Learning to change
Learning to change

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Learning to change

2.4.4 Communication skills

You may be interested to know that our word ‘communicate’ comes from the Latin word communicare meaning ‘to give’ or ‘to share’. So from the start communication is seen to involve more than one person. Whenever we are interacting with other people we are communicating with each other. Communication can, of course, take many forms. It applies to interaction when one person talks to another. But the listener is also, at the same time, communicating. They may be communicating through their body language, their tone of voice and other aspects of their non-verbal communication that they are fascinated with what the speaker has to say. Alternatively, they may be using these same channels to communicate that they are bored. So, the verbal or spoken aspects of communication form only a part of what is going on.

All these aspects of communication have to be interpreted before we can decide what we think they might mean. We might think that messages sent by someone’s non-verbal behaviour are a better guide to their ‘real’ thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, we might think that people are good at changing their non-verbal behaviour in order to hide what they really think or feel. So we may believe, for example, that politicians can modify their body language so that they do not give away too many clues about themselves. Most of us have some awareness of the impact of body language, so it is likely that we do, at least to an extent, try to make sure that it suits the particular situation we are in at any one time. Most of us act quite differently when we are in the middle of an excited crowd compared with when we are in a public library. We might also think that it is relatively easy to manipulate the messages given by verbal communication – most of us watch what we say so as not to offend or upset someone.

Described image
Figure 10 Communication

Communication skills are complex and varied. Imagine that two people, Bill and Sadiq, are talking to each other. Sadiq starts. He has to work out what to say and how to say it in a way that Bill is likely to understand. As he speaks, he has to check that Bill does indeed understand. This will involve observing Bill’s gestures, the expression on his face and many other signs. If Sadiq thinks that Bill is not following, he may attempt to modify what he is saying. While this is going on, Bill is, as we have seen, communicating what he makes of Sadiq’s communication. He may not understand or he may agree or disagree. He might, or he might not, communicate this back to Sadiq. This might or might not be intentional. When Bill begins to speak in response, these aspects come into play with Sadiq as the listener.

Given this complexity, it is not surprising that communication can get misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is perhaps surprising that so much of our communication does appear to achieve at least some success.

Communication is something that is going on for most of the time while we are awake. It even seems to go on while we are asleep. When we dream, it appears that parts of our brain are communicating with other parts of our brain. The ever-present nature of communication is reinforced by the fact that communication does not just involve person-to-person events. Human societies have developed many other ways of communicating. Often these make it possible for one person, or groups of people, to communicate with many other people. These people may or may not be present when the process of communication is started. These types of communication include the media (TV, radio, the Internet and newspapers). It is also possible to include Openings courses as an example of this form of ‘few to many’ communication.

To summarise, communication takes many different forms and uses many different channels. This means that communication is pervasive in our lives. But communication is important not simply because it is going on all the time. The noise from the road outside or the clock ticking on the wall goes on all the time – that does not make either especially important. In complete contrast, communication is vitally important to how we live our lives.

The next activity is a chance to test out this very big claim.

Activity 14 The importance of communication skills

Allow about 20 minutes for this activity

Think back over what you have done so far today. (If you are working on this early in the morning, think about what you did yesterday.)

Write down what you have done. Use a separate line for each activity. This list should form the left-hand column of your sheet of paper. Then, for each item say how communication was involved. Finally, how important is being able to communicate in this way? Below are two examples to get you started:

Activity Example of my communication Importance
Made breakfast Asked my wife if she would like a cup of tea. By itself, not very important but helps to maintain relationship.
Drove to work Gesture to thank other motorist who let me into traffic. Similar. By itself not very important, but might encourage the motorist to do it again for me (or someone else).


Often individual examples of communication have only a limited importance or effects by themselves. They may be part of a relationship or process that continues over time. Sometimes they can help things keep going over time – communication can help to ‘oil the wheels’. Communication also has the power to bring relationships to an end. The phrase ‘a breakdown in communication’ is often linked to problems in a wide variety of situations.

The importance of communication on a minute-to-minute and day-to-day basis could make it appear to be almost impossible to exert any influence over communication. However, by seeing communication in terms of a set of skills it becomes far more possible to review and to change how we communicate. It is possible to break these skills down into three main groups:

  1. The words, or the language, that we use to communicate.
  2. The range of body language and other non-verbal communication.
  3. The impact of our communication on other people. If we are able to ‘get on the same wavelength’ and to have rapport with them, it also makes it more likely that we can adapt our communication skills so that we actually communicate what we mean to communicate.

You may have noticed that the focus here is on one person communicating on a face-to-face basis. This means that we are not paying much attention to situations when one person communicates with many using broadcast media. We are also not focusing on written communication, although this is another important aspect of everyday communication. For one-to-many communications, many of the same components of words and body language are just as relevant. Written communication is an important part of the course – you are asked to write assignments. So it is considered as part of academic skills.

A useful point to remember about how communication skills are used is this one:

The meaning of communication is the response you get.

(O’Connor and Seymour, 1995, p. 18)

It is worth thinking about this and imagining the effects of acting as if this is true. The words in this core text for Learning to change are intended to be helpful as you think about personal change. However, if you do not find them useful, if they annoy you so much that you may want to close the course, then the intention does not matter. The meaning of this particular written communication would be annoyed frustration on your part. O’Connor and Seymour’s suggestion makes it very difficult to hide behind good intentions. We have to face up to the likely consequences of our communication and take responsibility for the outcomes.


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