Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle
or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the
quality of every part of your life.
Communication is not simply choosing the right words
- many factors come into play. It's not uncommon to find ourselves able
to communicate smoothly in one situation, but bumbling our way through
another. The fact is that whether you are happy with your present
communication skills, there is always room for improvement. Here are
some useful strategies for understanding and being understood.
• Make your messages complete and specific.
Tell the person what the point of the conversation is right from the
get-go to avoid any miscommunication or confusion. Tell him or her in
exact terms what you want or need and why. There is no need to be
subtle or beat around the bush - although this doesn't mean you should
be overly aggressive or blunt! It's possible to be courteous and direct.
• Use "I" phrases when criticizing.
For example, instead of saying "You frustrate me when you show up
late", send the message from your point of view: "I feel frustrated
when you're late because we miss out on some productive time. What can
we do about the situation?" Essentially, say how you feel, why, and ask
the other person a question that leaves the ball in their court. Also,
remember not to neglect the positive. For every critical comment, try
to provide at least one positive one.
• Check for understanding.
If you continue rambling on and on even though your listener has a
confused look on his or her face, you're wasting his or her time as
well as your own. Check regularly that he or she understands,
especially when dealing with a complex issue - don't assume that people
will know what you're talking about. Make sure to explain things from a
perspective they can relate to. Remember that one of the keys to clear
communication is knowing your audience.
• Ask for feedback on how you're communicating.
You can do this as part of the actual process by, for example, asking
questions like "Does what I'm saying make sense?" or "Should I be more
specific?" You can also ask people you communicate with on a regular
basis for specific feedback on everything from your body language to
the pace at which you share information.
• Be yourself.
Be honest and straightforward. People can often sense when someone is
being evasive or lying. Remember that what you don't say is just as
telling as what you do say.
• Don't be afraid to be assertive. This
means making steady eye contact, listening actively, as well as showing
respect for the other person and for yourself. Remember however, that
there's a fine line between being aggressive and assertive. Using
intimidation or hostile tones of voice won't get you very far.
• Don't put your foot in your mouth.
Think before you speak! Is what you are about to say worth
communicating? How would you react if someone said it to you? Blurting
out the first thing that comes to mind might result in major
embarrassment for you and the person you are talking to. Be prepared.
Knowing what you want to say and how you will say it before approaching
someone will make things go a lot more smoothly.
• Consider videotaping yourself.
If you'd really like to pinpoint some of your bad habits (and we all
have them), set up a camera and film yourself during conversations. Pay
attention to the way you communicate in different situations and the
type of skills you use. How are your voice, your facial expressions,
your body language, the words you choose? You can even get someone else
to watch it with you and see if they notice any bad habits.
• Listen for understanding, not evaluation.
Focus on understanding what the speaker is trying to communicate and
shut off your internal judge. Don't evaluate or interpret other
people's messages - take what they say for exactly what it is.
• Encourage others to speak.
Ask open-ended questions, hear them out, and be respectful of their
opinions - whether you agree or not. Also, show that you want to hear
what people have to say. If you look bored, preoccupied, or annoyed,
you will shut down the flow of communication. This doesn't mean you
should fake interest, but at least give them a chance.
Put yourself in the other person's shoes. What seems completely
unreasonable from your point of view might make perfect sense from his
or her perspective. Also, try to understand the feelings behind the
words. Be very careful however, not to put words in anyone's mouth.
• Don't listen to the words alone.
Pay attention to body language. If the person you are speaking to tells
you, for example, that he or she is not nervous but his or her
trembling hands say otherwise, investigate. Remember that actions often
speak louder than words.
• Avoid interruptions.
Plan a time and place for conversations where you will be interrupted
as little as possible (shut off the phone if necessary or close your
door). However, if distraction can't be avoided, like background noise,
try your best to block it out and focus on the person you are talking
• Don't interrupt. Just
as you need the chance to express your views, the other party also
deserves that chance. Interrupting will stop the flow of conversation
and likely leave others feeling frustrated.
• Rid yourself of distracting mannerisms.
Habits such as finger-tapping or fidgeting can be serious communication
blocks. Pinpoint what your habits are and focus on eliminating them.
• Eye contact.
Maintaining eye contact with the person you are speaking to is
essential. It shows you are interested, makes communication a two-way
street, and keeps the person actively engaged. Just don't get to the
point where you're staring without blinking!
• Pay attention to proximity.
The physical distance that separates you from others is important. If
you are far away or standing behind a desk, you are sending the message
that you are inaccessible and unapproachable. This keeps things rigid
and formal. Standing too close, however, will make the person feel
uncomfortable because he or she may feel like you're invading his or
her personal space. Given the circumstances you're in and how close
your relationship is with the person you're talking to, the usual
distance between two people conversing should be about three feet.