Communication Time

Today, more personal communication.
I planned to post once a week or every two weeks. But I obviously didn’t manage to do so. And I probably won’t manage to do so in the future. Why? Because it takes time. Time is a valuable resource. And I frequently find myself with not enough of it.
So today, let’s talk about time. Time and communication. And relationship. Because not enough time for communication has often something to do with relationships. Please raise your hand when you have a friend who always promises „I will call you/Let’s meet again/We should keep in touch more“ and then doesn’t do it. Raise your hand when you sometimes think about „I wanted to call/meet/keep in touch with xyz“ and didn’t do it.
A statistic once analyzed (sadly I have forgotten the source) that there is an finite number of people we actually can keep in touch with. And you know the reason: Because it takes time.
It takes a bit of time to send a short message. It takes more time to phone someone and talk for a while. It might take more or less time (depends on the person) to write an old-fashioned letter or modern email. And then it takes a lot of time to actually meet up with someone. Have you ever considered how much time it takes? Phone someone, arrange a meeting, waiting for it, preparing for it, driving to it, actually meeting, talking or doing other stuff.
At one point in my life I realized, I have a finite amount of time I am willing to spend communicating with people. Especially the actually meeting and being in the same room communication. Deriving from this blog you might realize that I put a lot of thought into communication and I want to communicate well. But it takes effort, time and energy. And sometimes there is just not enough of one of these.
The sad thing is, it doesn’t really matter which people. A day with people at work, a day with friends, a day with family, a day with new acquaintances. At the end my „People Time“ is full and I have no need for more. Day at work? I won’t go to the trouble of arranging a meeting with a friend. So friends might very well be neglected. The promised „Let’s meet again“ will not happen, and not happen again. It’s not because I don’t like them. I like them very much and I want to keep in touch, but well… time, communication, relationship.
What can we learn from this?
Maybe we should prioritize with whom to meet. Who are the important people in our lives? Who are the people we don’t want to lose contact to?

Maybe it is time to reevaluate the meaning of „Friend“. Do I need a hundred friends? Do I actually have a hundred friends? Or are most of them only acquaintances? How much time do I want to spend with acquaintances and how much with actually friends, how much with closer friends?
Who are the people I enjoy meeting? Where do I feel good? Whom do I need in my life?

Well then, I am off to meet my family because they are important to me and I want to spent time with them. Now my dear reader think a moment about who is important in your life and then go and spend a little time communicating with them 🙂

Ps: Oh and when you raised your hand for having a friend who has trouble keeping in touch, I recommend:
1. Don’t get too angry about it because our time for keeping in touch is finite
2. If it’s important to you, just call and set up a meeting or whatever yourself. You get what you want and it’s way healthier than getting angry about it 😉

How are you?

Hello my dear reader, how are you?

Great! I am good, too.

Asking someone „How are you“ is probably the most normal and most often used opening in a conversation. It is also one of the first sentences you will get to know when learning a new language, probably because it is so frequently used.
How are you?
Wie geht’s?
Ca va?
Cómo estás?

Nî hao ma?

One would expect that with something so fundamental in all our conversations there shouldn’t be any trouble with it. After all everyone uses it, everyone knows what it means, everyone knows how to respond.
And yet my dear reader I have to tell you that this is not true.
Not so long ago I had a long conversation with a friend who gets frequently irritated by that question. Sometimes I have trouble with it myself. And I know of some others that have trouble with it, too.
Why that?
Well, maybe because it’s always idiomatic. In every language you are asking a question that has basically no meaning or a wrong meaning when you are just looking at the words. Best to see that, is when you start translating other „How are you“ into your own language.
How are you?
How goes it?
It goes?
How are (you)?

You good?

Last one is Chinese by the way, and I think that one does one of the things better than all the others. It already tells you what the person asking wants to hear. That is: „I am good.“

Let’s do some scenarios to get a better understanding of the troubles with the opening phrase „How are you?“. Please greet our two actors today: Mandy and Sarah.

