Albert Anani-Bossman’s thoughts … Developing interpersonal communication competence

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As humans, communication is what binds us.   from the cry of a newborn to the last breath of an adult, everyone desires to be socially connected. This is because humans are social animals.  We are driven by a deep desire to stay connected, whether at the workplace, with friends or family.  We are inherently curious about what others are thinking.

Communication is the means by which social connection is achieved. The explosion of the digital age has increased social connection, making communication more complex. Communication is what enables us to thrive as humans.  Knowing how to communicate effectively is thus essential in enhancing social connection. Having the appropriate communication skills is critical in obtaining a job, performing effectively, and generally succeeding in today’s workplace.

Regardless of your technical skills, your ability to communicate effectively will largely determine how well you perform on the job and the likelihood of promotion.  Improving your communication is therefore critical unless you strongly believe that you do not need any improvement. We are not perfect communicators, but we can be competent communicators. But what does it mean to be competent communicator?

Communication competence is essentially interacting with others in a way that is perceived to be both effective and appropriate in a given context. It involves achieving the goals you have set for specific interactions, whether explaining an idea, comforting a friend, standing up for your position, negotiating a raise, or persuading someone to change behaviour.  Competent communication is about communicating effectively to achieve your goal. Competence also deals with adapting to specific situations and people.

For example,  a language that may be appropriate with friends at a party may not be appropriate for a job interview. In other words, the context determines the kind of communication to use.  Communication competence, though challenging can b achieved. Communication competence can be achieved by knowing the rules, honing your communication skills, improving your sensitivity, increasing your commitment, monitoring your communication, and upholding ethical standards of communication.

Knowing the rules

To develop communication competency skills, you must first know the rules that create behavioural expectations and understand what is likely to work effectively given the rules of the situation.  In other words,  you must know and understand the rules that govern effective and appropriate communication. Your ability to communicate in diverse ways does not make you competent unless you also know which kinds of communication to use in specific situations.

Communication can be unproductive and inappropriate (deficient),  appropriate but unproductive (e.g. a desire to please others regardless of your feelings), inappropriate but effective (coercing, lying, cheating, intimidating others to achieve your goal).  Your ability to succeed is dependent on your knowledge of the rules of communication and how to apply them in particular situations. This means you cannot determine what is effective and appropriate without knowing the rules operating in a given context.

Even though there is no general method for using a particular communication style, it is generally essential to consider personal goals, context, and those with whom you are communicating with. Communication increases your knowledge about individuals and situations. Hence the more you know about the individual and situation, the more you can adapt your communication to suit the individual or situation.

In interpersonal relationships for instance, what feels supportive to one friend may not be to another.  Knowing the rules of communication allows you to adapt messages effectively to specific individuals or situations.  Appropriate communication is therefore sensitive to goals, context and other people.

Developing a variety of communication skills

Knowing the rules of communication alone does not make you a competent communicator.  You must also develop a variety of communication skills. A communication skill is the ability to perform a communication behaviour repeatedly and effectively. You must be able to communicate messages clearly, concisely, fluently, eloquently and confidently. Knowing the rules of public speaking does not mean you can speak well unless you practice and gain experience in speaking in front of an audience.

For instance, speaking vocal fillers and long pauses (ahs and ums),  can nullify an otherwise concise and precise message.  Developing a variety of skills also means identifying the right communication style to use in all situations. No single style is best in all situations, with all people, or for pursuing all goals.

For instance, if you are comforting someone, you need to be compassionate and soothing. On the other hand, you need to be assertive and firm when negotiating a good deal.  Conflict negotiation can only be effective if you listen and build a supportive climate. To build positive work relationships,  you need to express your ideas clearly, listen well, and engage in supportive communication. There is enough evidence linking communication skills with success or failure in the workplace.  Employers tend to hire skilful communicators who can work in teams and make decisions in groups.

It is important to note that communication competence is not a matter of learning one skill or even a set of skills. Skills without knowledge of when and how to use them are mostly useless, sometimes even harmful. The key is to learn a range of skills and use them flexibly, with the right knowledge of what is appropriate for a given situation.

Sensitivity

Knowing the rules of communication and having the communication skills to be effective is good, but it is also important to be sensitive to the signals people are sending.  In other words, you must be sensitive to the signals being sent by those around you.  Being sensitive allows you to detect, interpret, and understand signals in your social environment.  It can help you to adapt your communication to a particular context appropriately and effectively.   You should be able to discern the differences between anger, disgust, frustration, playfulness,  or confusion.

