• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Communication: Three Ways to Improve It

Last week, I discussed Roger Fisher and Scott Brown’s barriers to communication and his week, I would like to further their argument by outlining ways we can improve communication. According to Fisher and Brown, barriers to communication include the assumption that we do not need to talk to the other person about an issue, communicating in one direction so that we tell the person something rather than open up for discussion, and sending mixed messages.


Bearing in mind those three barriers, Fisher and Brown pointed out that there are three ways to strengthen the communication process and improve the relationship between you and another person or you and among other people. They argued that there is a general communication strategy that includes three key components: (1) always consult before deciding (ACBD), (2) listen actively, and (3) plan the process. It is these three components on which I would like to focus.


Always consult before deciding (ACBD). The key to consultation is to understand that you are asking the other person for their advice and it is the direct opposite of telling them something (i.e., a barrier). Fisher and Brown point out that we consult for at least six purposes: (1) to help balance emotion with reason; (2) to promote better understanding; (3) to promote two-way communication; (4) to be more reliable; (5) to avoid a coercive fair accompli; and, (6) to establish acceptance.


For instance, a husband and wife, Jim and Julie, are planning a three-week trip to Europe and have agreed that they would arrive in London to start the trip. Jim is an avid soccer (football) fan and is looking forward to seeing some games on their trip; Julie is an avid shopper and wants to spend a great deal of time in the various boutiques in each city. Both wants the other to share in their interests. Using ACBD, the easiest route would be for each to consult the other so that all information can be gathered and opinions can be given before a final decision is made. Jim could share how excited he is about attending his first live and in-person European football rather than on the television (i.e., balance emotion with reason) and see what Julie’s advice is (i.e., promote two-way communication) rather than booking the tickets ahead of time. Likewise, Julie might let Jim know some of the boutiques she would like to visit and which days so that he has a better idea of what to expect (i.e., to be more reliable) and will not see it as her making unilateral decisions (i.e., to avoid a coercive fait accompli). In any event, Jim and Julie having open consultation allows them to demonstrate that they trust each other’s reasons and to consider the interests and views of the other person (i.e., to establish acceptance).


Listen actively. I always like to remind my clients (and friends and students and siblings) of the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus’ often-quoted statement: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. In other words, we need to listen actively and attentively while regulating how much we speak. Fisher and Brown point out that we listen actively in a four-step process: (1) find the listening needs and match them; (2) engage the other person; (3) inquire; and, (4) speak clearly in ways that promote listening.

As an example, Bill and Susan are work colleagues at a community college and they are team-teaching an introductory Psychology class this year for the first time. Bill has taught many Psychology classes over his 20-year tenure while Susan has been teaching only introductory Sociology classes but her degree is in the area of Psychology. Neither has ever team taught and neither has ever taught introductory Psychology but their Dean believes that it would be good to try this approach. As the veteran, Bill could approach Susan to discuss how they should go about planning for instruction by giving a brief explanation of where he thinks that they could start while remaining conscious of how much he talks and how attentive Susan is in her listening (i.e., find the listening needs and match them). After listening and showing that she is listening, Susan might use chart paper or sit side-by-side with Bill so that they can map out how the course could proceed, taking turns adding information or moving pieces around (i.e., engage the other person) as well as matching each other’s formal or informal way of addressing each other, regulating their voices to be similar to the other, and so forth. Each could be genuinely curious by asking themselves if they know how the other would answer questions (i.e., inquire) so that neither is caught off guard; such as, “what brought you into teaching?”; “how do you feel about teaching intro and team teaching it?”, or “what is your biggest fear?”. Lastly, Bill could share how he is feeling (e.g., “I am feeling really torn as I do not want to team teach a bunch of 18-year-olds but I think that we could really have a dynamic and engaging course as a team!” (i.e., speak clearly in ways that promote listening) so that Susan’s possible anxiety could be alleviated and she would feel like her experience and opinion is valued by Bill.


Plan the process. As mechanical as it seems, it is imperative that we plan not only what we want to communicate but also why we want to share that information, where we would like to share it best, and when we could open up with our thoughts and feelings. Fisher and Brown point out that we can plan the process using a four-part process: (1) clarify our purposes; (2) use privacy to minimize the problem of multiple audiences; (3) plan encounters to minimize emotional interference; and, (4) monitor communications with the relationship in mind.


With Jim and Julie, Jim might explain to Julie that it might appear that he really just wants to watch soccer matches in large stadiums but he wants her to know that he also believes that what he learns at the games could help him in his own soccer playing and coaching at the varsity level (i.e., clarify our purposes). In other words, he would acknowledge that his motives appear to be contradictory but by being honest about that ambivalence, Julie is aware of his long-term interests being converted into short-term actions. With Bill and Susan, while they are in the planning room, she could suggest that they discuss what they would say at a faculty meeting so that the same message is given in similar settings about what they are doing and how they feel (i.e., use privacy to minimize the problem of multiple audiences). As well, Bill could share his experiences of teaching at a community college for the first time and how he went about planning for his courses as a newer faculty member (i.e., plan encounters to minimize emotional interference) so that he shows a degree of empathy and that he is not someone who thinks he is beneath letting down his guard. In the travel scenario, Julie might like to check in with Jim throughout the trip (and he with her, of course) to ensure that he is still on board with the shopping excursions and that he is not getting bored or frustrated (i.e., monitor communications with the relationship in mind).

In the end, communication can break down very easily when we do not consult and value the consultation with others. We need to ensure that we are open with our ears and monitor what comes out of our mouths and to be clear and consistent with our two-way communication while checking on understanding and agreement. So simple, right?


I will be away for the next two weeks so there will be no blogs but I will start up again upon my return.

Further reading


Fisher, R., & Brown, S. (1988). Getting together: Building relationships as we negotiate. Toronto, ON: Penguin.


#Conflict, #ConflictMediation, #CommunicationBarriers, #CommunicationStrategies

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