9 Primal Ways to Become a Better Communicator

9 Primal Ways to Become A Better Communicator FinalEons ago, an evolutionary shift took root that would change the human story. In fact, it would write it. I’m talking of course about the capacity for complex language. The development spurred collaborative ability and, as a result, social organization. Where visceral reality once ruled, other conceptual layers came into play—cosmological narratives, genealogical stories, inter-band negotiations just to get things started. Perhaps rudimentary drawings or food offerings might have put us on a path to the above, but it wasn’t until language that these came to real fruition. With language, culture and all that comes with it was born. The ability to communicate didn’t eradicate raw instinct by any means, but it spoke back to it and opened up options for human social connection.

We rely on communication for all we do—how we parent, how we lead, how we love, how we navigate the world and all of our relationships. And, yet, it’s no secret that we’re doing our communicative talents no favors these days. From the filter of technology to the culture of busy, we’re seem to be backing ourselves into our virtual, isolated corners more and more.

Sherry Turkle, a writer and researcher I mention in Primal Connection, studies digital culture and its effect on human communication. “Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other,” she writes. With even phone calls now being seen as intrusive, we live with increasing layers between ourselves and those we love or work with.

Human history around communication could easily have its own Smithsonian (e.g. everything from calling cards to rotary dial phones to stone tablets), but we’re always after the prehistory here. What did it look like in Grok’s day? It can boggle the mind to think we’re hearkening back to the advent of oral tradition. Never mind smart phone technology. We’re talking about a time even before more basic written exchange. All communication was face to face, eye to eye, in the full display of physical as well as verbal expression.

Is it any wonder kids these days, increasingly plugged into screens during and after school, are losing the ability to read emotions? Even we adults, who may pride ourselves having grown up old school, are running ourselves distracted. While 90% of communication isn’t necessarily non-verbal, we kid ourselves to think words (even for the most eloquent among us) and emojis are just as good as genuine, undistracted face time.

A few weeks ago I saw a social media meme that said technology can bring us closer to those far away and can distance us from those in our presence. The Primal (as opposed to raw Paleolithic) principle holds here: we enjoy and apply the best tools of modern times for the most convenient and most fulfilling experience of a life centered around what nourishes our inherent human needs—social communication being one of these.

I fully get it. Families spread over multiple states if not countries. Company employees span the globe. I see it in my own circles—both social and business. Most of the time, I work from home since it makes more sense for my current setup. None of this changes our need for communication, but it sure does take us far from our Primal traditions.

Every day we deal with utilitarian obligations (gotta work and earn money in the networked world) and with evolutionarily novel circumstances (Grandma and Grandpa live five states away). Yet, I think we can simultaneously make the best of our situations and know we can expect more from ourselves and others.

They say communication isn’t just about what you say but how you make another person feel. (Which part do you think the mind remembers most?) When we look at it this way, at issue isn’t just the mode of communication but the quality of connection that takes place.

Our schedules (or mindsets) can make us so tired and overwrought that communication can feel like a chore. From 5-minute fairy tales for our kids to cryptic texts to our partners or friends, we’re losing the forest through the trees. If a child or friend makes a telling facial expression and no one looks up (e.g. from a laptop or dinner prep) to witness it, did it really happen? Good communication can be as much a question of life balance as it is technology dependence. Do our ways of communicating support our ability to relate successfully and intimately? Do they serve our happiness and the happiness of those we care about?

In that spirit, I want to throw out a few ideas (some work oriented, others family/friend focused, some practical, some conceptual)—a few Primal-minded ways we can both communicate and connect better—because I think Grok would remind us it’s less about skill and more about purpose (and that purpose largely directs skill).

1. Practice regular technology fasts

If you make one change, let this be it. I’ve written about tech fasting in the past as a means of living in the physical, present moment. Get your head out of your smartphone and into conversation with the world around you. You’ll not only hear the words others are trying to share with you, but you’ll pick up on cues you likely too often miss—the subtle facial expressions and body language that tells you your spouse really loves you or your daughter needs you now or an ailing friend or parent isn’t doing as well as he/she has let on. It’s a great reminder that technology can be as much a barrier to communication as it is a tool for it.

2. Just be with someone—in undistracted silence

How easy it is to forget that we can literally just sit with someone and be in silence with them. Hunter-gatherer groups didn’t and don’t today live with the cacophony of blabbing that we do. Silence speaks. Presence listens. This is something even older generation of “regular” people understand, I think. As silence becomes rarer, so does our appreciation for its significance.

