The Most Important Step to Communication

We’ve all witnessed breakdowns in communication. Someone says something regrettable or hurtful, writes an editorial or email that makes matters worse than before, communicates something that isn’t helpful or persuasive. I know I’ve found myself in communication breakdown, and sometimes I realize it’s me that is the problem.

My son Josiah at a small chess tournament at a book fair.

My son Josiah at a small chess tournament at a book fair, giving thought to his next move.

I prepared a lesson yesterday for my writing class that explained why we take the time to study the process of writing. I listed the logical progression of what most of us derive from “communication.” We have the following things in mind:

  1. Writing. Get your thoughts on paper.
  2. Speaking. Get up in front of people and speak.
  3. Communicating. Engage people and dialogue.

It’s sort of a progression, opening up healthy methods of engaging the world around us through writing, speaking and communicating. This makes sense, doesn’t it?

But there is something missing in what we assume to be healthy communication, and it’s really, really important. When people try to write, speak or communicate without doing this one thing, they write/speak/communicate something that…

  • Makes a fool of themselves, gets them into trouble, or reveals something embarrassing.
  • Leads them to freak out, throw a tantrum, or burst in rage.
  • Makes matters worse than before they opened their mouth or shot off that email.
  • Creates division between people rather than unity.
  • Doesn’t persuade anyone of anything.

Here’s the missing element: thought. Giving ample thought to how and what to write/speak/communicate is probably the most important step to mastering the art of communication — more important than any technique or strategy we apply later.

Think back to the last time you really blew it in communication. You may have been polished and rhetorically sharp, but you wrote/spoke/communicated something that offended someone unfairly, that jumped to a conclusion in a situation, that overlooked some important factors you should have (or maybe you were just plain ignorant or unaware) into consideration. You didn’t give it adequate thought. And the opportunity for union, growth, opportunity, love — whatever the case may be — was taken down a notch.

The most important and foremost step to healthy writing, speaking and communicating is thinking. Most communication breakdown can be attributed to missing this step.

I’ve been a teacher of communication for 20+ years, and like other professionals in my field, I tend to get affixed on the arts of rhetoric, composition, argumentation, etc. Important stuff, true. But I’ve learned over the years — more and more the older I get — how important it is to push the pause button and give the situation more thought.

  • Pause. Something’s not right. You need to give this a bit more introspection or inquiry.
  • Pause. Take time to research the claim you’re about to make. You may not have all the facts.
  • Pause. The conclusion you’re coming to may not be fair, understanding or accurate.

In other words, give it some thought. The world would be a better place if we made sure that our progression to healthy communication included thought. Here’s a better order…

  1. Think. Research, analyze, inspect, inquire.
  2. Write. Get your thoughts on paper.
  3. Speak. Get up in front of people and speak.
  4. Communicate. Engage people and dialogue.

Did you miss this step in a situation lately? Now that you think about it, you were the one whose writing/speaking/communicating made a mess of things. Here’s an idea: forward this blog post to them, coupled with an apology and an explanation, “I wished I gave our situation more thought.” Then try again to communicate, this time more thoughtfully.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Taryn DiMartile

    So true. I have gotten lazy about thinking because normally my instincts are correct. However, they were not the other day and I ended up having to backtrack and apologize and it was just a mess.

    I think our culture as a whole just doesn’t think much. Information and problems and situations are flying so quickly at us, we’ve learned to just go with our instincts, respond, and move on. Sometimes this is okay, but oftentimes, it backfires. If we could all just learn to think first, so many problems would be solved – the news wouldn’t have to retract stories, ha, some wars wouldn’t be started!

    • Good thoughts, Taryn. They remind me of a marketing book, “Don’t Make Me Think.” It’s about how to make things extremely simple in web development to lead to a sale: making people think too hard loses money. Hmmm…deep thought: maybe this marketing strategy reveals a problem with the world today.

      • Taryn DiMartile

        Maybe. But I think at the end of the day, like you outlined in your above post, it’s our responsibility to think and make the correct actions. Someone can make a decision easy for me, but I’m still the one who’s in charge of making that decision and is responsible for the consequences (well, in theory, of course, in this time of suing cigarette companies because you got lung cancer). While that marketing strategy may have something to do with decision-making laziness, I think the deeper problem is we’ll all too busy and we sadly don’t find “thinking” something worth our time.

        Extremely simple marketing doesn’t have anything to do with forwarding an email telling you it’s “Chinese something or other year” and that month is the only month in 500 years to have 5 Sundays and if don’t you pass the email on, you’ll receive bad luck. It only takes some quick calculations (or working in Children’s Ministry your whole life) to realize that there is more than one month a YEAR with 5 Sundays, not one every 500 years.

        But it’s no skin off your back if you just hit forward, even if you’re wrong, so people just do it. That’s the best example I could come up with on the fly. Uhhhh, without really thinking… Oops. 😉