You’ve probably experienced frustration at one time or another of being misunderstood. All too often what we try to communicate gets lost in translation. When someone doesn’t hear what you meant to say the conversation can get side-tracked. If you’d like to improve your communication skills with your spouse, kids, boss or coworkers the following guidelines can help.
What is Effective Communication?
Effective communication is the glue that helps you deepen your connections to others and improve teamwork, decision making and problem solving. It enables you to communicate difficult messages without creating conflict or destroying trust.
Communication is about more than just exchanging information. It’s about understanding the emotion and intention behind the information. Effective communication is a two-way street. It’s not only how you convey a message so that it is received and understood by someone in exactly the way you intended, it’s also how you listen to gain the full meaning of what’s being said.
More than just the words you use, good communication combines a set of skills including nonverbal communication, engaged listening, managing stress in the moment, the ability to be assertive yet polite and the capacity to recognize your emotions and those of the person you’re communicating with.
Four Ways to Become a More Effective Communicator
1) Become an Engaged Listener
To be an engaged listener, talk less and listen more. Listening means understanding the information being communicated and the emotions behind the words. When you’re an engaged listener you’ll hear the subtle intonations in someone’s voice that tell you how that person is feeling. Not only will you understand the other person, you’ll also help that person feel heard and understood.
If your goal is to fully understand and connect with another person, listening in an engaged way will often come naturally. If it doesn’t, try the following tips.
• Focus fully on the speaker, his or her body language, tone of voice and other nonverbal cues. Tone of voice conveys emotion so if you’re thinking about other things, checking your text messages or doodling, you’re almost certain to miss the nonverbal cues and the emotional content behind the words being spoken. If the person talking is similarly distracted you’ll be able to quickly pick up on it.
• Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your own concerns. For example, “If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.” Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next.
• Show your interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with verbal comments like “yes” or “go on.”
• Set aside judgment. You may disagree with the other person’s ideas, values or opinions. That’s normal. Set aside judgment so you can fully understand him or her.
• Provide feedback. If there seems to be a disconnect, reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” or “Sounds like you’re saying…” Ask questions to clarify certain points. For example, “I hear you saying this, is that right?” Or, “Is that what you meant?”
In the words of Mark Twain, “If we were supposed to talk more than listen, we’d have two tongues and one ear.”
2) Pay Attention to Nonverbal Signals
When we communicate we use a lot of nonverbal signals. Nonverbal communication, or body language, includes your facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, the tone of your voice and even your breathing. The way you look, listen, move and react to another person tells them more about how you’re feeling than words alone can. When you use nonverbal communication it’s easier to express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations and build better relationships both at home and work.
How to Use Body Language
• You can create connection with someone by using open body language—arms uncrossed, standing with an open stance or sitting on the edge of your seat and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re talking with.
• Be aware of individual differences. People from different countries and cultures tend to use different nonverbal communication gestures so it’s important to take age, culture, religion, gender, and emotional state into account when reading body language. An American teen, a grieving widow and an Asian businessman are likely to use nonverbal signals differently.
• Look at nonverbal communication signals as a group. Don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you receive, from eye contact to tone of voice to body language. Anyone can slip up occasionally and let eye contact slip, for example, or briefly cross their arms without meaning to. Look at the signals as a whole to get a better “read” on a person.
• Use body language to convey positive feelings even if you’re not actually experiencing them. If you’re nervous about a situation like a job interview, important presentation or first date use positive body language to signal confidence even if you’re not feeling it. For example, rather than tentatively entering a room with your head down, eyes averted and sliding into a chair try standing tall with your shoulders back, smiling and maintaining eye contact and delivering a firm handshake. You’ll actually feel more self-confident and you’ll put others at ease.
3) Keep Stress in Check
To communicate effectively, you need to be aware of your emotions. That means learning how to manage stress. When you’re stressed you’re more likely to misread other people and send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals. How many times have you felt stressed during a disagreement with your spouse, kids, boss, friends, or coworkers and then say or do something you later regret? When you act from a calm state of mind you’ll avoid such regrets.
Staying calm under pressure
In stressful situations it’s important to manage your emotions, think on your feet and effectively communicate under pressure. These tips can help:
• Pause to collect your thoughts. Silence isn’t a bad thing. Pausing makes you seem more in control rather than rushing your response.
• Make one point and provide an example or supporting piece of information. If your response is too long or you waffle about a number of points, you risk losing the listener’s interest. Follow each point with an example and then gauge the listener’s reaction to decide whether or not to make a second point.
• Deliver your words clearly. How you say something can be as important as what you say. Speak clearly, maintain an even tone and make eye contact.
• Recognize when you’re becoming stressed. Your body will let you know if you’re stressed as you communicate. Are your muscles or your stomach tight? Are your hands clenched? Are you breathing?
• Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately humor is a great way to relieve stress when communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.
• Agree to disagree, if necessary, and take time away from the situation so everyone can calm down. Take a “time-out” or break.
4) Asserting Yourself
Direct and assertive expression makes for clear communication and decision-making. Being assertive means expressing your thoughts, feelings and needs in an open and honest way. It doesn’t mean being hostile or rude.
• Know what your needs and wants are. Learn to express them without infringing on the rights of others.
• Express negative thoughts in a positive way. It’s OK to be angry however it’s best to express your anger in a respectful way.
• Be open to feedback. Accept compliments graciously and learn from what didn’t work.
• Learn to say “no.” Don’t let others take advantage of you. Look for alternatives so everyone feels good about the outcome. Strive to create win-win situations
• Practice assertiveness in lower risk situations to start with to help build up your confidence. Or ask friends or family if you can practice assertiveness techniques on them first.
Conclusion: Communication is complex! Don’t keep doing what doesn’t work, do what works instead! Whether it’s personal or business-related knowing the right skills and being able to use them when required will decrease your stress and improve your relationships. If you’d like to find out more about my team-building or personal communication programs you can reach me at 512-922-4822 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.