3. Embrace storytelling

Kids love to hear stories—and not just the fantastical stuff of princesses and knights, monsters, aliens and animals that talk. One of the fun things about grandparents is the stories they’ve amassed—about mom or dad as a youngling, about themselves, about historical events, about life before X, Y, Z invention or with whatever war or scourge inspires vicarious horror in a child’s imagination.

The best speakers—whether they be preachers or politicians, teachers or business leaders—know how to employ stories to their end. Stories are entertaining. They’re absorbing. And they often communicate points better than any directive you could ever come up with.

In Grok’s time—and even into the first few thousand years of semi-recorded history—morality, convention and religion were communicated through story rather than law. It was part of the vast oral tradition that encompassed everything from Aboriginal cautionary tales to the early Greeks.

There’s something humble about telling through story rather than dictate. As mythological scholars can tell you, our imaginations can stretch to comprehend vaster, deeper and more challenging concepts through the vehicle of metaphor and story than through any other means. Symbolic language can take us places literal language can’t.

4. Reinstitute the traditional family (or friend) reunion weekend 

When I was young it was customary for extended families to gather once a year for a big get-together. Cousins, grandparents, distant aunts and uncles would all gather for the annual steak-fry or barbecue on someone’s farm or at a local church. The kids joined up for their own adventures while the adults “visited” over coffee, beer and the buffet tables.

These days I think you see less of this—although I do occasionally run into big gatherings at hotels with dozens or even hundreds of laughing, embracing people all wearing that year’s official family reunion t-shirt. It’s a sight to behold, and it’s probably not all that distant a tradition from what Grok’s kin might have experienced during certain parts of the year when gathering was easier.

How often do we settle for Christmas cards (often electronic) and call it good anymore? Those cards as well as social media shares will mean a lot more if once a year (or more) you make the commitment to be together in the flesh. While social media and phone calls can help maintain a continuity, presence preserves intimacy.

5. Reinvent the staff retreat

Being a good communicator isn’t about making sure every exchange happens in person or that every email goes into protracted displays of emotional sensitivity. It’s about balancing the overall call for connection with the situational benefits of expedience. When it comes to work as well as family, it’s important to build a strong foundation of communication, trust and collaboration. Sure, people will do their basic jobs in order to be paid, but most of us (whether we’re on the leadership or the staff side) hope for a bigger, more fulfilling investment. The way to get that isn’t forceful directives or stale training. I find it’s often about getting people out of the office.

I’m not talking about a day long series of Power Point lectures with catered lunch in the adjacent corporate building. I mean an experience that gets people out of their typical roles and into something totally novel. Sometimes that might be a week in a resort cabin with climbing or kayaking lessons. It could be your team taking on a service project like a week of Habitat for Humanity work.

Whatever the choice, it should have no connection to the workplace. It should be an egalitarian affair. And it should be more than just a couple days. Within that space, you’ll all get to see different sides of each other, as well as appreciate new skills or characteristics of one another. By the end, the typical mode of relating will be cracked open. You’ll have established an intimacy from experience shared and built a trust that can color future communication and collaboration among those on your team.

6. Choose video conferencing over phone calls when you can

The fact is, sometimes we can’t be together, but here’s a case in which modern technology can help us get a little closer to the real deal. Whether it’s a weekly staff meeting (how many people telecommute these days?) or a call to the grandparents, the visual aspect of greeting and conversation is invaluable to feeling connected and included. In practical terms, it’s also much easier for the person “phoning in” for a group conversation if he/she can see who’s talking. Who agrees with me there?

7. Don’t forget about the power of physical contact

It’s well known we’re a stingy bunch in Western society. Other cultures tend to be much more hands on than ours when it comes to showing affection, and the same is true of observed hunter-gatherer societies.

Obviously, we navigate what’s acceptable versus unacceptable in the workplace, but among those in our family or social circles, could we be more demonstrative than we typically are? Could we offer more hugs or a quick squeeze of the shoulders? What about a kiss goodbye in the morning? How often do we hold the hand of our child these days? Would we be willing to take our mother’s arm as we walk with her? When we remember the purpose of communication is ultimately relating, we understand how important physical touch can be.

8. Consider your body language

Restaurant servers and flight attendants are among those trained to look their customers in the eye. It’s part of their job because a key aspect of their work is making people feel welcome and valued. Sometimes those of us in jobs less explicitly service oriented forget the impact of that simple behavior. Looking someone in the eye literally says, “I see you.”

How many of our conversations do we go through in a day—probably more so at home than at work—when we fail to even look the other person in the eye? Do we yell to our kids across the house to wash their hands and come eat, or do we take a minute to visit them in their rooms, get down on their levels, look them in the eye while lightly touching their shoulders and tell them it’s time to eat?

