Eight Things to do to Practice Better Communication
Improving your communication skills takes some planning. Think about how you can prepare:
1. Cool off.
It's good to feel your emotions but not be too emotional. Emotions can be unproductive when they get in the way of rationality. Especially when people just find out something upsetting or a lot of stress has suddenly built up, they have a biological fight or flight reaction and can't reason as effectively.
If you are really emotional, take some time to cool off. A good test is if you can imagine yourself listening to the other person's perspective without blowing up. If you can do that, go ahead and talk. If you can't, the conversation will most likely be unproductive, and it's worth a couple hours to calm down.
2. Know what's important to you.
A lot of times people initiate tough conversations without really reflecting beforehand what's important to them. Take time to write down the three or four things that you most want the other person to understand. The challenge is writing down what's important to you without using the other person in your statement. Below are several examples:
- "Having my own space is really important to me." (Instead of "You need to get off my back all the time!")
- "It's really important to me that I make my own decisions." (Instead of "You need to stop telling me what to do!")
- "It's important to me that I feel respected." (Instead of "You need to stop insulting me!")
3. Guess what's important to them.
Even though it might be hard to admit, the other person has things that are important to them, too. It's often important to parents that they know their child is safe. It's important to some significant others that they get their space or that they feel loved. The faster you understand what is important to the other person, the better you can empathize with him or her and the more productive your conversation will be.
Again, write down what you think is important to them without using yourself in the statement. Below are several examples.
- It's important to him that he knows his children are safe. (Instead of "He wants me to check in with him every 5 minutes.")
- It's important to him that he gets sleep at night because it's important that he does well at work in the morning. (Instead of "He wants me to turn my music down at night".)
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During the Conversation
1. Listen -- actively!
Communication isn't only about telling other people what you think; it also involves understanding what ideas and thoughts other people have. If in a conversation you find yourself constantly thinking, "What will I say next?" try stepping back a bit and just focus on what the person currently talking is saying. One way to check if you're really listening to the other person is to try to paraphrase (restate in your own words) what she or he said. For instance, consider the conversation below.
Jamie: "I can't stand Morgan. She is so screwed up!"
Pat: "Wow, sounds like something is going on between you two. Did something happen?"
Jamie knows that Pat was really listening, and this invites Jamie to confirm what Pat said and expand on the problems with the friendship. This sort of paraphrasing can be useful for making sure you understand what was said and also for giving you some time to think about your response. Active listening also involves little things like acknowledging what a person has said and asking more about things that interest you.
The more you listen, the more the other person will listen to you. If what you say might offend the other person, be prepared even to listen before you are listened to. Be the example of how you would want the other person to react to what you were telling them. Be patient. When he or she seems to have finished, ask if he or she is done.
If is the person is finished, say "What you've said is really important, and I really want to hear everything you have to say. If you're done for now, can I say what's been on my mind for about 10 minutes? Will you promise to listen?" People tend to mirror each other in conflict. If you listen to them, they will often treat you similarly. And the more you both understand each other, the more productive your conversation will be.
2. Make eye contact.
All non-verbal gestures are equally important! Imagine conducting a conversation with someone who won't look at you, or stares at the TV, or raises his or her eyebrows in a look of skepticism every time you speak. Even if the person carried on a perfectly normal conversation otherwise, the communication would probably be worse than if he or she used appropriate non-verbal communication.
Non-verbal communication involves things that might seem minor, such as making eye contact and focusing your attention on the person who's speaking, but it can be vital to having a conversation that feels respectful on both sides. Paying attention to someone else's non-verbal communication can also give you clues as to whether the person understands what you're saying. Using good non-verbal communication shows you respect the other person enough to listen to what they are saying--an important aspect of any conversation.
3. Express your views.
Be respectful, but don't be afraid. It's easy to just agree with everyone else or to decide to stay quiet rather than talk about what you're thinking, but in the end, this can often leave you frustrated. It also means that you aren't really communicating! If you're honest about what you think and feel, people will generally have more respect for you, and they will certainly be able to understand you better. As you begin expressing your views, you might feel uncertain, but try starting off with small things. The more you express your views, the easier it gets.
4. Use "I" statements, especially when talking about something negative.
Using "I" statements can help turn an argument into a productive discussion rather than a shouting match. It also makes expressing your views easier because you're just talking about yourself. What is an "I" statement? Check out A and B, and guess which one is an example of an "I" statement.
