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Communication sounds like it should be easy. You say what you have to say, the person you’re speaking to responds—what could be easier?
So why do we so often see and experience communication breaking down? Something that feels like it should be so simple can be difficult. Instead of the peaceful and exciting coming together of ideas, we find ourselves storming out of rooms, upset and tense, not sure what went wrong, but entirely sure that it was the other person’s fault.
Here are seven strategies you can use to help your communication stay on track, whether you’re talking to a customer, a manager, a friend, or a family member.
Focus on listening.
You simply cannot communicate effectively with someone if you aren’t actively listening. As Help Guide points out, great communication happens when you are fully listening to the other party. You need to focus, not just on their words, but also their tone and body language. Avoid interrupting, even if it’s in your head; waiting for your turn to talk and listening are two different skills. Show your interest by nodding, smiling, and keeping your posture open and inviting. Even if you disagree with what the speaker is saying, finding something of value in their words can help them feel heard, and minimize their negative feelings.
Nonverbal communication matters.
It’s been said that only 10% of our communication is in words. The rest happens with our body language and nonverbal cues, such as the tone of our voice, the position of our hands, even whether we turn towards the speaker or remain focused somewhere else.
Nonverbal communication can be tricky because it varies so strongly from culture to culture. While Americans parents prefer a very direct approach in talking about their children’s achievements, for example, some Chinese families tend to almost sound as if they’re complaining when they’re bragging. A Chinese mother might, for example, say that it’s just too bad her daughter can’t be at home to help with things around the house, but she’s just so busy at medical school that it’s impossible. To an American parent, the statement sounds incredibly rude, but to a Chinese parent, to blatantly talk about how proud you are of your child getting into Yale is just not done.
When you are speaking to someone from a different culture, pay close attention to the affect your words appear to be having. It’s always okay to stop a conversation and check in. You could say, “I notice that your arms are crossed and you’re looking away from me, which makes me worry that I’ve upset you. Did I say something wrong, or hurtful?”
Manage your stress.
When we’re concerned or stressed, we’re more likely than ever to have an upsetting conversation. We may jump to conclusions, misread people, or assume something completely incorrect about what they’re saying.
To combat this, try to be aware of your own stress level. If you know that you’re having a bad day, you might want to consider putting off difficult conversations, or if they must happen, do your best to moderate your words and tone with extra care. Taking a few slow, deep breaths can help your body to release stress-regulating hormones, which can help you get a better handle on your emotions.
Sometimes it’s necessary to agree to disagree. If you’re simply too upset to continue having a conversation without losing your temper, it’s okay to decide to resume the conversation at a later time, when you’ve had a chance to calm down.
Make sure that your conversation is worth listening to. There are times for long, drawn out stories, but as Work Awesome points out, it’s generally a good idea to stay focused during important conversations. If your listener’s attention is clearly drifting, it’s a good time to wrap up the story and get back to the important conversation.
Also, it’s a good idea to ask check-in questions periodically. “Does that make sense?” “Do you have any questions about what I’ve said so far?” If the person you’re talking to does have questions, don’t belittle them for asking. Engagement is good, and even if they seem to be asking you a question that you feel like you just covered, they may not have understood what you’re saying, or they may not “get” it yet. Being willing to dive deeper into the information, or explain something in a different way, can be very rewarding, when you see the “light” go on over someone’s head.
Sometimes, you’ve tried all the tricks in your toolbox, and the person you’re communicating with still doesn’t seem to understand what you’re driving at. Sometimes, it seems almost willful, as if they don’t want to understand what you’re trying to explain.
It can be difficult to know how to proceed in these situations, especially if you’re in a work situation. Some things that can help are
- say “If I’m understanding you correctly, then you’re saying…” and repeat back to the person what you’ve heard. This shows you’re listening, and trying to understand, but also gives them the opportunity to respond and clarify.
- say “I feel like we’ve made some progress on this topic, but I’m worried that tempers are getting a little heated. Let’s take a break, and come back ready to build a compromise.” Sometimes, a break from the table can help people recollect their thoughts and come back ready to talk about the underlying issues that are keeping them from being able to really discuss what matters.
Bring it all together
Successful communication is hard. All too often, we let small talk take over and never really resolve anything. This can be a way to keep apparent peace, but it doesn’t actually solve anything. Conflict is rarely pleasant, but conflict, and the ability to communicate your way through it, is a necessary life skill if you want to be happy and successful in life.
About the author:Wilma Derksen, Winnipeg Therapist. Wilma works with trauma and victimization and is the author of Confronting the Horror.