two people in a coffeeshop holding mugs

I was recently listening to a podcast. (I’ve been doing a lot of that in the past few weeks. Listening is something my concussed brain can handle better than most other activities.) The podcast featured an expert in psychology, trauma, and social work. This expert made the point that effective communication skills are not generally taught in schools, but are essential for everyone to learn, in order to have good relationships with the people around them.

So true, thought I.

So, how do we do that? How can we learn effective communication skills? Admittedly, it’s almost impossible to learn them from a book. But if I had to suggest one book as a sort of manual or reference—to be used alongside communication practice with real people—I would recommend Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer. It reads a bit like a textbook; in fact, I dearly hope it is being used in school courses. It would be perfect in that context. But it also has real power as a reference that we can read and then come back to, while practicing communication skills in real life.

Say What You Mean breaks down communication into three steps. These steps are like levels. One cannot pass from one step to the next without mastering each earlier step. However, the first step, in my opinion, is the hardest to do and the hardest to understand. The second step is the second-hardest to do and the second-hardest to understand. And the third step is the easiest to do and the easiest to understand. So in my blog posts I am going through these three steps in reverse order.

My last blog post, A Story About Connection and Perseverance, focused on one aspect of the third step. Sofer calls his third step “focus on what matters.” Read that blog post to see how what matters is our real-life observations, not the worst-case scenarios that our brains like to repeatedly run.

Today I’d like to write a few words about Sofer’s second step, “come from curiosity and care.” If you are not able to approach a conversation from a place of curiosity and care, you are unlikely to be able to focus on what matters or see things clearly. Coming into a conversation without curiosity and care—perhaps instead with stubbornness and disdain—will instantly put up a wall between you and your interlocutor.

I especially like Sofer’s definition of the word intention:

“Intention is the motivation or inner quality of heart behind our words and actions. . . . Others can feel where we’re coming from inside, regardless of how polished our words are. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of talking to someone who’s taken a communication workshop and now has fancier words to run the same old trips? We can make ‘I statements’ and ‘active listen’ all we want; if we’re not genuine in our intention to connect, it’s unlikely to bring us closer.”

Last week, when I was having a bad concussion day, I felt incredibly irritable all day. This is a symptom of having a concussion. I was also probably just irritable about the fact that I was having a concussion setback. But anyway, I was having a conversation with someone, and I was coming from the attitude of “I have this problem and you need to fix it.” Needless to say, that conversation did not go well. Honestly, I need to apologize to this person, asap.

In this situation, it didn’t matter what I said. Coming from that attitude automatically colored everything in the conversation. Both of us could feel the tension. If I had come from a place of “I have this problem; might you be open to discussing with me ways that I might fix it?” things might have gone more smoothly. And I might have been able to progress to step three of Sofer’s framework, “focus on what matters.”

How can you orient your intention so you are coming from a place of curiosity and care in your conversations?