A: "You hurt my feelings. You know I wanted to come. You didn't have to go without me."
B: "I feel hurt that you did not wait to go with me. I told you I wanted to come."
B is an example of an "I" statement. The speaker clearly expressed what she felt and accepted responsibility for the feeling. In A, the speaker is blaming the person she is talking to for the feeling of anger. If you've ever been blamed for something, you probably know that it doesn't feel very good and tends to put people on the defensive. "I" statements let you take responsibility for what you feel and are less likely to make the other person feel defensive. Combined with honesty, they can be extremely helpful for dealing with conflicts.
You wrote down what was important to you before the conversation, right? Now express what you want to say just how you wrote it. Start by saying what's really important to you and how that need is not being fulfilled. For instance, "It's really important to me that I feel respected. When you ignore me every day when I come home, I don't feel respected." Or "It's really important to me that I feel like I can make my own decisions. When you don't listen to my opinions, I don't feel like I have control over my own life." Other people can empathize with what's important to you, but it's harder to listen to someone blaming you.
5. Understand everyone's point of view.
Where are you coming from and where is the other person coming from? Considering what causes you to feel the way you do can help you to understand why someone else feels differently, and it can also help you express your feelings more clearly. It also allows you to disagree with another person while still respecting their position. For instance, the example below shows how a person's point of view might affect how they think.
Taylor: "I don't want to go to school today."
Dana: "But it's track and field day; it's always so much fun! We have no real classes and tons of parents come and watch the races."
Taylor: "Yeah, but I don't like competing with everyone else. And my parents can't even come."
Dana and Taylor are both talking about the same event, but their perspectives are very different. In more complicated cases, a person might have an opinion because of how she or he was raised or because of his or her personal beliefs. Acknowledging the person's feelings and being respectful of those feelings can keep a conversation from degenerating. Additionally, keeping track of why you hold certain beliefs can allow you to tell those reasons to others, making your beliefs clearer and easier to understand.
6. Set ground rules.
Think about informal rules you want to make before the conversation that will make it go more smoothly. Maybe you're afraid that what you say isn't going to be kept secret. Maybe you're afraid you're going to start crying and not be able to listen.
If this is the case, use the time right before the conversation to say: "Before we start, I just want to make sure that everything that is said here is kept in confidence, is that OK with you?" Or "Before we start, I just want to say if I lose it and start crying or yelling, I'll step out of the room for 10 minutes, and then we can continue. Does that sound good to you?" Give the other person a chance to ask for ground rules, too. The more safe both of you feel to express your feelings and ideas, the more productive your conversation will be.
7. Don't React -- Reflect.
The biggest danger to avoid in a tough conversation is the back and forth. Everyone's experienced the back and forth: right after one person says something, the other person reacts, and the conversation escalates and goes nowhere. Here's how to avoid it. When the other person makes a statement, don't react. Instead reflect, summarize what they are saying and say it back to them. If they say, "I can't believe you are telling me this now!" don't offer an explanation right away. Instead say, "You're really upset that I waited to tell you this."
If you immediately explain why you didn't tell them earlier, the other person will probably be so upset that they won't hear you anyway. But if you reflect back to the other person the content of what he or she said, then he or she will feel understood and will be much more likely to listen to you. Keep reflecting until the other person is done. Be patient. Then ask this person if he or she will listen to you.
8. Be Specific.
When you and the other person decide how you want to move forward, be specific about what you both will do. A lot of times, people make vague agreements like "I'll give you more space" or "We'll spend more time together." Instead, make agreements that are specific actions. For example, "When your door is closed, I will knock and wait for an answer before I come in." Or, "Wednesdays at 7 p.m., we will go have coffee." These agreements are easier to keep and easier to check.
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1. Keep your end of the agreement.
Relationships are built on trust, but trust can't be built in an hour conversation. The first step to rebuilding trust with a person is showing you're committed by following through on your agreement. If you care about that relationship, make sure you put time into doing what you said you would do. If you do this, your conversation will be less difficult next time.
I know you wish this were the last tough conversation you will ever have. But chances are, you'll have more tough conversations: if not with that person, with many other people in the future. Take a half hour to reflect on the conversation.
- What worked well in that conversation?
- Where did you run into pitfalls?
- Do you need to work on listening?
- Do you need to work on saying things without blaming?
- What might you do next time you have a tough conversation?
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