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7 Tips to Improve Your Communication Skills

It would seem that communication should be easy and simple, but of course it’s not. It’s often quite complex due to the many layers of messaging that are present when someone speaks. Even a single sentence can be complicated.

The first layer is the obvious one. The words. You have a thought or feeling you want to get across, and you choose the words to do that. If the subject is pretty concrete, meaning it’s about something that isn’t ambiguous or up for interpretation, then the communication’s probably quite clear.

“I stubbed my toe on the coffee table.”

Most of us know exactly what that means. The sentence describes an act we’re familiar with and have likely experienced ourselves, and there’s not much left to interpretation. We might have other questions like how much did it hurt, was it injured, etc., but we still know what stubbing a toe on a coffee table feels like and we understand the message.

If you say something like . . .

“I’m really out of sorts today.”

 . . .then it’s a whole different ball game. That sentence describes a feeling state, and there are many possible interpretations for the phrase “out of sorts.” It can mean anything from slight irritation to deep depression to not feeling clear minded to feeling out of place and so on.

For these type statements, investigation is required to understand what’s meant. In the case above, you might ask whether the feeling is coming from external circumstances such as feeling ill, or having too much to do, or having not had enough sleep?

Or maybe the feeling is more internally initiated such as an overall sense of emotional isolation and depression, or anxiety that doesn’t seem to be attached to anything, or feelings of insecurity about a relationship.

These statements are wide open for interpretation and can easily be misconstrued or misunderstood. The good thing is that the way you communicate can greatly reduce the need for interpretation, and make it easier to be understood.

Here’s some tips for both the speaker and the listener that will improve the level of understanding and cooperation when you’re communicating with someone.

#1 Choose accurate, detailed, descriptive words.

When making a statement or communicating a feeling or point of view that can be interpreted lots of ways, choose your words carefully and deliberately to make sure that what you actually mean is clear.

Instead of “I’m feeling out of sorts today,” say “I’m getting the beginnings of a sore throat and feel more tired than usual, in spite of a full night’s sleep.”

Or, “I feel a little cloudy today. My mind isn’t working up to speed and I can’t concentrate on my work, or make decisions easily, or think clearly.”

Or, “I feel a little blue today. I had an argument with my husband before coming to work and it left me feeling sad that we started the day off like that.”

All these statements could explain “feeling out of sorts,” right? But each of them have very different meanings, and each are related to different situations and feeling states.

By using specific descriptive words and phrases, and filling in the information that backs up those words, you paint a picture for the listener that’s easy to understand. You’re also inviting the listener to join in and ask questions or commiserate with you, without making them work too hard to get to the real meaning of your words.

Specifics should include a description of what’s going on in some detail, and the cause or possible cause of why you feel the way you feel.

#2 Be clear on your motivation.

Do the words you’re using match the message you really want to send? If you say to your spouse . . .

“It must be nice to come home and plop down to watch TV!”

. . . are you saying it’s great to be able to watch TV when you come home? I think not. You’re saying something entirely different, right? You’re likely noticing that you have to come home and start right in with household chores after working all day while he relaxes and watches TV without pitching in.

The statement is sarcastic and has angry undertones. The motivation is to create guilt, discharge anger, and hopefully change your husband’s behavior. The problem is that the motivation and words don’t match.

Successful communication has a match-up between motivation (or intent) and words. A better statement would be . . .

“I’m upset that you don’t help me with all the household stuff when you get home from work. I know you’ve worked all day, but so have I, and it’s only fair that we both pitch in.”

That statement is clear. No hidden meanings. Motivation and words match, and there were no accusations used. You’re stating what’s bothering you and why, and asking for a change in behavior. That doesn’t mean he’ll jump right up and help you, but it does mean that what you’ve said and your intent in saying it are clear.

#3 Pay attention to your body language.

Body language is important. There are various theories about how much body language effects communication and under what circumstances. Either way, it’s safe to say that body language plays a significant role, especially in the reading of emotions.

When what you say is different than what your body language is communicating, the listener will feel confused.

If you say you’re feeling great, but your body language says you’re unhappy or depressed, than the listener isn’t sure what’s true and may feel you’re not being honest.

By the way, so much is lost in communicating by text and email because we can’t take in the whole picture. Save important communication for in-person conversations. And when in person, make sure your facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, and physical gestures match what you’re saying and what you’re trying to get across.

#4 Be authentic.

