People want good communication. Things are better when communication is good.
There are lots of ways to improve communication. But first, we have to consider what “good communication” is: “How do we get to good communication?” is one question. “What is good communication?” is entirely another.
I think people know good communication when they see or feel it — which isn’t particularly helpful. Identifying what makes communication good is challenging. What does good communication look like? Why does communication work sometimes and not others?
There’s a lot about communication, frankly, to be chalked up to“situational fit,” if you will — does it feel right for the situation you’re in? Again, perhaps not particularly helpful. But, this feeling can be pursued. It can be measured. It can be analyzed and worked toward. We’re aware when this fit exists, and we’re definitely aware when it’s off-kilter. For example, think of how horribly uncomfortable an unsavory wedding speech can be or how incongruous a first date can get when the conversation doesn’t flow. This feeling is your communication Spidey-Sense going off.
There’s no one answer to what good communication is, but let’s look at some factors.
We can’t talk about good communication without talking about context. Context can be many things: who is communicating, how many people are communicating, the sort of relationship we’re talking about, or the technologies involved. There are other factors as well. When it comes to communication, the context always matters. Context is inescapable, is many things, and is always changing.
To be good communicators, we have to think about context in at least three ways:
1) Physical - What is the physical situation? A speech in an auditorium is different than afternoon tea at grandma’s or sitting in a stuffy conference room. We must keep digital-physical connections in mind, as well. Technology and people are not separate. In fact, they continue to merge and integrate with things like haptics and biometric sensing. There are many factors related to the physical contexts of communication.
2) Relational - There is always a subtext to every conversation or interaction — no matter the type of relationship we might be talking about. How many people are involved? Who are those people? What type of relationship between them already exists? Is there relevant shared history? What are the goals or purposes of the relationship? We have to think about these, and other factors.
3) Language - Words are part of context and have context or history themselves. What words are being used? What is the history and contemporary usage of those words? This all matters. Language and words are the building blocks of communication. Remember, multiple interpretations are always possible.
Consider the question: “What are you doing here?”
Depending on who is saying it, how they are saying it, and the situation in which they are saying it, those five fairly simple words can take on many different meanings. If you come across a burglar in your house, it would be an expression of fear. But when meeting a friend in the grocery store, it might be an invitation for a conversation. Context matters.
Good communication can differ by the physical setting, relationships involved, and the language used. Sharing with your spouse or teaching a class or leading a team entail different sets of communication behaviors. We have to recognize this. What is good communication — well, it depends. This may sound obvious, and yet when you start to dig in it feels overwhelming, and I want to recognize that. But we can never forget that context for communication is important. It’s a key to figuring out how to get to good.
Good communication is “positive-sum.” Positive-sum means all participants profit or benefit: a win-win. Everyone involved can feel satisfied. The best communication leans in this direction. Not all communication is “positive-sum.” Sometimes communication just isn’t going to go well. Breakups are one example of an interaction that is likely to be terrible for at least one of the involved. Calling customer service is another with potential for a negative experience. Sure, you might get a, “We can still be friends,” to smooth things over or an, “Ok, I am going to help you with this problem,” to mollify you, but as a general rule, these sorts of interactions aren’t fun for anyone involved.
How to get to “positive-sum” communication is a whole different conversation. But, you can work toward this in your relationships. You can dedicate yourself on an ongoing basis to trying to communicate in a way that is net-positive for all involved.
What information you share or withhold is fundamental to your experience of communication and to that of your counterpart. In most relationships, good communication errs on the side of sharing. But we always choose what to expose and what to keep private.
Communication isn’t just “being open.” To me, it’s better to say something authentic and genuine in an effort to connect, rather than remain silent and have no chance. Context is important to how “open” you are. For example, what you share on a first date is different than what you’d share on a 10th date. Which is different than what you’d share at work. We’ve all witnessed inappropriate sharing. That reaction? That’s your Spidey-Sense again.
The goal isn’t to share everything all the time. Not everyone needs to know what you’re eating for lunch. Still, sharing is a fundamental aspect of good communication. Good relationships are those where people can share if they like and feel that their contribution will be honored, respected, and valued.
On an experiential level, good communication has a groove, akin to how to a good song might have one. Some grooves are undeniable. Some beats just aren’t for you. Melodies are individual. Communication with enjoyable grooves leads to the best sorts of relationships. How to make communication better is ultimately up to you and whoever you are communicating with paying attention to the context, working toward a positive-sum interaction, and building an openness that supports the relationship you desire.