For all the ways human beings have to communicate, we are pretty lousy at actually communicating with each other. The trouble is, when we need to communicate most, we turn inward; when we most need to open ourselves and listen, we get the most defensive.

This holds as true for friendships as for business partnerships. Bad communication skills, says D.A. Graham, president of DNA Consulting in Trenton, are the bedrock of conflict. And yet people keep falling into the same traps. And wondering why they keep having the same problems.

Graham will be one of nearly two dozen presenters at this year’s Princeton Community Works conference on Monday, January 26, from 5 to 9:15 p.m., at Frist Campus Center on the Princeton University campus. Cost: $35. Visit www.princetoncommunityworks.org.

Joining Graham will be Theresa Shubeck of Ruotolo Associates; Matt Glass of Eventage; Elizabeth Wagner of Princeton Area Community Foundation; Amy Eisenstein of Tri Point Fundraising; Pam Walker of the Junior League of Princeton; Amy Klein of Volunteer Connect; Carl Clark of Urban Promise Trenton; Laura Otten of LaSalle University; Linda Meisel of Jewish & Family Children’s Services of Greater Mercer County; Arthur Firestone of Arthur Firestone Associates; and Jack Fein of the Mercadien Group.

Also Dennis Kilfeather of Lear & Pannepacker; Christine Duffy of Pro Bono Partnership; Linda Bregstei Sherr of Mercer County Community College; Brittany Aydelotte of the College of New Jersey; Jennifer Gardella of Your Social Media Hour; and independent consultants Ed Han, Marge Smith, who founded the event in 1995 when she was executive director of the Princeton YWCA, Sue Kirkland, and Colleen Miller.

Graham grew up in Mobile, Alabama, with four siblings and a mother who never graduated from high school. His father served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, but faced the crippling disadvantage of being a poor, black veteran of an unpopular war when he came home and needed to get a job the deep south in 1968. The elder Graham worked as a janitor to support seven people in the house. “He’s one of my heroes,” Graham says. “He gave me my work ethic.”

His father also gave him his life’s direction. “My father had a wise saying: You can have as many degrees as a thermometer. But people don’t want to know how much you know, they want to know how much you care,” he says.

After high school, Graham embarked on a military jaunt and a quest for education that almost did get him as many degrees as a thermometer. He graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s in communication and a master’s in relational studies. He then earned a master’s of divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and a master’s in human relations from the University of Oklahoma. He joined the Navy and served as a chaplain, eventually finding himself stationed in San Diego.

Graham left the Navy in 2005 and worked as an ombudsman for students at San Diego State. In 2008 Princeton University hired him to be a student ombudsman, and he finally decided that he would get his Ph.D (which he says he shied away from for years because he simply didn’t believe himself worthy of getting one).

Graham earned his Ph.D. in communications from Capella University and began his own consulting and coaching firm in Trenton, where he educates clients on all-around better performance and personal achievement, from health to communication. He also works for the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia as the director of human resources.

Ask and ye shall receive. The foundation of all communication and relationships, Graham says, is asking questions. That doesn’t mean grill people. It means being aware that a lot of people come to a difficult situation without positive feelings. Paying attention to what they’re saying is important, and the best way to know what they think and say is to ask.

The thing to remember is, you don’t have to agree with each other to have good conversation, Graham says. It shouldn’t be about winning the argument, it should be about finding the best direction to take things. “You need to be life-affirming and not life-alienating,” he says. “The point of communication is to be able to connect to what’s alive in the other person.”

Empathy. Difficulty in communicating often stems from people being guarded, Graham says. No one wants to appear weak or vulnerable. But, he cautions, vulnerability is not weakness. Letting your guard down is a way of letting someone in, and someone else letting his guard down is a perfect opportunity for you to engage your empathy. The ability of understand and feel where someone else is coming from in a situation, he says, is the key to great communication. Being genuine and empathetic allows people to trust you, which in the end will make for solid relationships.

Asking questions and letting your guard down can be seen as traps. And, indeed, there are unsavory people out there who are very good at making it look as if they care — which just makes people more guarded around others. Graham acknowledges that there are some people who will always take advantage of others, but that isn’t true about everyone, he says, And it’s worth it to take the chance.

Knock three times. Curiosity and genuine interest in what others are saying are long-established routes to meaningful personal and professional relationships. Graham recommends asking someone the same question in three different ways as a means to get to what someone really wants to say — because people really do want to talk to other people, he says. They’re just afraid of getting hurt by being vulnerable.

The reason for asking thrice, Graham says, is because the first time you ask a simple question, such as “How are you?” people think you’re just making small talk or being polite. On the second pass (“Seriously, how are things going?”), you’ve piqued their curiosity. And on the third (“You want to talk about it?”), “people feel your genuineness,” he says. Letting people know you’re genuinely interested usually gets them to open up, and once they open up, you can explore the route to where you need to go.

What’s in it for us? A major thing to keep in mind, Graham says, is that progress in any relationship, business or not, is best achieved as a mutually beneficial journey. “I don’t see it as an issue of what can you or I do,” he says. “It’s what we can do together? What can we do to move forward?”

This all starts with planting positive seeds, Graham says. The old adage of having to reap what you sow is right on. The universe is taking note, and it all depends how high you want to run up the tab before karma cashes in.

So how do you begin to reap positive crops from positive seeds? Let go. Lose the negativity in yourself. Be willing to open yourself to others, because if you want them to open up to you, how would they trust you if you can’t open up in return.

“It’s simple,” he says. “More negative things happen to negative people.”

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