Authenticity is important because people can feel when you’re giving mixed messages or saying something that isn’t completely true. If you make a statement, but are feeling or thinking something different from what you’re saying, the receiver can sense that something’s off.

Maybe you’re saying how happy you are that your coworker got a raise, but internally you’re very upset that you were passed over. There’s a disconnect between what you’re saying and what you actually feel. That can lead to confusion and maybe even distrust depending on the nature of the relationship between the speaker and listener.

It’s a little disconcerting, or creates some discomfort because the message doesn’t ring true.

It’s important that your words, body language, emotions, and your intent are all in sync with each other when you’re communicating.

That builds trust, and makes the message clear at the same time. It also helps to avoid misunderstandings.

#5 Don’t hijack the conversation.

You know where this one’s going.

You’re having a conversation with a friend and you’re explaining a situation that you’re excited about, and she’s nodding very quickly and somewhat impatiently. As soon as you take a breath, she chimes in and changes the conversation to a situation she had that was similar. She takes over and doesn’t come back to your situation.

She’s a conversation hijacker!

People who do this usually do it a lot. They seem to bring most conversations back to themselves, regardless of the subject.

It’s important to listen with interest, ask questions to clarify what’s said, and do your best to really understand what the other person is saying and how they feel. If you take the time to do that up front, then you can add to the conversation when it’s your turn, and be heard.

#6 Take breaks when conversations get heated.

I think we can all agree that communication can really go haywire when there’s a conflict in play, and especially when emotions get heated. Some people think we should just plow through and keep going, and others become overwhelmed and want to withdraw.

Whatever your philosophy, it’s helpful to understand that strong emotions, especially anger, can and often do greatly interfere with your ability to think and reason. There’s some science to this, and it has to do with how our brains work.

When we lose our cool, it’s usually because our brains have been signaled that we’re in some sort of danger. If I’m in an argument with you, and I feel personally attacked, the older part of my brain (the amygdala), signals a red alert and I automatically move into a fight or flight response. My thinking brain (neocortex) doesn’t get that signal right away, and by the time it does, the amygdala has ramped up my defenses and plunged into action without the help of an objective evaluation of the situation.

In plain language, my emotional reactions have very quickly escalated without the benefit of my ability to think. It’s as though my brain’s on fire.

This is when people do or say things they later wish they could take back.

To douse that fire, you have to step away from the stimulus – in this case the person you’re arguing with – and give your brain time to return to normal. This takes at least 20 minutes, and more if the issue you’re dealing with has some history behind it.

In order to resolve a disagreement, you have to be able to listen and respond thoughtfully. If you find yourself unable to do that because your emotions are out of control, take that break! Fighting through is a bad idea.

It’s even fine to take a day or two if the subject is something that’s been approached many times without resolution.

When you’re calmer and have had to time to really think about what’s already been said, and what you think a solution could be, then go back and try again.

What’s important during a disagreement is to truly listen and try to understand the other person’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it. By showing interest in hearing how someone else feels, you’re validating them and respecting their right to their thoughts and feelings.

You don’t need to argue to hold your own in a discussion where there’s conflict or disagreement. Listening does not imply agreement. Giving each person room to say what’s on their mind and how it affects them is more important, even if there’s disagreement.

#7 Follow these five rules when speaking.

  • Use “I” statements. You’ve heard this before, and that’s because it’s really important. When speaking about something, especially something that’s emotionally charged, it’s important to make sure the listener doesn’t feel attacked. Instead of saying, “You really make me mad!”, say “When you watch TV while I’m talking to you, I get angry! I feel dismissed.” By saying it as an “I” statement instead of a “You” statement, you’re owning your feelings. The listener is more likely to respond well because there isn’t a direct personal attack.
  • Avoid absolutes. This means ditch words like always, never, and every time. These are exaggerations and usually bring on a defensive response.
  • Be clear and don’t hint. Ask for what you want, or say what you really mean. Use specifics, and be direct.
  • Avoid personal characterizations, judgments, or attacks.
  • Watch your facial expressions. When the conversation is friendly and there’s no controversy, then your facial expressions usually match your thoughts and feelings. But, when the conversation is tense or controversial, sometimes facial expressions are contemptuous or mocking such as eye-rolling, sighing, or heavy breathing. Use your words to express your feelings properly and keep your expression open.

These are just some basic tips for improving your communication skills. If you’d like to delve more into this subject, you might like to read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.

And as always, I’d love to hear your comments!!

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