Communication happens all around us, and it’s more than mere words. Communication comprises the messages and signals we send to others as well as the ones we receive. Our verbal words are only a small percentage of the message that’s communicated. Our nonverbal signals, such as tone, eye contact, and body language, make up the rest.
Every day is an opportunity to grow in our verbal and nonverbal skills. When we interact with our families, friends, coworkers, and even strangers, we encounter values and opinions different from our own. How we react and respond to these differences can sharpen our communication skills.
Just like exercising improves our overall physical health, good communication is a muscle that needs stretching. The more you practice, the better you will become. Even in conflict, there’s an opportunity to grow as a communicator. The following guidelines will help you improve your verbal, nonverbal, and listening skills:
Stay current- Sometimes it can be tempting to bring up past wrongs or grievances in a conversation. This tends to make the listener feel defensive and shut down. Stay in the present and only discuss the current issue. It can be helpful to write down your main points to keep yourself on task.
Use “I” statements- Statements that start with “I” instead of “you” will keep the other person from feeling attacked. For example, “I felt upset when you didn’t return my call.” This keeps the focus on you and your feelings about the present situation.
Avoid trigger words- Words such as “always” and “never” are not helpful in conversation. For example, “You never come home on time,” is much different than, “I feel angry when you don’t arrive home on time.” Trigger words have an accusatory tone, igniting unwanted emotions in the conversation.
Make eye contact- People know you’re interested when you make good eye contact, as it communicates value. They will also be more likely to hear what you are saying. Be mindful though, as some cultures have different norms when it comes to eye contact.
Be consistent- Keep your nonverbal signals consistent. Your words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures should all be sending the same message. Saying the words, “I love you,” while rolling your eyes and slouching is inconsistent. Mixed signals create conflict.
Practice good listening- Avoid interrupting the other speaker or simply biding your time until it’s your turn to speak. Instead, consider what values you might have in common and which ones are different. Finding similarities or shared interests increases sensitivity.
Be empathetic- Put yourself in the other’s shoes by practicing active listening. This style of listening, also known as empathic listening, seeks to understand the thoughts and feelings behind the words. When we’re empathic, we respect the other’s feelings and display patience and honesty.
Help for Difficult Conversations
No one is exempt from conflict, and all relationships will experience disagreement. Improving your communication skills will help you navigate through a potentially challenging conversation.
Avoid being passive-aggressive- Never use a third person as a messenger when a face-to-face conversation is needed. Also, avoid writing out a message that should take place in person. Trying to ignore the issue or the person will only cause emotions to flare and delay a possible solution. Masking your thoughts in sarcasm or insults is not communicating your message with honesty and authenticity.
Practice self-awareness- Consider why you feel the way you do. If you aren’t aware of your own emotions and opinions, you won’t be able to communicate them with confidence and clarity. And if you’ve had a stressful day, don’t direct those emotions towards the person with whom you are communicating.
Grow from criticism- It’s easy to become defensive when someone critiques or attacks us verbally. However, lashing out in return won’t solve anything. Instead, listen to what they are saying, and consider their feelings. What is your responsibility regarding the information they shared? It’s possible to grow from someone’s insights even if presented in an unfair way. Weigh the information, and then decide if you should accept or ignore it.
Take a break- Every problem may not be resolved in one conversation. It’s easy for our emotions to take over when we communicate, but it’s important to stay calm and use our best thinking when we talk. Taking a quick “time out” or a few minutes to cool down can help us respond neutrally rather than react aggressively.
Ask for help- Some conversations can become heated quickly. Having a mediator or therapist can help each person feel heard, and the presence of this third party can also keep emotions from escalating.
Conflict and disagreement are inevitable in life, but communication is possible no matter what the circumstance. Every day provides new situations to practice our communication skills, so take opportunities when you see them to grow as an individual.
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