Mandy and Sarah meet:
Sarah: „Hello, how are you?“
Mandy: „Good. You?“
Sarah: „I am good, too.“
Mandy: „…“
Sarah: „…“

And then both wander off because they have nothing more to talk about.

Another meeting of Sarah and Mandy:
Mandy: „Hello, how are you?“
Sarah: „Alright.“
Mandy: „What? Did something happen?“
Sarah: „What? No.“
Mandy: „But you aren’t feeling good!“
Sarah: „No, well. I feel alright.“
Mandy: „See? That’s not good enough. So what is it? Oh is it because of your boyfriend?“

Sarah: „No. Everything is fine. Everything is GOOD. Are you happy now?“

And once again Sarah and Mandy meet:
Sarah: „Hello, how are you?“
Mandy: „Oh, I am so good. You know that guy we met last week? He actually phoned and invited me. I am so excited.“
Sarah: „Oh great! I knew he had his eyes on you. So when do you meet?“
Mandy: „Actually, later today. So I can’t stay very long. Hope you don’t mind“

Sarah: „No of course not. But you have to tell me all about it afterwards.”

This time Mandy and Sarah meet at a Meeting:
Mandy: „Hello, how are you?“
Sarah: „Oh well I feel awful. I couldn’t sleep last night because my neighbor threw a party. And then my car broke down this morning and now I have to get it repaired but I don’t know if I have the money.“

Mandy: „Jeez, I asked how are you, not what’s your whole life story.“

And now tell me what the right response to „How are you“ is. Can’t? Well, one step closer to understanding.

So, we are asking „How are you?“ all the time, but in the end there are various things that are implied in this highly idiomatic question.
„How are you feeling?“
„Is everything alright?“
„Tell me about you.“
And maybe a lack of more meaning might result in misunderstandings when someone uses it as an extend of „Hello“ and isn’t really expecting you to answer.
We use it when inquiring about the actual feelings of a friend, where we want to know if he feels good or bad. But we also do it with strangers where we might not be interested in what occupies their mind. We use it to inquire what has recently happened in the life of our friends or as an opener to start a conversation with a stranger. It varies from polite but distant: „Hello, nice to meet you“ to personal inquiries: „Tell me all about your life.“

And since there are so many different intents when using that sentence they might not align and therefore result in different expectations when people communicating. And different expectations are usually bad.

And then there is another aspect that irritates people. It’s the thinking about the answer. „Is it alright to say something else than ‚I am good‘?“ Above mentioned friend told me: „I seldom feel ‚good‘ the kind of good I would attribute with the word. I can be in good health but everything else is more complex. But when I answer ‘I am alright’ people think I am not feeling well.“

The trouble might be to know when just an „I am good“ is expected or when people are actually asking for your true feelings or are actually inquiring about your life.

The aspect that irritates me most is: Sometimes when I get asked „How are you?“ I actually start to think „How am I?“ and sometimes I realize… Oh well, there actually is a lot of stuff that doesn’t make me feel good. Even though at the moment before I got asked, I was feeling just fine.

So now it’s your turn. Did you ever experience trouble with asking or being asked „How are you?“. Share your experience in the comments!

Listening with four ears

This is going to be cliché.

It’s sunday evening. Husband and wife are sitting in the living room. The TV is on and (because we are in Germany) they are watching “Tatort”. Leaning back in his armchair the husband says: „A beer would be good now.“
And the wife answers: „Get your damn beer yourself.“

Ahh relationships.

But in this little story there is hidden a new topic I want to talk about. And with that we are leaving behind the mere topic of words and dive into the stuff that goes beyond.

To be precise I want to talk to you about a communication model called „Four sides model.“ by Friedmann Schulz von Thun (Also called „Four ears model“). I believe it isn’t that unknown and you can look it up on Wikipedia, but it has a very fond place in my heart. It was the first model about communication I ever heard of and since then I have learned about it another five times. I just keep stumbling about it while concerning myself with communication. And I still think it’s a very true and enlightening model.

