Mel Schwartz, LCSW

5 Principles That Unleash Your Power of Communication

What could be more important than acquiring a strong command of our communication?  We know that these skills are essential for enjoying successful relationships, building prosperous careers, and attaining genuine self-esteem. Learning to communicate effectively–and convincingly–provides us with the opportunity to live a fearless and resilient life.  Here are 5 primary principles that can unleash your personal power.

Principle 1. Surrender the NEED to be right

In marital counseling I may at times ask people: Would you rather be right or rather be loved (happy)? Although virtually everyone says they would prefer happiness, the battle soon retreats to right vs. wrong. We turn our relationships into a debate. If you pause and consider it, it’s really insane isn’t it? The very fact that we’d mindlessly choose to win an argument at the cost of damaging our relationships points to something terribly amiss.

The need to win an argument assures that no one is actively listening. Feeling loved, cared for and validated is nullified by the drive to be right. If I need to be right, and we have differing points of view, that obviously makes you wrong. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of friendships, let alone romantic relations. This compulsion to be right sidetracks our lives and impedes our learning and happiness. The need to be right, to win at all costs, is antithetical to enjoying empathic and compassionate relationships.

Principle 2. The 5% Rule — Turing Conflict into Collaboration

When we find ourselves in an argumentative, adversarial back and forth, the instinct is to win — to find a part of what the other person is saying that we can refute. Having done so they likely reciprocate the argumentative energy and both parties are left feeling unheard and frustrated. Rather than trying to score a point, try instead to suspend that instinct. Don’t look for what you disagree with as fodder to dispute.  Instead find a small percentage – let’s call it 5% –of what the other person is saying that you can agree with and therefore validate.  We can usually find some part of what the other is saying that me might concur with.

You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others-whether your intimate partner, a friend or relative.  Challenge yourself to search for a small piece of what they are saying that you can affirm. Once the other person feels heard and, moreover, affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but. . . .” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, validate something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift of energy now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reassert your own position, your affirmation looks disingenuous.

Principle 3.  Shared Meaning

When we use certain words and expressions we assume they mean the same thing to all of us. They don’t. And this contributes to misunderstandings and fractured communication. The absence of shared meaning can be ruinous. In my first session with Jerry and Diane, a longtime married couple, I inquired as to how I might help them. Diane, without pause, proclaimed, “He has no idea how to be intimate.” Jerry immediately tightened and shot back, “I have no idea how to be intimate? I have no problem at all with intimacy, it’s you that does.”

I intervened and said, “I’m not at all sure what you each mean by the word intimacy. Can you each take a moment and share with each other what this word means for you?”

After a noticeable pause, Jerry explained that intimacy for him ranged from physical affection all the way to sexual intercourse. As he was speaking, Diane looked incredulous. “You must be kidding me, that’s not at all what I mean,” she proclaimed. I encouraged her to go further. Not surprisingly, she spoke of sharing deep feelings and thoughts with each other in a safe, nonjudgmental way. Once we exposed this essential misunderstanding, born out of miscommunication, the couple was able to engage in a meaningful exchange of their actual needs and preferences-for what was clearly the first time.

We take for granted that our words convey what we intend. In my experience this assumption is grossly misinformed because most often our words tend not to be received in the way we have in mind. By the time many couples exchange a few sentences, a totally misconstrued interaction often prevails.

Neither party is sharing the same conversation; their internal monologues have branched off as they react to a word or phrase in a way that the other party may not have intended. This results in a virtual loss of coherent communication, compounded by the fact that both parties may be totally unaware of this. The miscommunication may elicit further damage; feelings become hurt as an emotional landslide occurs. To pause and ask what the other person meant by the words they’ve just spoken is remarkably respectful. We need to check in and confirm that we are on the same page. What someone thinks I’ve said is ultimately more important than what I was intending because it can disrupt the entire purpose of the exchange. And so, I must be thoughtful and selective in my choice of words, increasing the likelihood that I’m understood clearly. As Abraham Lincoln said, “We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

Principle 4. Shared Inquiry — Dialogue

We typically misuse the word dialogue. A dialogue is far from two or more people conversing about an agreed upon topic. I’d call that exchange a conversation or a discussion, in which each individual tries to put forth a point of view. This type of interaction plays out on the surface, and little new learning or insight typically occurs. Given a lack of consensus or even a full-blown disagreement, we might expect each person to repudiate any opposing positions. The communication breaks down into a frustrating back and forth like a Ping-Pong match. Each party clings to their own subjective truth, but presents it as the objective reality, and the conversation collapses without anyone feeling understood or validated.

So what exactly do I mean by this word dialogue? I would define it as a shared inquiry, temporarily suspending your assumptions and beliefs to further the process of shared meaning. A shared inquiry has no opposing sides but instead is a coming together, which demands listening. The root of dialogue is dia-logos (through words), which implies a flow of meaning. This type of exchange is foreign in our culture because we are so much more driven toward winning-making our point-than sharing meaning and seeking new learning.

The irony is that the only authentic winning comes from understanding, listening, and validating another’s point of view-not from vanquishing it-even if we’re not in agreement. To accommodate this shift in communication, we must learn to still the reactive pull of our thoughts, upend our compulsion to be right, and learn the art of listening. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument.”

Principle 5. The Art of Listening

Our thoughts get in the way of our ability to listen. Old, habitual thoughts, summoned from the archives of every lived moment we’ve experienced, incline us toward re-presenting the past so that we are not truly present and, of course, not listening. Unless the individual with whom we are communicating is expressing something that corresponds with our own beliefs, we tend to repudiate or deflect anything that seems to be in opposition. To listen closely, we need to note any disturbances created from our thoughts, feelings, and reactions and suspend them for a time. If we can see our reaction, we don’t have to become the reaction. We temporarily avoid taking a position. If we don’t, we can’t be present to listen.

Dialogue and listening are noncompetitive. No one is trying to be right; instead, we seek to understand and appreciate, which, in turn, ordinarily reciprocates with our being understood and validated. When we inquire together and suspend our pre-existing beliefs, we gain deeper insight into the other’s thoughts and feelings.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I appreciate what the other person trying to convey?
  • Is it more important for me to correct their misstatements or to stay present and listen?
  • Would I rather be right or engage in genuine dialogue?
  • Am I judging or listening?

Watch your thoughts, they’ll inform the answer.

More from Mel…

Podcast 091: Rethinking How We Think and Communicate (Encore Presentation)

Podcast 076: Leaning In: The Tao of Communication

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Sylvie Robert Stanley

Excellent tools for authentic communication. Thank you Mel.

Matthew Selznick

Glad you enjoyed it Sylvie


Mel– This is so important! Thanks. I am especially interested in #5: How to be a better listener. Since I have two ears and only one mouth, it makes sense to listen more, then ask questions and clarifications. Then there is a whole other related topic: non-violent communication. That’s another article for you to write!

Matthew Selznick

These are themes that I cover in my upcoming book, The Possibility Principle, Don. Till then have you read my other posts on this blog regarding communications?

Olalere Lydia

Thanks a lot, this article is really really nice. Now I understand how to communicate effectively and I plan to put into action what I’ve learnt here…. Good job.

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