The Grammar of Good Communication

No, this is not a rehash of primary-school grammar; nor is it a discourse on the finer points of rhetoric!

There are some practical points which can make a powerful difference in the efficacy of your communication -- whether on the job, with your spouse or when you are among friends.

What is "good communication?" Much of what passes for conversation is a play with two performers, each impatiently waiting for the other to finish so they can declaim the lines they've been preparing as the other is talking.

Good communication is using words to express meaning -- clearly, efficiently and without ambiguity. This is most important in the communication which takes place between two people who want to make themselves understood in order to have a useful exchange of significant information about themselves or their relationship.

This information is likely to have an emotional component, and may be a complex mixture of fact and feeling. This is typically the language of relationship, though in reality many relationships are rather devoid of this level of communication.

I read a research study long ago which looked at the quantity and quality of communication between spouses with children. The overall amount of communication between spouses was surprisingly small (twenty minutes a day, or thereabouts); of that some eighty to ninety percent was spent talking about the children, the day's schedule, plans to be made, or tasks to be done. Only some ten to twenty percent (of the twenty minutes!) was "relationship talk" between the spouses, where they shared feelings or meaningful dialogue about the nature of their relationship.

The need for more quality communication within marriages is the subject of another piece. Here I wish to make some structural or grammatical suggestions which can greatly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of complex communication.

It is important to make "I statements" -- sentences which begin with the word "I". "I feel tired today;" I am upset about X;" "I would like to go out to dinner tonight,". A common colloquialism in America is to say something like "You feel mad when someone cuts you off in traffic," when the meaning intended is "I feel mad when someone cuts me off...".

Attention to this simple structural detail of communication will greatly add to clarity and increased understanding. Too much important communication is muddied with vague or imprecise language. Of course, sometimes it feels safer to hide behind ambiguities or vagueness than to say what is really felt.

The little word "but" is very important -- it subtly but firmly negates all that has gone before. "You look nice in that dress, but...". That word signals the listener to pay particular attention to what follows, because there is the real point of the message! "I like you a lot, but..." In emotional or relationship communication, "but" is a slippery character. It allows the speaker to say all the right things in the first part of the sentence, and then slip the verbal knife between the ribs with the "but."

"Never" and "always" are likewise tricky words -- and rarely accurate. Communication which includes statements like "You always..." or "I never..." are likely to generate more heat than light. Life is rarely so simple that something is always or never the case.

In everyday speech, we often confuse feeling and thought. "I feel that the world would be a better place if..." is not a statement of feeling (emotion), but a thought or cognition. Relationships between people are based upon emotion; we are constantly listening for the subtle cues in conversation to see where we stand, or how our friend/spouse/lover is feeling towards us at this moment. Clarity in labelling emotions and thoughts helps the listener know how to receive the message.

Precise communication which captures the richness and nuance of emotion as well as thought is learned behavior. None of us is born knowing how to communicate clearly. It is possible to improve relationships by improving communication. Simple, direct, clear and unambiguous communication with those persons who are most significant is a skill well worth learning.

David Yarian, Ph.D. is the creator of The Guide to Self-Help Books, and co-author of Self-Help Central, an ezine to help you build a better life with self-help resources. He is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist in private practice in Nashville, TN. His professional website is

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