It’s basically this:
Every message (sentence spoken by a person) can be interpreted on four different layers: fact, self-revealing, appeal and relationship.
The fact is the actual thing that is said without different meaning. „A beer would be good now.“ Nothing more than a statement.
The self-revealing layer is what this message says about the person who is saying it: „I like beer/I like to drink beer at an occasion like this/I am thirsty“, stuff like that.
The appeal layer is what the person saying it wants another person to do or leave undone. In this case: „Get me a beer.“

The relationship layer tells us about surprise, surprise the relationship. Like: „We are in a relationship where I expect you to bring me beer.“

And you know what the fun part ist? The speaker might talk with one of those layers in mind (The husband probably wanted to say “Get me a beer“). And the listener might listen to a completely different layer. In this case the wife responded to the relationship layer, and she obviously didn’t like what it told her about their relationship. And thus she angrily replied: „Get your damn beer yourself.“
Which probably accounts to:
fact: „I won’t get you a beer.“
self-revealing: „I don’t like how you treat me.“
appeal: „Stop expecting me to get your beer for you“

relationship: „You can’t order me around.“

Keep in mind that those layers always accompany what we say, although one of them might be more at the front. Which one that is can be very much changed by tone and body language.
The difference between a thoughtful mumbled „A beer would be good now“ or a deliberate, expectant „A beer would be good now“, while looking at his wife.
So to a degree you are able to make your meaning clear. But despite all effort the listener might still listen to a different layer, because some people constantly favor one layer. In my case I listen a lot to the appeal layer. Some people might listen more to the relationship layer.

In the end it can happen that meaning and understanding won’t fit together like wrong pieces of a puzzle. They seem similar but won’t connect.

With this in mind I can give some advices for communication.
  1. Realize on which layer you are speaking or want to be speaking. I can recommend trying to speak on the fact layer because it’s the least prone to misunderstanding. Except that most people don’t listen on the fact layer. And there we come to advice two
  2. Try listen to the fact layer. Or the self-revealing layer. The additional layers are great and we could never do without them but both of them are highly emotional, and highly prone to misunderstanding and highly prone to arise conflict. Fact and self-reveal both don’t have to do anything with you as listener, so it is easiest to deal with them. „A beer would be good now“, it’s a neutral statement that leaves you the option to completely ignore it. „I like to drink beer at this occasion“, is also something you can acknowledge and then ignore.
  3. Well, I can’t stress enough how useful it is to listen to the fact and self-revealing layer. Just imagine someone insulting you. No one likes insults. Go down to the fact. „You are stupid“ The fact obviously isn’t „I am stupid“ it’s „He thinks I am stupid.“ Go to the self-revealing layer and you can greatly imagine what shortcomings the person reveals by the need to insult you. Probably insecurity.
  4. Someone criticizing you? Think about the fact. It’s a statement, it’s an opinion. It’s not necessarily a truth. It can very much help to just put „He/She thinks“ at the beginning. It leaves you open to acknowledge the critique or ignore it. It drives the appeal layer („You have to change that“) and the relationship layer („I don’t like what you are doing“) down.

Is it easy to solely listen to the fact layer? No. 7% of our communication are words and 93% nonverbal. Imagine a conscious decision to ignore 93% of the stuff that is going on. You probably aren’t going to root out all the other layers and you probably don’t want to. But you can chose which layer is on top. Which layer you want to respond to.
To communicate well is a conscious decision. And something you can train. Make that decision now, and follow my blog! 😉

The personal dictionary

Today I want to expand on my last topic, and talk about the problem with „abstract words“ in our communication.

Once upon a time an English speaking fellow came to a mighty fierce German speaking fellow. He thought: Well I probably should try to get on his good side.
He went up to the German speaking fellow and said: „Take this gift.“
The German speaking fellow drew a knife and killed the English speaking fellow.
Do you know why?
Because he understood one word wrong: „Gift.“
And you know what meaning „Gift“ has in the German language?
It’s poison.
Now imagine the English speaking fellow saying: „Take this poison.“

They probably should have compared their dictionaries.

And again a Homo sapiens is dead because of using words to communicate.

