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Our greatest joy and our greatest stress comes from interacting with others.

© Catherine Ripplinger Fenwick

Communicating isn’t so hard, we all do it! How effectively it is done is the issue, and this is not always easy. Communication skills are learned. If we grew up in an environment of good communicators, we learned to interact positively with others. If we did not, we can have a lot of difficulty. One of our greatest sources of stress in life comes from having to interact with other people. Effective communication is central to our ability to get along with others. At home or in the workplace we often hear, "There’s been a communication breakdown" and "We are not communicating with each other." We are social beings and it is vital that we know how to communicate effectively. Respect for self and respect for the other is the foundation of effective communication.

It is difficult to have good communication between people when one is perceived to have more power than the other. The one in the position of power might imply that effective communication means, "I’ll speak, you listen!" The one who feels inferior might think, "I’ll keep my opinions to myself, that way I can stay out of trouble." On one end of the communication spectrum we have the aggressive, bully types who tend to promote conflict as a way to get their needs met. On the other end we have the passive, timid types whose goal is to avoid conflict at all costs. Bullies like to push others around and do not like to give up control. Timid ones have a hard time standing up for themselves and don’t ask for what they need. This kind of interaction goes around in circles, is not effective, and is detrimental to building healthy relationships.

Communication skills are the building blocks of good interpersonal relationships. Open, honest, compassionate communication helps us to get along with others and get more of our own needs met. It means we are able to verbally and non-verbally communicate our feelings, thoughts and desires without experiencing uncomfortable amounts of anxiety or guilt and without violating the rights and dignity of others. We accept responsibility for our own behaviour and allow others to be responsible for theirs. We recognize our rights and protect ourselves from being taken advantage of. Healthy communication rests on a foundation of respect for ourselves and respect for others. We acknowledge our right to respect from others for our values and beliefs. Good communicators share information, express their own needs and wants, show understanding toward others and are willing to modify and change their behaviour when necessary.

Effective communication requires an open mind and a willing heart. We must have a mind that is open to possibilities and a heart that is willing to trust. We all need to feel useful and wanted. These positive feelings grow when there is good communication. Meaningful work and caring people are essential to a satisfying life. We must feel connection to others not only at home, but in the community and at work. Building communication bridges connects us at many levels. These bridges are not one-way streets. To feel connected the flow needs to go both ways.

Meaningful connections happen when there is compassion and trust. Equality and trust are given and received in positive personal relationships. Acceptance of and trust in one another is vital to the success of every social group. Words and images are powerful. They reflect our attitudes and beliefs. Compassionate communication ensures respect, equality and dignity for everyone involved.

These attitudes follow us to work. In any workplace on any given day we may hear language and see behaviour that is offensive. It is up to every one of us to promote and show respect for all people. Effective, healthy communication is much more likely if the walls of distance and hierarchy are taken down and interpersonal bridges are built. Most workers say they want a close, more informal relationship with their colleagues. They want time for discussion. They want to share ideas and suggestions, and to know these will be considered. They say, "We get paper-mail, fax-mail, e-mail. What’s missing is face-to-face-mail." Personal contact builds interpersonal bridges.

The goal is to become aware of behavioural styles and make conscious choices about how we wish to conduct ourselves in our relations with others. Research confirms a positive correlation between effective communication and improved working relationships, greater personal satisfaction, better problem solving and improved productivity. Effective communication is as complex as the people with whom we are in contact. Building communication bridges takes time, energy, attention and compassion.


Cathy Fenwick is a therapist, author and educator. She develops and delivers workshops and keynotes on how to get more healthy humour into your life.

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