Do we stop what we’re doing and face them with an interested and quiet expression while they tell us about their day? Do we offer the same courtesy to our partners?

How do we look when we’re sitting in a meeting? Are we slouched back in our chairs, doodling on the pads in front of us, or are we focused attentively on the speaker? Do we compulsively sit hunched with crossed arms and a disinterested scowl at our in-laws? Guess what. Grok’s family wouldn’t have liked you either and very possibly would’ve taken you to task over it.

Here’s the cut-to-the-chase Primal principle: take responsibility for the energy you give off.

9. Deeply consider your words

Because technology diminishes or omits the input of facial expression and body language—what I’d call the social checks and balances of face-to-face communication, the onus is obviously on our words. When you add in the fast pace we fly by these days, we’re looking at a pretty high likelihood for miscommunication or at least the risk of not communicating our full intent—most likely the emotion behind our request or comment (always the most tricky and nuanced part).

The drive for efficiency can move us to take shortcuts in our communication, and what seemed utilitarian at the time can later strike us (too late for the recipient) as brusk and dismissive.

Is the one extra minute or two it would’ve taken to think through or re-read worth the happiness of a partner or child or the morale of a staff member? Get some Grok-style perspective and know that some things are worth your time investment.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts on the state of communication as you see it, and enjoy the end to your week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “9 Primal Ways to Become a Better Communicator”

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  1. As always, your posts seem so timely. We just sent out the invitations for our Family Reunion on the weekend. Our very extended family will be meeting on the Labour Day Weekend at a scout camp that we have rented for a weekend of archery, canoeing and lots of sitting around the big fire-pit reminiscing. How primal is that?! We might get really ambitious this year and do a pig roast as the Saturday evening dinner.

    Two years ago we hosted a similar event for our 25th anniversary party. That kick started my cousins and I to start regularly hosting family events as our parents used to do when we were children. We were starting to realize that the only time we were getting together was at funerals and that needed to change since most of us lived reasonably close together. Distance was not an issue.

    Since then, we have have been getting the whole gang together about every 2 months.. Some times it is a milestone birthday party, other times it is everyone going to attend a play to support our cousin that wrote the play.

    Looking forward to hosting +60 people!

    1. So, um, how closely related do you have to be to get invited to this fabulous sounding family reunion?
      I mean, if you go waaayyyyy back, we’re all related…
      Seriously, it sounds great!

      1. Well, you have to go way north….if you hit tundra, you have gone just a little too far 54.153687,-111.851458

  2. Have you ever known someone who babbles incessantly and you can’t get a word in edgewise? If you do get a chance to say something, they frequently cut you off or drown out what you’re trying to say. I have a couple of quasi-friends like that. They are so preoccupied with themselves and their own opinions that they are impossible to converse with, other than to offer an occasional, bored “uh-huh” as punctuation to their endless, self-important stream of words. Such people are very difficult to be around, much less talk to, and you find yourself immediately looking for a way to escape. IMO, an effective communicator knows, first and foremost, how to be a good LISTENER.

    1. Aye; ask them for the time and they’ll tell you how to build a friggin’ clock.

    2. OR…. they are alone so much that (even without meaning to) when they GET a chance to talk to a real human, they can’t stop! My late husband used to say I had “verbal constipation” because he (“Silent Sam”) wasn’t one for conversation. He took me every week to the Japanese restaurant for lunch so I could spend the hour chatting with James, our chef !

      Now that I’m alone even more, it’s hard NOT to ‘say’ everything that has piled up since I last had someone to talk with (well, I write “with” — it may be “talk TO”! {wince}) I apologize (frequently!), my dear friends roll their eyes (as my husband did) and let me rabbit on… And I AM working very hard at asking a few questions and SHUTTING UP to let them answer!

      1. I don’t mind friendly chatter at all! What I *do* mind is when you make a comment about something, and the next person has to pretend to be an expert on whatever subject you speak of and run their mouths for a solid hour, talking nonstop but saying absolutely nothing. Recently we were shopping for chicken coop supplies, and some surly beer-gutted guy proceeded to “educate” us on how chickens can live comfortably in an 8′ by 10′ coop provided you have 25 or less. A) That’s bullcrap. B) I didn’t ask for his “advice” and C) anyone with a cocky, know it all attitude about everything under the sun is immediately discredited by me! (The phrase we use is “know nothing know it all” LOL)

  3. I have a six month old son and I worry about him growing up in such a tech-centric world. I want to foster interpersonal communication as much as possible, but also don’t want him to be behind his peers when it comes to tech use since boring old Mom won’t let him be on it 24/7 at home!