A competent communicator will be sensitive to the nuances and intricacies of communication and respond to them.  Many of us are guilty of having inactive sensitivity receptors. Texting or playing with our phones when someone is chatting with us, not paying attention or listening to what others are saying, ignoring or not acknowledging messages sent by friends, colleagues etc.

Sensitivity, like communication skill, can be learned. A major part of sensitivity is being mindful about your communication with others.  Mindfulness means thinking about your communication and constantly working to change what you do to become more effective.  You show mindlessness when you do not realise the nature of your communication with others and also make little or no effort to improve it.

Text messaging, emails, tweeting and other social networking messaging continue to minimize the nonverbal cues that we use to detect signals in our social environment.  our sensitivity has therefore been constrained. Clearly, communication technology poses new challenges to our ability to be sensitive. However, we can still be conscious of our communication with others. In our part of the world, being socially connected is still part of our cultural system and that is critical in our daily communication.

Adopting a dual viewpoint

Central to achieving communication competency skills is the ability to adopt a dual viewpoint when communicating with others. This means you need to understand not only your own, but the other person’s views, beliefs, feelings, or thoughts. when you look at issues from other people’s point of view, you understand how they think and feel about the issues.

To engage in genuine interaction, you must understand the person himself/herself, the situation, and his/her thoughts and feelings. Even if you see things differently, it is still important to understand and respect the views of the other person. Attempting to impose your views on others and interpreting the experiences of others through your own eyes makes you egocentric.

However, engaging in dual perspectives is not that easy. As humans, we have a natural desire to see things from our perspective and in terms of our own experiences. Despite this, we can improve our ability to look at things from the viewpoint of others.  This can be done by first,  recognising our tendency to view things from our perspective and resisting that disposition.

Secondly, we need to engage in mindful listening. That is, listen closely to how others are expressing their thoughts and feelings.  This will allow us to understand what things mean to them and how they feel. Thirdly, we must ask people how they feel about an issue, what something means to them, how they view a situation. In other words, we must probe further to let them know that we are interested in understanding them.

Developing a passion for excellence

Being a competent communicator also requires commitment. You must have a passion for excellence. You must accept nothing less than the best and dedicate yourself to acquiring excellence. This means making the conscious effort to invest time, energy, thought and feeling to improve yourself or your relationship with others.

It is essential to identify your communication weaknesses, learn constructive communication,  put in a lot of effort toward changing poor communication habit, and practice your communication skills thoroughly. The predominant motivation should be a desire to avoid previous mistakes and to find better ways of communicating with others.

In other words, don’t be a social loafer. Commitment requires a positive attitude. No one can force you to be a competent communicator. You have to decide to be competent. You can only excel when you dedicate yourself to making things work,  be it your job, relationship, academic work or in a team. It is the same with communication proficiency. You must commit to improve, change, and grow more competent in your communication with others.

Monitoring your communication

Improving communication effectiveness requires constant self-monitoring. Monitoring means observing and regulating the way you communicate. When you interact with others or in teams you need to be a participant-observer.  That is, you adopt a detached view of yourself. When engaged in an interaction, you must always remind yourself not to be overly defensive or get involved in a counterproductive argument. During conversations, a friend/colleague says something that upsets you. You think of how to respond without really thinking about the effect of your words.

Monitoring occurs during the communication process. It is important to stay alert and edit our thoughts before expressing them. Online communication is much more effective because you have time to read and edit before sending or posting.

However, oral conversation is different,  and this is where we need to stay sharp.   You must analyse your communication behaviour, looking for ways to improve, while noting successes. Your ability to monitor your communication will enable you to adapt communication in advance and gauge your effectiveness.  monitoring does not have to be in all situations.

For example, when we are with those who know and understand what we are talking about or when we are discussing unimportant issues, we don’t necessarily monitor. A failure to monitor can result in insensitive comments that may hurt others.  A competent communicator makes a point to communicate with others productively and effectively.

Communicating ethically

Finally, developing communication competence means communicating ethically. This implies treating others with respect, fairness,   and responsibly, among others. People should not be treated as mere members of a group such as co-workers, men, customers etc.  Everyone is unique in his/her own way. Responding to every individual as unique and valuable means you cannot dismiss the individual’s feelings as wrong, inappropriate or silly.  Instead, you honour the individual and the feeling he/she expresses, even if you feel differently.

Ethical communication also requires you to respect yourself, ideas and feelings. It is important to respect yourself and your own views, just as you respect others.  It is a commitment to the communication process itself. Ethical communication is recognising that communication is sensitive to different levels of meaning and it is irreversible

Achieving communication competence is possible once these steps are followed. However, communication competence occurs within either a supportive or defensive communication climate.

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