Communication is a critical skill in almost everything we do. Expressing our thoughts, feelings, and needs in clear, assertive ways and being able to understand these messages from others is critical for good relationships. Research on marriage confirms this importance, and good communication skills with children are essential in effective parenting. Additionally, in a 2009 survey of recruiters from companies with more than 50,000 employees, communication skills were cited as the single most important decisive factor in choosing managers.
Communication is only successful when both the sender and the receiver have a shared comprehension of information. Unfortunately, all too often there are “misses” where things are not clearly understood. However, there are specific techniques and skills that can improve communication and reduce misunderstandings.
Use of “I” statements helps with clearer communication. First ask yourself: “What are you seeing, hearing or sensing?” “What emotions are you feeling?” “What do you want?”.
It is far more effective to begin a discussion with: “When I came home and saw dinner had not been started, I felt disappointed and overwhelmed. I want to ask you to help me get this started so we can eat soon.”; rather than “ You never do anything to help around here – everything gets left up to me and I’m sick of it.”
It’s easy to see how the use of “I” statements has a better chance of being heard and possibly even agreed with than the “You” statements that tend to put others on the defensive. When people are defensive, their capacity to listen goes down.
Also helpful is to start important conversations with an invitation. Beginning with something like: “I would like to talk with you about.….. is this a good time?” asks for full engagement and focus. If someone is overwhelmed, angry, tired or emotionally unavailable for any reason, it is simply not a good time to have an important conversation.
Avoid complaints and criticisms, and express specific requests: “it would help me to …” “if you would….”. Ask for action-oriented, positive solutions rather than berating with angry expressions of frustrations. Ask for what you want and learn to negotiate.
In addition to expressing ourselves clearly and completely, listening well is one of the most important skills in effective communication. Unfortunately, research has found that we remember only 25-50% of what we hear. That means 50-75% of what is told to us by our spouses, children, friends, coworkers, and supervisors is never received. Undoubtedly listening is an important skill to develop.
One approach to improve listening is to practice “active listening”. There are five key elements.
Pay attention. Give your undivided attention by putting aside distracting thoughts. Be aware of body language and resist the temptation to be preparing your response.
Show you are listening. A smile or a nod or verbal comments like yes, and uh huh convey interest.
Provide feedback. Reflecting back your understanding of what is being said or asking for clarifications can be important
Defer judgment. Allow the speaker to finish without interruptions or counter-arguments.
Respond Appropriately. Be open and honest in your response but respond respectfully.
It takes a lot of concentration and focus to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break. The goal is to truly hear what others are saying.
Working on improving communication skills is valuable in all interactions. Positive change in ways of expressing and listening will improve the quality of daily conversations and can significantly enhance the ability to work through more difficult conflictual exchanges.