Really, you have to wonder, why are we putting so much faith in our words to communicate? Oh right, because it’s the only thing we’ve got beside grunting.
And it’s true you can convey a lot by using words, especially when talking in the same language. And with that I don’t mean languages like English or German.
I mean our personal language. Yes we’ve all got our own language. The confusing part is, it sounds like the language you are using, because we use roughly the same vocabulary, but in truth I am talking about completely different things.
This is part of the problem with the „abstract words“ I talked about in the last post. The words we can’t experience with our five senses. Feelings, ideas, concepts, that stuff.
Words we have to understand by using a dictionary or our intellect.
But frankly speaking, it’s the same. Because what’s it our intellect does when hearing such a word? It goes off and looks it up in our personal dictionary.
Imagine I am talking to you about a chair. The definition your intellect comes up is probably not going to vary very much from my definition of a chair. Because object based. We can see, touch, hear, taste and smell a chair (yeah alright, some of it better than others). Our definition of a chair is grounded by those senses both of us will have in common.

But what will your intellect come up with, when it looks up something more abstract for example: Courage.

There is a guy, Max. Max went up and did a speech about animal rights. He usually doesn’t talk to people. He was visibly afraid to talk in front of so many people. He trembled and got lost in his notes. But he did it. He made his speech. It wasn’t a very good speech, because he was so nervous, but he did it.
Afterwards two colleagues meet let’s name them: Alex and Bob. (All of them are male because I don’t want gender related issues in this story)
Alex: „Wow. Max is really courageous.“
Bob: „No way. He isn’t courageous at all.“
Alex: „Of course he is. Didn’t you see him? That was Courage!“
Bob: „I have clearly seen him and that wasn’t courageous at all.“

They bicker around for a while and leave without agreeing.

Well, what happened here?
Let’s take a look at Bobs dictionary. C for Courage.
Courage: noun,
1. facing something difficult or dangerous without fear.
Now let’s compare it to Alex dictionary.
Courage: noun,
1. facing something difficult or dangerous despite fear.
It’s like Alex used „Gift“ and Bob only understood „Poison.“

Compare your dictionaries!

And that is a major problem in communication. People don’t compare dictionaries. Everyone assumes everyone has got the same definition of words because after all they are words made up from the same letters in the same order.
But really, they are as identical as one person is to another.
My personal recommendation. If you talk to someone and stumble upon a disagreement, ask for clarification: „What do you mean by {insert word}?“ Or direct: „What is your definition of {insert word}?“ Or whatever you can come up with to clear things up.
So, did you ever find yourself in a situation where checking your dictionaries might have helped? Or what is your definition of “Courage”? Feel free to leave a comment, feel free to share 🙂

An object based language

Imagine, some hundred thousand years ago Homo sapiens is roaming the world. Two of them come together and have a conversation. Let’s call them Sap and Pie
Sap: „Grunt. Grunt, grunt, grunt“, waving arms.
Pie: „Grunt. Grunt“, nodding.
All understood? No? Well, let’s translate this.
Sap wanted to get across the following: „There mighty dangerous creature, don’t go there, it will eat you.“
Sadly he just grunted and waved his arms or did other non wording communication. Therefore Pie only understood. „Much excitement, interesting thing when I go there, maybe food involved.“
Can you imagine what happened?
Yes exactly, Sap had to watch how Pie got eaten by that mighty dangerous creature. But since Sap was intelligent, he took his best friend Ens and they walked to the mighty dangerous creature that can eat you. Sap pointed at the creature and said: „Lion.“
And thus an object based Language was born.
Now imagine Sap had told Pie „Lion“ and pointed in a direction. Pie would have known lion is a mighty dangerous creature that eats humans. And thus he would have known not to go in that direction. And he could have lived.

Pretty useful language, right?

