When Communicating Feels Like
an Obstacle Course

People Talking While Having Coffee

Communicating can feel frustrating and unsettling when trust hasn’t been established, you don’t have a full grasp on what the topic is, what the elephant in the room might be, or if there may be a trap in the conversation.

You want to side-step falling into a conversational void, but aren’t quite sure what is okay and not okay to talk about.  In today’s politicized climate, friends and family can hold different views than you do.  The workplace can feel edgy.  Simply put, it can feel a little risky to go too far beyond small talk.

How does one navigate what appears to be an obstacle course of communication?  First, remember that tolerance of different views is a principle of freedom. Second, aim to maintain a civil, friendly demeanor, as you want others to feel safe around you. 

Create a Climate of Trust

The core of communicating well is listening effectively.  It is so important that I always list it first when advising students and clients on communication issues.

Every person needs to feel heard and acknowledged.  The tool kit for accomplishing this includes:

  • Listen with willingness to hear.  Be present and give the other person your full attention.  Avoid listening just to respond.  Be able to paraphrase accurately what the other person is saying.
  • Default to the assumption that others are well-intended, though they may have strong differences of perception on political, societal, familial, or workplace issues of concern.  
  • Aim for open-mindedness.  Ask yourself, “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?”  Imagining yourself in someone else’s place will help you be aware of your own emotions and it’s a great way to check how you might be coming across.
  • Allow your non-verbal body language to be friendly and open. Smiling helps you pause more often.

Civility Counts

Aiming to be etiquette-ful readies you for civility from the get-go.  Your intentions lay the groundwork.

Identify and clear up confusion:

  • When confusion seems to interfere in perception, it’s respectful to signal that you could use some help.  “Please help me understand,” is a way of signaling that you are open-minded and aware that you could use some understanding.
  • When you sense others are confused, try to clarify and ask if you’ve gotten lost in the conversation.
  • It’s okay to comment, “Is there an elephant in the room?  I think I hear it stomping around.”

If communication barriers seem to be blocking the road, the pause is your most useful etiquette tool. The pause helps in overcoming the feeling that you have so much information to share that you will break if you don’t blurt it out.

Your pausing can help others, too, as it affords the opportunity for calmness, offering time to push emotions to the side and leave room for exploration.

Communicating with Clarity

Clarity is essential in meeting your expectation and hope of communicating effectively.   Not only does this mean you choose your words carefully.  Body language and tone of voice, need to match your words.

Asking for clarification is a useful etiquette skill and is perceived by others as caring and kind, which is solution to many an obstacle.  When others perceive you as interested in them, communication obstacles can be overcome.

There may be a proverbial elephant in the room.  Being mindful that some topics should simply be off the table for discussion is something to think about.  

When communicating feels like an obstacle course, we can remember that we have a responsibility to create “An Etiquette in the Room” in our conversations.

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