Have you ever been in a situation where you say something and it gets lost in translation, despite having the best of intentions? I know I have. All too often we say one thing, yet the person we are communicating with hears something else, leading to misunderstanding, frustration, and conflict. Effective communication is one the most important life skills we develop and is fundamental to our success in many aspects of our lives. Yet how often do we take the time to practice this skill? In theory, it’s simple: say what you mean. But communication is much more than just an exchange of information. The art of communication is about understanding the emotions and intentions behind the exchange of information.
Being an effective communicator deepens connections and relationships with other individuals. It improves teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving and overall morale. Most of us believe we are great communicators, but how do we truly become an effective communicator?
Be an Engaged Listener
Sounds simple, right? There is a huge difference between simply hearing what a person is saying and being engaged in the conversation. When you really start to focus on the speaker, you’ll begin to understand the emotions the speaker is conveying. You will also better understand the emotion behind the conversation, leading to fewer misunderstandings and conflicts. But how do you become an engaged listener?
- Focus on the speaker – Pay attention to body language, the tone of their voice, and any other non-verbal cues. To do this, you need to give the speaker your full attention. If you are on your phone checking text messages, doodling or multi-tasking in general you are going to miss important non-verbal cues.
- Show interest in the speaker and what they are saying – Provide the speaker with non-verbal cues such as nodding in agreement, smiling, and making sure your posture is open (not sitting with your arms crossed). Just as you are looking for body language cues, the speaker is as well. Is your facial expression communicating that your mind is elsewhere?
- Provide feedback – If you are not sure what the speaker is trying to convey, paraphrase to reflect your understanding of what was said: “Let me make sure I hear this correctly.” Ask questions such as “What did you mean when you said,” or “Could you please clarify what you mean by.” This will help lead to fewer misunderstandings and show that you are paying attention.
Be Aware of Non-Verbal Cues
Body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact and other body movements and gestures are great indicators of what a person is communicating. Non-verbal cues can provide more details about how the speaker feels than the words alone.
· Are your non-verbal cues matching what you are saying? – When communicating, your nonverbal cues should match the conversation, not contradict it. Saying “no” while nodding your head leaves the listener feeling as though you are being dishonest and leads to confusion.
- Beware of individual differences – It is important to be aware of individual differences when looking at non-verbal cues. Age, religion, culture, demographics, gender, and even the emotional state of the person factor into how they communicate non-verbally. A child will use non-verbal cues differently than a teenager or an adult. When speaking with someone from a different culture, they may avoid eye contact to show respect, where in Western cultures eye contact is positive.
Stay Calm Under Pressure
It is important in most conversations to keep your emotions in check, think on your feet, and effectively communicate in high pressure situations (such as a job interview, meeting, or being introduced to a loved one’s family). Letting your emotions get the best of you can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and frustrations and can create issues that are often easily avoidable. But keeping emotions in check is easier said than done in the heat of the moment.
- Pause or use stalling tactics – Silence is not a bad thing. When emotions are getting the best of you, take a pause. You’ll seem more in control of your emotions and have a moment to formulate a response. If you are uncomfortable in silence, you can stall by having a question repeated or asking the speaker to clarify a statement.
- Recognize when you are becoming stressed – Are your hands clenched into fists? Is your breathing shallow or you are not breathing at all? Is your body tensing as emotions are building inside of you? Learning to recognize when you are becoming stressed gives you an opportunity to stay in control.
- If you are becoming stressed – Take a moment to calm down. Postpone the conversation or let the other person know you need a minute. There is nothing wrong with taking a breather, like going for a walk, reformulating your thoughts, giving yourself a moment to focus on the emotions you are feeling, and deciding how to deal with them.
- Lastly, agree to disagree – Respect others’ opinions and know that not everyone has the same thoughts or beliefs as you. In some conversations it is all right to admit you have a difference of opinion and move on.
This is a tricky one. It is important in conversations to express your thoughts and feelings in an honest way while standing up for yourself and respecting others. But this does not mean you need to be hostile, offensive, demanding or aggressive to prove a point. Being an effective communicator is not about forcing your opinions on others or winning an agreement. It is about being clear about your intentions and expressing your thoughts and feelings while respecting others at the same time.
- Value yourself and your opinions – Your opinions are just as important as the next person’s, but be aware not everyone may hold the same views as you. You should value yourself enough to express your opinions but be respectful of others, especially if they do not agree.
- Learn to say no – Know your limits, whether someone is asking you to take on another project or a friend wants you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Don’t let others take advantage of you, but look for alternatives to help achieve the desired outcomes.
- Receive feedback positively – Accept compliments, ask for help when you need it and learn from mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes; it is how we handle them and how we grow from them that matters. Remember that feedback from an employer or family member, though it may feel negative at the time, offers an opportunity to better yourself, but you don’t always have to agree with it.
We constantly have opportunities to enhance our communication, but it is a skill that will not continue to develop and improve unless we make a conscious effort. Being an effective communicator takes time and energy. In a world where multi-tasking is the norm, it can be hard to take a step back and really focus on communication, but taking time to master the art of communication gives you a powerful advantage, personally and professionally.