Effective communication takes time, practice and patience
"People are always ready to hear less than you are willing to tell them."
I'd like to claim credit for this truism, but I overheard it in the hall the other day.
Whatever its source, it struck me as a rather pithy, and accurate, observation about one of the more frustrating challenges in communicating.
We've all had the experience of realizing that we've lost the interest, attention and even patience of the person we're talking to (if we haven't had that experience, then we're the ones who aren't paying attention).
Sometimes it's because our conversational partner wasn't all that interested in what we had to say to begin with. Other times there are just too many distractions to allow for any coherent conversation to take place.
We may also have very different communication styles. And on occasion we simply do a very poor job of organizing and presenting our thoughts.
As much as we'd like to just say whatever we want, whatever way we want, and to whomever we want, the reality is that communicating effectively requires some forethought and effort.
There are a number of questions we might want to ask ourselves before we begin a conversation. And the more important the topic is to us, the more we need to do such preparation.
1) Is this the right person? Our best friend will care about our love life with all its messy details. A co-worker may not. We also have to ask ourselves how much we trust the recipient of our confidences, as well as how capable they are of understanding and responding appropriately.
2) Is this the right time? Casual conversation can take place while standing in line at the takeout counter, on the way to the next meeting, or while the kids are climbing all over our lap. Topics of more importance to us need to be discussed when we can actually get the attention we want. That may mean waiting, but better to wait than come away feeling ignored or misunderstood.
3) What style of communicating works best with this person? Some people want all the details of what we did, felt and thought. Others want just the facts, and only just the facts. We want to tailor what we say to our listeners' capacity to hear it.
4) What, really, do we want from our conversation? We have all kinds of different reasons for talking to other people. Sometimes we just want to share what's going on in our lives, which is a part of most close relationships. Other times we may want empathy, support, encouragement, or advice.
We might want to get a certain point across or persuade our listener to accept our point of view.
We may need to confront someone about a particularly difficult issue. Or we may be just passing the time of day. If we consider what we want from a conversation we can then decide how best to communicate so that we get it.
Asking such questions comes down to seeing our partner as a "customer" whose particular situation, needs, wants and style have to be addressed if we are to make a "sale" -- i.e. communicate.
Though at times we may feel such an approach is more than a bit inhibiting, in reality, it makes it much more likely that we actually will communicate.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."