What is meaningful communication? Meaningful communication occurs when the parties involved can all come away with a shared and mutual understanding not only of the information being conveyed, but also of the emotions, thoughts, and feelings behind them. It is deeper than merely being able to repeat back what was said – it involves an understanding of the thinking of the person that lay beneath the words.
The following is designed to minimize barriers and facilitate conversation and communication that is meaningful. Although this is only a quick overview and introduction to the very broad topic of communication, it will hopefully help to not only equip the reader to engage in more meaningful communication, but also to foster more meaningful communication about communication itself.
Guidelines for Successful Communication:
Respect and validate a person’s right to speak and their right to remain silent.
Remember that the goal of communication is understanding. We must allow others to speak what is on their mind if we wish to understand what they are feeling. Try to avoid interrupting or things that might steer the conversation away from the speaker (i.e. – “Oh, something similar happened to me, let me tell you about it”). Also try to withhold casting judgment on what the speaker is saying. You do not have to like or agree with what is being said, but when we respectfully listen it encourages on-going conversation rather than shutting it down.
Ask questions for further clarification.
When something is not understood it is important to seek clarification. Provide feedback on your understanding of what the speaker is saying to confirm mutual understanding. This not only helps to clarify that you are understanding correctly, but also validates that the speaker is being heard and understood.
Non-verbal prompts (facial expressions, posture, etc.) can often communicate just as much or more than our words.
Folding your arms, tapping your foot, avoiding eye contact, repeatedly checking your watch or phone, these can all communicate: “I am uncomfortable” or “I don’t want to be here.” Although appropriate non-verbal communication may vary from culture to culture, leaning in to the conversation with an open posture and maintaining good eye contact are generally good ways to express interest in what the speaker is saying.
Leave appropriate time in your schedule to have a meaningful conversation.
When you are in a hurry or do not have much time to visit, it will be reflected in your attitude towards the conversation. Rather than pretending to listen, if you do not have the time to talk simply be honest and tell them that you do not have time to visit right now, but arrange a time when you can come back and visit for longer.
Although meaningful conversation can be difficult even under normal circumstances, that difficulty can be amplified when speaking with those who are in times of crisis. When speaking with people who are experiencing grief, emergencies, debilitating life conditions, or approaching end of life, the barriers and difficulties are amplified. Although we do not have space to exhaustively go through every potential encounter that a person may come across, we will share in the following section some tips and suggestions for talking to those who have Alzheimer’s or dementia, to those who have terminal illnesses or are approaching end of life, and those who have lost, recently or not, someone that they love.
Just as the general suggested guidelines above regarding successful communication still apply in these situations, so too many of the tips and suggestions presented here apply in a myriad of other situations as well.