Total communication is a phrase that is used a lot in the world of communication difficulties. It can be summed up as using multiple modalities to convey your meaning. Total communication is an approach, however, that can help more than just those with communication difficulties. Here is how you can apply a total communication approach to your interactions:
Take responsibility for being understood
When you speak to someone, you’re fundamentally trying to convey a message you want them to know. The successful communication of that message lies with you, as the one who wants to pass it on. People will not always tell you they haven’t understood, they themselves may not have realised they haven’t understood. Even if they do tell you, it’s not their responsibility to understand better, it’s your responsibility to explain better until they understand. This includes checking that assumptions aren’t getting in the way of understanding (see here why assumptions are so bad.)
Watch your body language
Most people will know something about the use of body language. In our day to day lives, however, we forget the most basic principle – be in the same physical space as the person you are talking to. How often have you shouted across rooms/upstairs to a family member? It’s not possible to use multiple modalities if you’re not in the same space as each other. Make the effort to go to the person you want to talk to. As with the point above, you are responsible for the interaction so go to them, not make them come to you.
Create an environment that understanding will happen in
The most successful total communication happens when the interaction has complete attention. With communication impairments the simplest distraction can cause a breakdown. Before starting any interaction make sure all distractions are removed. Turn off the TV, put away your mobile phone and don’t multi-task. If the other person is doing something else, ask them for their full attention before you start. Use touch to get someone’s attention before you start speaking.
Be smart with your speech
Speech alone is often not enough to convey your meaning but if you’ve addressed the above points your speech will have more of an impact already. Another great tool for increased understanding when speaking is using the person’s name before you address them. This ensures their attention is on you as you speak to them. This activates the visual modality allowing them to lip read, check your expressions and body language as you are speaking to them.
Ensure there is a ‘common’ language
A common modality for total communication is known as ‘objects of reference’. It’s using specific objects to represent certain concepts, for example using a sponge to represent bath time. In everyday communication you might not need concrete objects but it is good practice to ensure you have defined common concepts when regularly communicating with people. The word coach is an excellent example for this. When talking about coaching it is important to define what you mean; it could be sports coaching, health coaching, life coaching, business coaching, etc. By being clear on what you mean by the word coaching, you are providing an ‘object of reference’ for the person you are talking to.
Don’t be afraid to use signs
Signs and symbols are a big part of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) when developing a total communication environment. But they don’t just work for people with communication impairments. Using signs and symbols in your day to day communication augments what you are saying. The most basic signs are touch, pointing and using hand gestures. The most basic symbols are writing. Follow up verbal requests with written reminders or ask for written confirmation of understanding. A note in the kitchen to remind your child to do their homework; a text to your partner to remind them to pick up milk; and email to a colleague asking for their report Friday afternoon; these are all ways to back up your verbal communication with ‘symbols’. For younger children you can use pictures rather than words, and baby signing is very popular now for providing alternative means to support communication whilst speech develops.
Most people tend to do everything at a million miles an hour. You’re running out of the door whilst reminding your partner they need to cook dinner tonight; talking to a colleague whilst filing paperwork and thinking about the next meeting in your calendar; talking to your sister whilst you walk to the bus stop and thinking about whether you will go to the gym tonight. We’re always doing and thinking about things as we try and communicate. So slow down. Stop what you’re doing and physically slow your speech down. It might feel too slow to you, but to the person listening it won’t. Pause, give them a moment to process what you’ve said and really listen to their response, rather than starting to speak again as soon as they’ve stopped.
The joy of these methods is that they can be used to improve communication across all environments and relationships. How can you start applying them today?