I must admit I’m not always the best or most appropriate in terms of my style or manner of communication. I’ve also learned over the years to take most things with a grain of salt (particularly if it’s followed by a shot of tequila and a slice of lime), so I don’t get too worked up over much of anything that’s directed my way.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

That said, I’ve learned a thing or two about how not to communicate and what not to say or write, mostly from experience (the negative type). The following are styles of communication I frequently observe, which ultimately do little to further the intended discourse or outcome.

Non-verbal communication:

  • Talking with your arms folded across your chest or with your fists clenched at your side. (It conveys aggressiveness.)
  • Blowing your nose or wiping your mouth and then shaking someone’s hand. (I’m not sure what it conveys but it’s disgusting.)
  • Rolling your eyes when someone is speaking to you. (It is rude.)
  • Talking over your shoulder while walking away or out of a room. (It conveys disrespect.)
  • Snapping gum or chewing with your mouth open. (Super disgusting.)
  • Shifting eyes or shifting back and forth while standing. (It conveys that you’re being deceitful.)
  • Staring at the opposite sex in an inappropriate manner while talking to them. (Hello #metoo movement.)
  • Working, reading, texting writing or watching TV while someone is trying to have a conversation with you. (It conveys disrespect.)
  • Not making eye contact while speaking directly to others of shaking their hand while not looking at them. (It conveys lack of confidence.)

Written communication:

  • Frequently misspelling words or writing in different tenses.
  • Spelling someone’s name incorrectly, despite it being part of the correct email address.
  • Using excessive legalese in a document.
  • Using email or written communication to convey important information that should be communicated in person.
  • Ending a sentence with multiple exclamation points.
  • Using shortened versions of words or phrases in a business email.
  • Adding multiple smiley faces, frown or any other kind of emoticon to a business email.
  • Creatively interchanging: to, too and two; your and you’re; it’s and its; and their, they’re and there.
  • Excessively long sentences without any punctuation really drives me crazy almost more so than anything else even chewing gum with an open mouth or swearing in a meeting or one time at band camp this guy like really thought he was cool and then started drinking OMG he was so drunk that his parents were called and then he like he passed out in front of me.
  • Using “I” and “me” interchangeably.

One caveat: grammar changes, rules change. What may be a no-no today is okay tomorrow. So don’t be one who “doth protest too much, methinks!”

About the worst writing advice I’ve seen is to rely on spellcheck programs. A couple of years ago, a popular magazine published an article titled “How to Appear More Intelligent” and included this bit of really bad advice: “Spell-check. Seriously. This is one of the world’s great inventions—maybe better than the wheel. Use it religiously to correct your typing mistakes.”

Great invention? Better than the wheel? Not even close! Sure, a spellcheck program will catch some typing mistakes, but it will miss many others and its grammatical suggestions are generally wrong as well.

Verbal Communication:

  • Like saying “like” like every few words
  • Using threats
  • Speaking in the third person
  • Mumbling, low talking or talking out of hand
  • Saying “Whatever” whenever something is annoying
  • Trailing of midsentence and waiting for someone else to finish your sentence.
  • Interrupting while the other person is still speaking.
  • Saying “Trust me” and then proceeding to say something completely untrue.
  • Perhaps the worst “crime” in this category, one that has taken on epic proportions, is the dreadfully annoying “ya’ know.”

Dropping the Ball

So far, most of this deals with just one side of the communication process. The reason for what George Bernard Shaw called, “the illusion that it has taken place” is because most of what’s defined as communication is really a one-directional activity, with no awareness of what’s missing. The individual who’s speaking or writing isn’t communicating until and unless there’s a recipient to whom he or she is speaking or writing. A missing link in the communication process is the listener.

The late Mortimer Adler, a popular American author and educator, described that process well. “Communication,” he said, “is like playing catch. Catching is as much of a skill as throwing, though it is a skill of a different kind.” Unfortunately, instead of catching what’s been thrown, we seem to keep dropping the ball, and we’ve been doing so for a long time.

The Listening Stick

One man was so convinced that listening had become a lost art that he decided to mount a campaign to restore it. His name was Ben John Joyce, a California-based consultant and entrepreneur, and the founder of The Center for Applied Excellence. Its Mission Statement: “We teach people how to communicate.”

His stated position on listening got right to the point. “Listening,” he said, “is a skill that has a dreadfully limited number of truly effective practitioners. We’re not taught to listen in school, at home, or at work. On the contrary, we learn the communications process from authority figures whose specialty seems to be talking.”

While I had never heard of Joyce, a colleague of mine, Bob Kelly, knew him well and has copies of Joyce’s listening campaign materials in his files. The centerpiece is a small wooden stick, about the size of a tongue depressor, and appropriately named “The Listening Stick.” Printed on one side are these words: “Please, will you listen to me?” The reverse side has just two words: “Thank you.”

Simple and straightforward, but Ben wasn’t leaving anything to chance. The Listening Stick system included two other pieces: a Quick Use Guide and an Owner’s Manual.

The Owner’s Manual goes into greater detail on what it takes to become a good listener and how to handle situations when the person to whom you’re speaking appears not to be listening. It includes four types of behavior that interfere with the listener’s ability to comprehend your message:

4 Interfering Behaviors

  1. The listener has the attention span of a flashbulb.
  2. The listener listens with a stopwatch.
  3. The listener becomes the speaker.
  4. The speaking, sensing that the listener is not listening, raises decibel levels.

When any or all of these conditions occur, the Owner’s Manual offers this advice:

“When you discover you are talking to someone who is not listening, stop talking. You have no obligation to provide background noise as an accompaniment to whatever distracting activity that currently holds their interest. Neither is it helpful for you to enter into a competition for their attention by talking louder. The other person will have even less concern for listening to you and might even get annoyed if you raise the decibel level.

Simply stop talking and sit quietly. Almost everyone will listen long enough to learn why you fell silent. You will find in many cases that you have created an attentive, if somewhat sheepish, listener. Don’t be concerned. The sheepishness will pass quickly. Be sure to thank those who listen effectively.

Help those who persist in not listening to you by handing them the Listening Stick, question side up. Explain to those who agree to listen that you would like them to hold the Listening Stick to signify that they are listening. At any point, they can indicate that they are through listening by putting it down.”

Steps to becoming a better listener:

  • Have “active listening” sessions with someone. Let them talk and share their feelings, while you do not say one word. Just listen and empathize.
  • Put down the phone and turn off the television, especially at meals. Be present and ask questions.
  • When you find yourself zoning out while in a conversation, snap yourself back.
  • Ask questions. By asking questions, you are actively engaging with the speaker.
  • Be an active listener. Process what they are saying, think about it. Do not try to jump in with your own anecdote.

As the noise at every level of our society keeps getting louder and louder, it’s important for us to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Completing the circuit requires patience, understanding and civility by all who wish to participate effectively in the communication process.

Learning to communicate is key in modern society. We have become so addicted to our phones and technology, that we are forgetting what real communication is.

As Nido Qubein said: “Communication is at the heart of everything we do. It is the foundation for interaction among human beings.”