In a philosophy lecture our professor once told us, that our language is object based. It means that language started out with naming objects, things you could see and touch. It’s like our two Homo sapiens who agreed that a Lion is called Lion, and therefore can refer to that object even without it being present.
I imagine the reason for that is because it is easy (point and name), and because it is relevant to give those things a name to safely navigate the world.
At first language consisted of a few things with names: Lion, fire, rain, stone, food. With time more abstract things like hunger or cold appeared and got integrated into language. But realize, you can no longer point at hunger and say hunger. You can point at your belly, where you feel hunger, and hope, the other person has felt hunger there too, and understands that you actually refer to being hungry and not… your belly.
With time our world has become more and more complex and thus language has become more and more abstract, more and more complex. We have words like belief and doubt, like happiness and misery, like truth and justice. Ever pointed at something and said: „This is truth!“? Probably not.

So from things we could point at and name, we have traveled to words we made up so we could name feelings or concepts. From stuff we could understand with our five senses we have come to stuff we can understand with… a dictionary?

Alright let’s look up truth.
truth: noun, plural truth
2. conformity with fact or reality
Alright, but what is reality?
reality: noun, plural realities
1. the state or quality of being real.
Yeah, just have to figure out what being real means.
real: adjective
3. being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary:
Wait… not imaginary? But imaginary is…
imaginary: adjective
1. existing only in the imagination or fancy; not real; fancied:

So truth is truth when it exists not only in my imagination? But I can’t point at something and say this is truth? So the only place truth can be is in my imagination… which basically means that… truth can’t be true?

Just think about it. Truth can’t be true.

Why? Because truth isn’t objective. It’s not an object. It is a concept that a subject (you or me) has to interpret to make it mean anything, thus making it subjective.

What is my point here?

Every abstract word in our language isn’t going to be objective. You can’t touch it. You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t hear it. You can’t smell it. We have no common ground on which we could experience an abstract word.

My truth can be wildly different from your truth.
My happiness can be different from your happiness.
My belief can be different from your belief.
My justice can be…

I think you get the picture.

Imagine our two Homo sapiens.
Imagine Sap pointing in the direction of the lion and saying: „Dangerous.“
Imagine Pie understanding: „Excitement.“ (Because well… some peoples danger is some peoples…)
Imagine Pie getting eaten by a lion.
Pretty useful language?

The Communication Age

So, we are living in the Communication Age.
But what the heck is communication?
At one point in our history as humans we decided that grunting isn’t quite sufficient to convey what we want. And thus language was born! Yeah of course it hasn’t been as simple as that, and speech isn’t the only form of communication. But it is part of todays era of communication. And truth be told without it, nothing would work today. Oh wait, am I suggesting that things work because of language/speech? Nope. I would rather state that it is a major source of problems. Why? Well, because it appears to work. After all I can clearly say what I want and you will understand me, right? Right?
Why not? That isn’t so easily answered.
If you search the internet and maybe some books, you will realize that a lot of study is conducted concerning communication. Or to be precise interpersonal communication. In this blog I might refer to some of those studies and their statements but most of it is mixed up with personal experience and observations. So you might read something and think: „Yeah that is part of model xyz.“ Can happen. Might be, that I have heard about it and have forgotten or might be, that I have never heard of it before. Feel free to mention your source but since this is not a thesis so haha I am not obliged to cite all my sources. Yay!
Back to topic. Communication is very complex so I will talk about various aspects of communication. Starting with a very common one: How much communication is conveyed by words?
Ever heard about the statement that 93% of our communication is nonverbal? Which leaves 7% for information conveyed by words. Not much, right? Everyone is hyped about how to manage those 93% of communication. How to impress your maybe future boss by using a confident body language during your job interview. How to make that hot girl/boy take an interest in you by using an arousing body language (yes something like that exists. Ever wondered why so much looking deep into his/her eyes happens in romance novels?). There are more examples, there are a ton of articles and books and how-to guides. Sometimes it seems like everything at the moment is about the magic of body language. But you know what? There are 7% based on words, and if we wouldn’t need that 7% we would still be grunting at each other today. So I’m going to talk about those 7%. (And yes part of the other 93% because you can’t just ignore them.)
Not convinced that those 7% are important? Then take a moment and imagine this blog done with only nonverbal communication.