5 Psychological Theories that Make Us Better Communicators

5 Psychological Theories that Make Us Better Communicators

26. March 2018

Our way of communicating with each other in person is perhaps the most human thing about us. We are surrounded by language every day and the fascination for it is reflected in disciplines like linguistics and in psychological theories.

In 1872, Charles Darwin began to explore non-verbal communication (body language, gestures etc.) Psychology offers some fascinating theories that are not always easy to understand because they use specialist jargon. We have selected five psychological theories that can make you a better conversational partner in no time at all.

1. Develop a Communication Strategy for Each Relationship Type
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Professor Robin Dunbar was an evolutionary psychologist who developed a model to make statements about people based on the size of their brain. Sound a bit adventurous? Don’t worry; this is not about your IQ!

Dunbar found that most social networks consist of 150 people. Of these, only around 12 are your close family or friends. If the number is higher than 150, it can be too much for the human brain.

Communicating with 150 people in a casual and 12 in a more intimately? Our digital network via social media and messenger apps means we have to be a little creative when it comes to communication. It is crucial that your brain can build and process different kinds of relationships because both are needed.

On the one hand, there are the less intense relationships that allow us to build completely new bridges, whereas in a family context we communicate based on familiar ground. The trick is to help our minds make the jump.

But how? Divide your social networks into circles, such as family, friends, work colleagues, customers and business partners. Develop a separate communication strategy for each of these groups. This will help you to stay on top of things and enable you to better put people and events into categories.

2. Communicate with Confidence and Take Small Misunderstandings Easy
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Keeping calm is a supreme discipline in communication. A calm, friendly demeanor makes us seem not only more sympathetic, but also more intelligent. But sometimes it just does not work and the communication flow comes to a halt. This is where Hanlon’s razor theory could provide a remedy.

This theory indicates that the most likely cause of perceived human error is not the evil intent of your counterpart, but rather a weak moment. Hanlon expresses it in a more direct manner, but we remain positive

So if communication with your work colleague is not particularly smooth and you’re in doubt as to why, it is probably because of missing or incorrect information. Your interaction is based on different assumptions. Therefore, before you assume that someone is acting the way they are out of evil intent or because they do not like you, remember that your counterpart just may not be having the best day.

What about that unfriendly email from a colleague lately? You may have assumed it was a frontal attack, but it was probably just a misunderstanding. Next time, just think about Hanlon and his razor and give them the benefit of the doubt – after all, you know each other and the number of positive moments outweighs the occasional negative experiences.

Or, as Jerry Weinberg put it: “If I can’t think of at least three different interpretations of what I received, I haven’t thought enough about what it might mean.”

3. Try to Be Universally Motivating in Your Communication
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Anyone who has studied business management should have come across Herzberg’s hygiene theory. According to Herzberg, discontentment at work is related to hygiene factors such as working atmosphere, safety and salary, whereas motivational factors such as enjoyment of work, responsibility and a sense of accomplishment impact your true job satisfaction.

This does not just explain why money alone doesn’t make you happy, but also why certain companies are much more sought-after than others. However, what does that mean for our communication?

On the one hand, things in everyday work are not always what they seem to be. Your team may have nothing to complain about thanks to permanent contracts and a great salary, yet this security is not a source of enthusiasm for their job. A “be satisfied, your job is secure after all” in a meeting with the team is therefore no longer a good breeding ground for constructive communication.

Younger generations such as Millennials and Gen Z focus on self-realisation and tasks with meaning. This is a universal piece of advice and something you should always bear in mind when communicating in the workplace.

At the same time, Herzberg’s theory provides the key to new ways of motivating your fellow human beings. We bet that this approach is no stranger to the founders of many startups with flat hierarchies and motivational events.

4. Manage the Information Flow and Maintain Control over Your Conversation
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Let’s take a look at McCornack’s Information manipulation theory (IMT). As the name suggests, this theory is all about manipulation. Our communication follows certain rules and is manipulative in the psychological sense, even if we hardly notice it ourselves.

While McCornack’s research was not always based on a positive form of manipulation, let’s consider how you can use his theory to develop more persuasive communication by controlling the information you share. Every conversation follows a specific pattern – in IMT theory, we speak of four conversational maxims:

  • Quantity: The information we exchange in the conversation is complete
  • Quality: The information that we share is correct
  • Connection: The information is relevant to our counterpart
  • Form: We present our information with appropriate vocabulary and using the right tone.

And the trick for better communication? Develop a dialogue strategy along these four maxims and provide structure to your messages. For example, do not present all the information at once in a contract negotiation and use your information advantage to achieve a better result for yourself.

Whether you are not giving it all away at once, presenting an unusual version of your message, or spontaneously presenting a new perspective on the subject: Capturing the attention of your conversation partner is vital for this strategy.

The opposite is also true: Do not get entangled in the position of the listener by always keeping these four maxims in mind. Do not simply believe what you’re told. Ask for further details. Put what has been said to the test. Demand proof and pay attention to the pitch in the telephone conversation, as well as the body language in a personal meeting.

5. Reach Your Goals Faster with Proven Magic Words

The prerequisite for any effective conversation is rhetoric. In 1953, Richard Weaver wrote his Ethics of Rhetoric which gave rise to the so-called ultimate terms. The thesis is very simple: Some words just have more power than others! Based on this assumption, Weaver divides vocabulary into three categories:

  • God terms or spiritual terms such as words that express hope or promises e.g. value or progress.
  • Devil terms or extremely negative terms – we’ll spare you the examples.
  • Charismatic terms are harder to grasp, but they are strong like god terms e.g. freedom or contribution.

You can make the persuasive power of these words your own by using them strategically in your communication. Cleverly built into the conversation, strong words work on their own for your goals. On the other hand, you can avoid creating a negative atmosphere by deleting negative words from your vocabulary.

You don’t know how you can meaningfully incorporate concepts like freedom into your communication? There is also the trick of occasionally using the name of your counterpart, or even words like you, new or instantly can have a special effect, even if it sounds trivial at first glance.

Psychological theories do not have to be dry and can really help to enrich your conversations. When used in everyday life, psychology and its diverse insights provides you with valuable services. Give the five examples listed above a chance and share your experience with us in the comments section of this blog post – we’re excited to hear how they work out for you!

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