Good communication is always simple.
What’s hard is having the courage to let it be. To say “I don’t love you,” rather than concoct some elaborate web of intricate, lesser truths — or even outright lies — hoping the other will stumble into it, trip, and fall over all on their own.
In the movie Hitch, titular character and communication expert Alex says:
“60% of all human communication is nonverbal; body language. 30% is your tone. So that means 90% of what you’re saying ain’t coming out of your mouth.”
It sounds intriguing, but I think it grossly underestimates the importance of truth. Even our subjective one. If you’ve ever sheepishly confessed something, shaking like a wet poodle, you know what I mean: A powerful sentence uttered poorly may be weaker than it could be, but it doesn’t turn the truth into a lie. People can tell what we tell. And they’ll react accordingly.
When I fail to communicate clearly, to say what I want to say, it’s almost never because of some complex combination of circumstances. It’s that I’m too afraid to say what I really — like really — think and believe. I have wiggled my way around questions, nodded my head when I should have shaken it, said “yes” when I meant to say “no,” shied away from asking for help, neglected giving compliments, and hated saying “sorry.” All in hopes of the truth magically finding its way to the light, which, of course, it never does.
Because it’s my job to take it there. The job, really. A job for all of us. The only one that matters. I’m not sure how much of what we’re saying comes out of our mouths, but I know that 90% of what does is a weak version of the truth. We may soften it to be polite, censor ourselves to maintain our image, or ask for less than we want because it’s more than we think we deserve, but, at the root of it all, there’ll always be fear.
There’s no way for me to bestow the power to act in spite of this fear upon you or even myself. It’s a war fought in countless battles over one’s lifetime, and you’ll need to summon the courage to be honest time and again. But it helps to keep some truths at hand. A little vial filled with beacons, all but ready to release. You’ll still have to uncork it each time, but at least it’s close by.
I’m only 27, but I’ve had — or would’ve had — to use all of these hundreds of times already. Here’s hoping that, in the future, you and I both will.
When you don’t know something, say:
“I don’t know.”
People will respect you for it. It’s a chance for them to say “I don’t know” too. And then you can figure it out together. We think of this line as an admission of defeat, but it’s actually the beginning of taking your power back.
When you don’t understand something, say:
“I don’t understand.”
People will explain again. Actually, most of the time, they’ll be happy to. It means they can double-check that they understood what they told you themselves. If you think about how comfortable you are with explaining things multiple times yourself, you’ll see why others will likely be too.
When you don’t agree with something, say:
“I don’t agree.”
People will respect your opinion. At least tolerate it. At least most of the time. Don’t launch into an immediate defense. Just plant your flag. Stand your ground. Stay still and watch what happens. Will they stand theirs? Start an attack? Or even join your side? Very few things in life can neatly be separated into right and wrong, which means very few ideas really need justification.
When you don’t want to do something, say:
“No, thank you, I don’t want to do this.”
People will find a way without you. They always have in the past and they always will in the future. No one is indispensable forever. Just like time heals all wounds, it makes everyone replaceable eventually. Spouses. Neighbors. Parents. Bosses. Leaders. Friends. You’re never too important to say no.
When you have a hard time going it alone, say:
“Excuse me, can you help me with this?”
People will be happy to give you a hand. Like “I don’t know,” asking for help makes people more likely to trust you, not less. After Benjamin Franklin borrowed a book from a rival legislator, they became lifelong friends. In fact, showing vulnerability is probably the only way to truly overthrow animosity.
When you like someone, say:
“I like you.”
People will like you back. Maybe not as much. Maybe more. But, when in doubt, most people opt to be friendly. They might not like you enough to kiss you, or to give you a job, or to go on holiday together, but they won’t stand in your way. And even if they thought about it before, now, they won’t cross you.
When you know you made a mistake, say:
“I’m sorry. That was my fault.”
People will forgive you. The word ‘default’ is made from ‘de,’ which means ‘out of,’ and ‘fault,’ which means ‘guilt.’ When we ‘default’ to doing something, that’s a safety mechanism meant to cover us in advance. We hate admitting mistakes more than making them and so our default reaction is to shamefully sweep them under the rug. True guilt, however, is too painful to just shake off. So we fess up and fix our mistakes. Therefore, it’s a feeling worth embracing.
In a world full of information, sending signals through the noise is more important than ever. In a world full of devices, it’s enough that the medium twists the message. And in a world where technology dominates everything, communication is a uniquely human differentiator. But only if we keep it real.
May the above sentences help you do just that. Oh, and whenever you find the courage to speak them, leave some room for one more thing: listening.
I don’t think the following communication expert had as much research as Hitch to back up his statistics, but then again, the numbers of nature never lie:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” — Epictetus