Do You Have More Than a Hammer?


Communication is a foundation element of human existence. It’s one of the things that separates man from beast.

But noted American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) once said,

“I suppose it is tempting, if all you have is a hammer, to view everything as a nail.”

The relevance to communication is fairly obvious, I think. If your favoured method of conversing is to strike with a blunt object, you are going to use that blunt object (aggression, for example) most often. The same analogy works when replacing the hammer with a knife. If all you can do is cut, then in a conversation you are likely to resort to using cutting remarks (i.e. sarcasm or insults).

These are recognised, almost universally, as poor communication strategies, but it does raise a significant question; how well have you developed your other communication tools and how often do you practice using these tools?

You see, it’s not just knowing about good communication strategies, but being able to apply them in the right way at the right time that matters. You’ve all heard of a piano, but can you play it if asked??

Perhaps you’ve heard of positive reframing or emotional labelling. Maybe you know about acknowledgements and normalising and the difference between sympathy and empathy statements. But do you know how to use them when it counts; when the conversation is difficult or there are high levels of emotion influencing the situation? Can you call on them when you’re stressed or when the outcome means a lot to you? That’s when good, high-quality, trained communication comes to the fore.

Consider the workplace. If a customer becomes highly agitated, would you know what to say? If you’re in a meeting with the big boss and they suggest that they’re not happy with the way you handled an account, can you access the right words right now? In a crucial negotiation do you know what to say to get the other party on side?

Now, what about domestic quarrels? Much of the disagreement between partners and spouses could be avoided or minimised by the use of good, kind, well-timed, meaningful communication. Who knows, if we all committed ourselves to developing higher levels of communication there might even be less domestic violence.

So, when and how should we practice?

Well, for a start, like learning any skill, it is useless to throw yourself into situations for which your skills are not well developed enough to cope. The failure will cause you to lose confidence and resort to old habits. Maybe start practicing new communication skills during a low-level disagreement at home. In fact, why not even share with your other half that you are going to start practicing new skills. If they love you they should support this effort. Then, when you become more confident at home, consider trying these new strategies at work. Once you’ve spent a decent amount of time working on your skills you can try them out on higher levels of dispute. You’ll have some wins already under your belt and will have the tools and confidence to succeed.

Like learning any skill this will take time. It’s like I say to my Kenpo 5.0 students; “How old are you going to be in five years? Well, you’ll either be that age and a Kenpo black belt or you’ll just be that age.” If you’re planning on being around for any length of time, it’s in your best interests to start practicing today. In a few short years you’ll be an expert. Or, in a few short years you’ll wish you’d started today.

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