Why we speak

Side view portrait woman talking with alphabet letters in her head and coming out of her open mouth isolated grey wall background. Human face expressions, emotions. Communication, intelligence concept

We all know some people who seem to speak solely for the purpose of airing their lungs or hearing themselves talk, but most of the time we speak as a way of extending an invitation to others to connect with us in some way. Usually we have a specific purpose for speaking or a particular kind of reaction we wish to elicit. We may seek to shape impressions, build rapport, persuade and influence, fulfill social or emotional needs, inform or educate, or solve problems. Our communication effectiveness is determined in part by how clear we are on our purpose and how well suited our “partner” is to helping us achieve that goal.

Take venting, for example. Emotions sometimes run high at work just as they do at home – we’re emotional creatures after all. And it feels good to vent to a friend and colleague sometimes, doesn’t it? We just want to unload a little negative emotion and feel that brief reprieve that comes with sharing our burden. Well, it might feel good in the short term, but the research is actually pretty clear that venting actually reinforces negative emotions – it hurts, it doesn’t help. There’s also a good chance for a mismatch of goals – your friend tries to help you problem solve and you just want to be heard, which actually creates more negative emotion. Conversely, say you want help problem-solving but your friend tries to empathize and inadvertently fans the flames of your negative emotions. Not to mention venting runs the risk of bringing down the poor soul you’ve enlisted to be an empathetic ear – emotional contagion is an all-too-real phenomenon.

Communication can also get thorny when everyone has the same goal in mind if people’s skills don’t match the purpose. Imagine you have a situation you need to solve and aren’t getting anywhere on your own. Who are you going to speak to about it? The people who are the most eager to give their two cents may not necessarily be the best source; bad advice stated with great confidence doesn’t make good advice. Further, we tend to over-use “trusted” sources, which narrows the kind of advice and input we bring to bear on the problems we face. When you find yourself looking to someone to consult, don’t fall into the habit of consulting someone simply because you feel safe confiding a concern with them, or because they have readily given you advice in the past. The best kind of “consultant” doesn’t give out advice anyway. They listen intently and ask insightful questions. In so doing, they help to you organize your own thinking, to cut a swath through the complexity to find clarity so that you can establish a course of action confidently. The best solution is the one that you developed yourself.

Speaking is easy, but communication is hard. You have to be clear on your purpose, and think strategically not just about what you say and how you say it, but who you say it to.

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