    1. I know the feeling, Erica. I’ve found like-minded parents through breastfeeding and home-schooling groups – hopefully you won’t be the only parent in your area feeling like this. Whenever someone tells me an infant needs to learn how to use technology, I point out that many of us had no such things in our youth and still became programmers, etc. There is plenty of time in older childhood/adolescence to become proficient in technology. Best wishes!

      1. As kids, the Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Sega Genesis were the “in” things to have as far as technology (along with Walkmans, Gameboys, etc). We had those things, but we also had a huge expanse of property with barns to explore, ponds to swim in, and trees to climb. We loved our video games, but we loved being active and enjoying life more, and we were encouraged to do both! Not too long ago I was to meet a family member at a local park; one that has all of the above (minus the barns, I suppose) for kids. Lots of green grass, trees, ponds, and things to explore, and lots of dirt. Any kid worth their salt would have been clawing to get out of the car on such a gorgeous day…I arrived about 10 minutes late and pulled up next to their car. Both parents and all 3 kids (the youngest being 3) were so engrossed in their smartphones that they didn’t even notice my car pulling to a stop next to theirs. It was eerie looking. I fumbled around, sure someone would notice the movement next door–nothing. I got out of the car, nothing. I walked to the drivers side window and stood, watching the 5 zombies texting and typing away, completely oblivious to the fact that there was a living person a mere foot away from them. I had to knock on the window twice to get their attention. Eerie, indeed, and I commend any parent who’s willing to put forth a bit of effort to ensure their kids enjoy the advancements in technology, but enjoy REAL life as well.

  4. I find it interesting to consider how different speaking to someone is from a company sending out a letter or email with the same text to thousands of people, though they’re both examples of human communication. The latter form is highly efficient, and you wouldn’t hire someone to go around and talk to all the would-be letter recipients. On the other hand, getting a letter that reads “We’re sorry to lose you as a customer…” feels insincere, since it’s more or less autogenerated by computers and machines.

    Jean Liedloff mentions in The Continuum Concept how the tribes she lives with are remarkable in how they don’t go for efficiency. However, abandoning all “efficient” communication (which would strictly mean no records and no books), would in some ways be a big loss.

    1. A rule I TRY to remember is:

      Be efficient with objects.
      Be EFFECTIVE with people!

  5. My pet peeve is when I call a customer service number only to be reminded that next time I can find “fill-in-the-blank” on their website.
    I know how to use a computer. If I had wanted to use it I would have. As a matter of fact, it’s probably how I found your company’s phone number. I wanted to talk to a human!

    1. I agree. Another would be the number of buttons you have to push just to get to an actual person.

      1. I love that they have now ‘taught’ the machine/algorithm to recognize annoyance in a human voice — if you snarl “REPRESENTATIVE” at the machine — it (sometimes) short-circuits the ‘lets go through a hundred options before you can get help.’

        (And I, too, am annoyed by the message: “you can get help on our website.”
        NO, I can’t! If I COULD have gotten help on your website with the thing I am calling about, I would have done it on your website! THAT Is why I’m calling; I cannot do it on your website! SHEESH!)

  6. I love the idea of video conferencing – I try to use FaceTime as much as possible with family, but have not really thought about it for work (I’m a telecommuter). Most of my colleagues have FaceTime, so why not? It’s those group meetings that would be tougher – does anybody use an app or something like google hangouts for work?

    1. GoToMeeting is a good app for that. I have found it to be more reliable than Skype or Hangouts.

  7. When I first found my (actually knowledgeable) thyroid doc, he surprised me because he always LOOKED at me while we talked, and he was ‘present’ in the room and with me while we discussed what was going on. (Never had that in a doc before!!)

    Several months later, he went electric-records (it’s the law!) — and *never again* looked me in the eye! Now, he would talk to me while reading the screen, type while I was speaking, and spend more time (quality time?) with his laptop than with me.

    It was one of the reason I dropped him. {shrug}

  8. Humans evolved with two ears, two eyes and one mouth. I believe our creator designed us to utilize them proportionally.

  9. Ditched the smart phone almost three years ago. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

  10. I definitely agree with all of these. One thing I want to work on myself is being a better story teller. It’s so much easier to lecture and dictate while communicating as compared to weaving a narrative…

  11. What are my choices if I don’t have any friends, family, coworkers or skills for making friends?

    Feeling sad a lot probably due to the lack of connection.