The Art of Communication

Good communication is one of the most pivotal skills we can learn to possess in our lifetime. The ability to communicate affects every aspect of our lives– personal relationships, and success at work, along with all the little day-to-day interactions we encounter with the outside world. Although people sometimes do disagree, many unfortunate conflicts arise as the result of one person misinterpreting what the other is trying to say, missing the mark on an intended meaning, and leaving a stain on relationships.

Orson Scott, the author of the book Ender’s Game, sums it up nicely with this quote:  “So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”

As remote work and virtual schooling become increasingly commonplace, verbal communication takes even more precedence in our ability to navigate the modern world. The conversations we have over the phone, via email, or through video chats can easily be misconstrued when facial expressions are not as clearly presented. Not only can this sometimes offend the other person, but there’s nothing more frustrating than the feeling of not being heard, or not being heard correctly.

If you’re wondering how to improve your communication skills or break down a barrier with someone who never quite seems to “get” what you’re trying to say, there are lots of ways to rework your delivery and become a more effective communicator. Naturally, communication styles differ among various people. This area has remained a topic of human interest for centuries. If you feel like you aren’t fully connecting with others, research done in this area can provide some insight and lead to better outcomes for you as an individual.

How Our Brains Develop an Auditory Face

When we speak to someone new over the phone, our brain interprets various auditory characteristics and starts to develop a mental picture of the person speaking on the other end. This has been referred to as an “auditory face” or the way we envision someone based on how they sound. One of the first factors our brain analyzes is the pitch of a voice, classifying it as male or female.

Scientists at the University of Sheffield observed the brain scans of 12 male subjects as they listened to various male and female voices. Interestingly, they found that different sections of the brain appear to process the voices of men versus women. While male voices were received in the back of the brain (sometimes called the “mind’s eye”), female voices were heard in the auditory section of the brain. The mind’s eye is where our brain compares external stimuli to ourselves. In this case, it makes sense that men in the study interpreted other male voices by comparing them to their own.

Female voices were found to have a greater range of frequencies, making them more difficult for our minds to replicate. Psychiatrists believe this is one of the reasons why voices heard during hallucinations are more likely to come across as male-sounding. Rather than create a more complex female voice, our brains prefer to default to a simpler male voice.

Auditory faces don’t just lead to assumptions about the sex of an individual, but also other factors like age, ethnicity, height, weight, education level, temperament, and attractiveness. Research has shown that older and deeper sounding voices are viewed as more dominant, competent, or aggressive, often influencing who we subconsciously choose as leaders.

The science of how we interpret voice pitch is complex and shouldn’t cause us to alter our natural speech patterns. However, adjusting our tone, the words we choose, and how often we pause to listen are variables we can control. Paying more attention to these characteristics of communication can help us to come across as more open, knowledgeable, understanding, friendly, or quick-witted. Aside from pitch, there are several aspects that play into the way our interactions with others are perceived.

The Value of Listening When We’re Trying to Be Heard

An interesting statistic states that during a conversation, the average person talks about themselves 60% of the time. On social media, this number jumps to 80%. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why social media usage has gained a stigma for breeding self-centeredness and vanity.

Good listeners are hard to come by, but learning to listen better only serves to work to your benefit. Listening can actually improve the likelihood that you’ll be heard when it’s your turn to speak.

When we want someone to change, we tend to assume that the easiest solution is telling them what to do. However, feedback is not associated with behavior change, even when the feedback you give is positive. Researchers analyzing over 600 studies on the impact of feedback found that 38% of the time, it caused performance to decline. It turns out that most humans are naturally defensive against any judgments that we feel don’t reflect our true character (that even goes for compliments). That’s why listening is such a powerful tool.

When we listen to others without interrupting, judging, or zoning out, we offer the gift of ultimate respect. Listening requires time and effort but it pays off in dividends by adding weight to your role in the conversation. We can’t pretend to be good listeners, because others are more perceptive than we may think. By taking the time to truly listen, we allow the other person to fully develop and express their thoughts by thinking out loud. This leads to more balanced conclusions and a better ability to see both sides of an argument.

The next time you feel someone is being too one-sided about an issue, try asking them open-ended questions about it and truly listen to their responses. If you give them enough time, you might be surprised to find out that their beliefs are more complex than you (or they) initially realized. Listening builds trust and sets the stage for others to be more receptive to your suggestions when they’re ready to hear them. Better yet, most people will come to a reasonable argument if provided an opportunity to think about a topic without feeling stifled, criticized, rushed, or dismissed.

The Role of Non-Verbal Communication

When conversing with someone face to face, nonverbal communication can be more influential than the actual words you say. According to psychologist Albert Mehrabian, about 55% of communication is centered around our body language, followed by our tone of voice (38%). Amazingly, he attributes just 8% of communication to the specific words we use.

Certain non-verbal cues are innate and there’s not much we can do to alter them, such as something known as “microexpressions.” People across different cultures produce similar facial expressions in response to emotion. These microexpressions display our immediate reaction no matter how quickly we try to hide it. Microexpressions can even be observed in individuals who have been blind from birth (and would never have had the chance to learn these reactive facial expressions from others). Oftentimes, microexpressions are so fleeting that they go unnoticed by the other person.

Gestures, however, are learned behavior that varies greatly among people of different cultures. A thumbs up or wink might mean something very different from one person to the next. Being mindful of our gestures when interacting with new people can help prevent miscommunication. Because facial expressions representing emotion are more universally understood, harnessing the power of a concerned look or friendly smile can go a long way towards building a bridge to connect with others. It turns out that learning to listen more and using emotional facial expressions in our communications with others are two ways to become a better conversationalist, even if it means talking less.

References:

https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/422-1.174743

https://www.americanscientist.org/article/how-voice-pitch-influences-our-choice-of-leaders

https://www.factretriever.com/talking-facts

https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-power-of-listening-in-helping-people-change

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/nonverbal-communication

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