We hear it all the time, “You need to improve your communication skills!” Heck, as a therapist I’m guilty of saying that at least once a day, if not more often. And yet, for most of us, we feel as if our skills are as good as they could possibly be. I mean, seriously, how much more is there to learn? Or so we think. Turns out there’s a great deal we likely weren’t taught or exposed to. Our families did the best they could, as did our mentors and peers but in the long run most of us could use those missing bits and pieces.
There is no way that one small blog post can bring any of us up to speed but here are the top 5 pieces I’d love for you to begin to get good at sooner rather than later. You see, these are the skills I most often find problematic, both personally and professionally, when trying to communicate myself with those in my life as well as my clients. Here we go!
Learn to listen. Notice that I didn’t say ‘hear’ but rather ‘listen.’ The art of taking in all the content ~ both the spoken word as well as the emotional content ~ is the basis of all good communication. Easier said than done, literally. Be sure to give the speaker your full attention; no cell phone in hand, glances to your watch or TV on. Look for the non-verbal communication such as open hands, smiles or a lack of eye contact. Ask for clarification of what isn’t clear to you and be sure to ask for validation that you’ve heard correctly. Ask if its time for you to share your thoughts or reflections on what’s being spoken about and respect the request for more emotional room for your person to tell you more. Try not to interrupt the speaker.
Get clear about what it is you’re really asking for. When you say that you need ‘space’ what does that mean? That you want to be physically in a different place or does that mean you’re seeking to take a break from the heavy discussions most of us get into from time to time? Be clear and express that. If you’re asking for time to step away from a heavy, emotionally charged topic, be sure to set a time to return, with confirmation that your partner or person agrees with this. And yes, that means you’ll need to return to the discussion when you’ve said you would. No putting it off again unless there’s a real emergency.
If you can, be mindful of using the phrase, “you always…” That’s a basic roadblock in any discussion. It’s also accusatory since there’s a good chance it will be heard as a jabbing, stabbing bit of awfulness. “It feels as if this is a place we’ve been before…” or “I am just surprised because it’s not what I had expected of you…” are better places to head to, if you feel the need to head anywhere other than, “I hear you, thank you for telling me that.”
An incredibly valuable skill to learn is being mindful of your tone. What do your words sound like to the person receiving them? Was that how you wanted to sound or was your tone driven by something else? Perhaps frustration or anger or your own defensiveness? This will include volume, projection and inflection. When boiled down this takes us to the saying most of us heard growing up, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.”
Get in touch with and work on your own emotional intelligence. This means not only understanding what your feelings are and what’s driving your own reactions but also getting a good handle on what might be going on for another person. Letting the person you’re speaking with know that you recognize their feelings or situation can allow for a tremendous opportunity to move the conversation forward in a more effective, caring manner. In the long run, this will help you both reach a place in your communication where the odds are good that you’ll both feel good about the experience.
There is, of course, a great deal to learn and practice when it comes to effective communication; these really are the foundational pieces. I hope that you too will begin to hear yourself, and those you choose to connect with, in a more loving, thoughtful way. And, while it sounds like work, much like riding a bike, once you get the hang of it, better communication skills are well worth having.