post, when you’re speaking at conferences or in a classroom or for a Youtube video. It’s not what people engage in day to day with their friends and family and coworkers, which is more two-directional communication.

And yet we don’t have a word for “two-dimensional communication skill,” the way we do “Oration,” or words for people who are really good at it. We might say someone is a “good listener” if they can do the other half of it, and there are some professions that good two-dimensional communication is implicitly bundled with, such as mediators or therapists, but neither is specifically skilled in doing the everyday thing.

So first let’s break this “two-directional communication” thing down. What does it actually take to be good at communicating like this? What subskills does it involve? 

1) Listening to the words people actually say, also known as digital communication.

2) Holding that separate from the implications that went unsaid, but may be informed by body language, tone, expression, etc, also known as analogue communication.

3) Evaluating which of those implications are intended given context rather than the result of your heuristics, cached expectations, typical-mind, and general knowledge you take for granted.

4) Checking your evaluation of implications before taking them for granted as true or reacting to them.

This is what it means to be a good listener. Not in the “you let me talk for a long time and were supportive” sense, but strictly as a matter of whether you managed to accurately take in the information communicated without missing signal or adding noise.

The second half of being a good communicator involves:

5) Communicating your ideas clearly, with as little lost between the concepts you have in mind and the words you use to express them.

6) Being aware of what your words will imply, both to the individuals you’re speaking to and to the average person of the same demographics.

7) Being aware of what your body language, tone, expression, and the context you’re saying it will imply. 

8) Adding extra caveats and clarifications  to account for the above as best you can.

Each of these can be broken down further, but as the baseline these are all extremely important. And yet very few people are great at all of them. let alone consistently able to do each well at all times.

I think this is important both as a signpost for what people should strive to do, as a humility check against people who take for granted that they’re communicating well while failing at one or more of the above, and last but not least, as something that should be acknowledged more often in good faith conversations, particularly if things start to go awry.

Good communication is harder than we collectively think, and effective two-directional communication is one of those skills we often take for granted that we’re at least decent at because we engage in it all the time, and usually get by just fine. But this leaves us less prepared for when we’re in a situation where we or others fail at one of the above skills, in which case it’s good to have not just a bit more awareness of why we fail, but humility that it’s always a two-way street.

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