silhouette of a man and woman with man listening to womanHave you ever had trouble getting an idea or feelings across to someone else? Don’t feel alone. Even when cultural and language differences are not complicating our interactions, different learning and communications styles might be. The fact is we are not all cut from the same cloth. We take in and process information differently, we have different behavioral preferences, and we orient ourselves from different starting points which influence how we see the world. No wonder conflict is such a part of daily life. The good news is that armed with knowledge and a willingness to stretch your creativity muscles, you can learn how to bridge the communications gap.

Earlier this week, Alan Sharland of CAOTICA was kind enough to publish a guest article I wrote on the synergy between conflict and creativity. You can read it here. In it, I focused on using creativity techniques in a search for mutual solutions to a conflict. However, creative approaches can also be used at earlier stages of working through a conflict, such as when trying to communicate about wants, needs and perspectives.

I will share some creative examples to bridge the communications gap, but first let me talk in more general terms about interpersonal communication.

Match your words and non-verbal behavior

The first thing to know is that the majority of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. This makes intuitive sense. Just think of a time when someone told you they felt fine, but their body posture or facial expression told you otherwise. In an electronic medium, like chat or email, we often interpret meaning from the tone of the message; we read between the lines, as it were. Just today, I used electronic chat to ‘talk’ with a helpdesk. I was frustrated and my terse phrasing showed it. I wrote/said things like, “Okay, I’ll do that,” which sounds neutral enough. The person at the other end paid attention to the larger context and picked up on my dissatisfaction. He apologized for the frustration I was feeling.

Before trying to be creative to get an idea across, you first need to be congruent: say it the way you feel it, and the way you mean it.

Identify your communication blind spots

Somewhere between a third to half (some sources cite higher percentages) of the people you will encounter are fundamentally different from you. Accepting this fact will help you realize that you may need to stretch your preferred approach to effectively communicate with someone else.

Below is a list of several common patterns of communication. It is not meant to be a comprehensive list. It is intended to show the range of approaches people use and to give you a chance to identify your own pattern. Go ahead, print it out and take a few minutes to place yourself on the continuum for each item on the list. If you communicate one way at work and another way outside of work, make two sets of results for yourself. If you want to make it interesting, ask a family member or close friend to fill it out for you as well. Sometimes the way you think you come across is not the way others see you.

A list of communication approaches shown on a continuum of opposites

Use creative methods to bridge the communications gap

Stretch outside of your usual patterns to communicate effectively with others. Use your strengths to bridge the gap. For example, if you tend to be verbal and are talking with a visually-oriented person, paint pictures with words by using analogies and metaphors.

Here are a few more ideas. If any of these feel like a stretch to you, it is an indicator that you would make progress in your communications if you were willing to try them or something like them. It’s okay if you’re not perfect at it. The other person is likely to recognize and appreciate the attempt. In fact, a rough draft, so to speak, invites the other into your process. She or he is then more likely to begin helping you clarify your message. 

  • Draw rough sketches of your ideas and concepts. Stick figures are just fine. Allow the other person to add to your picture as a way of gauging understanding, and building on the conversation. 
  • Use physical objects to demonstrate your idea. My husband did this with me to good effect when we were building our backyard waterfall. He used a wheelbarrow filled with water to demonstrate pump flow capacity. You can read about it here. 
  • Tell a story that makes a similar point to one you are trying to make. 
  • Do something else while talking: play a sport, go for a walk, play a table game. 
  • For ongoing relationships, create agreed-upon shorthand to communicate recurring themes that let the other person know what you need in the moment. For example, wave a tissue to signal a need to express feelings and be heard. Use phrases to indicate what you need: hold up your hand to signal ‘slow down and let me think’, or spiral your index finger to say, ‘speed up and get to the bottom line’, or whatever.

Take a look at your pattern of communication and develop your own ideas for creatively bridging to the opposite side of the scale. Practice them with people you trust. Let them know you are trying new ways to communicate and let them help you refine your bridging approaches.

Many people repeat the same tactics and approaches in the hope that eventually, they will work. It hardly ever happens that way. It is safer to assume that if someone didn’t understand you the first time, using a different approach—one that creates a bridge between your communication styles–might have a better chance of getting your message across.

What are examples of creative approaches you’ve used to bridge a communications gap?