We all know communication is important. It’s at the heart of nearly everything that we do; how we form (and end) relationships; how we work and play; how we support each other or fight with each other. It makes sense to want to be able to do it well.
Our desire to improve our communication skills has created an industry of communication “experts”. The internet is full of articles and videos telling viewers how to improve their communication. Self-help books abound with advice on how to talk at work or at home.
So what is the problem?
Firstly, “experts” make sweeping statements about the effects of specific language choices. We are told to use open-ended questions (what, why, how etc) because closed questions or statements apparently close down conversation. But wh-questions can just as easily get one-word answers. My students have analysed lots of conversations between dates on reality TV programmes like First Dates or The Undateables in which the trusty open-ended question fails to live up to its promise. By contrast, I recently published an analysis of football interviewing which showed that the majority of interview questions were in the form of statements like “Few penalty appeals in there, a few good ones I would suggest.” Despite their supposedly closed form, these interviewer turns get fulsome responses. The question of what “opens up the conversation” is much more complex than a simple, blanket rule about question type.
Alongside such ill-informed rules, we also get vague and subjective advice that is focused more on goals or intentions rather than the actual moment-by-moment process of communicating. Classic “top tips” include things like “Listen”, “Be fully engaged”. One expert in a TED talk argues that “there is no reason to ‘show you are paying attention’, if you are, in fact, paying attention”. It’s a good line to raise a laugh, but actually there is a huge difference between paying attention and recognisably paying attention. Much of the advice about how to show you are paying attention may be poor, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important communication skill that we need to understand better.
The advice is often not merely subjective but based on social prejudices. Deborah Cameron, in her blog Language: a feminist guide, brilliantly exposes the double standards applied to women’s language. Women are judged as weak or ineffective if they use language that is stereotyped as feminine (usually based on demonstrably false assumptions about the meanings of the language used). This leads to a stream of op-ed articles by “experts” telling women how they should and should not speak. A classic example is this article from the TES, https://www.tes.com/news/women-weve-got-stop-saying-sorry-work. At the same time, if women step outside the female linguistic stereotype, they are criticised for being “aggressive” or “strident”. Hilary Clinton, Jess Philips and most recently Greta Thunberg, for example, have all fallen foul of this prejudice against women who dare to speak assertively.
Spoken language is often judged as if it were written language. Why is this a problem? For a start, listening involves very different skills from reading. When we listen, we can’t flick backwards and forwards, the way we can when we read. We can’t control the pace of the language and we don’t have the visual support of paragraphing and headings to help us follow what’s being said. Spoken language has to meet the demands of listening, not reading. In spoken language, so called “filler words” like uh, um, like, you know, are regularly demonised. We are told that using them makes us seem incompetent and we should get rid of them. We don’t use them in written text, so they are assumed to be redundant or empty. Research on spoken interaction, however, shows us that these supposedly empty “filler words” do carry meaning and can have an important role in managing the interaction between speaker and hearer that is sensitive, for example, to where they appear in the turn and in the conversation. For example, um before an answer means something different to um before a question.
Why is so much of the advice around communication so poor? The problem is that the so-called experts just aren’t experts. They are often people who are themselves very skilled communicators, but that doesn’t make them an expert in the mechanics of communication, any more than a top Formula 1 driver would be an expert mechanic, or an accomplished musician an expert in the physics of sound.
Where does this leave the desire to improve our communication skills? Research tells us that people don’t recall conversations accurately and role-played conversations are nothing like real conversations. The only route to well-formed advice about communication is to start with research evidence from real communication.
Dr Catrin S. Rhys is Head of School of Communication and Media at Ulster University. You can follow her on Twitter.
We are a university with a national and international reputation for excellence, innovation and regional engagement, making a major contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of Northern Ireland.