Improving Communication (Part 1)
By: Telicia Swihart LMFT
Most of us learned to talk around age two, but not all of us have learned how to effectively communicate. Communicating well with our loved ones involves much more than just talking! Try out some of the tips below to improve your communication with others:
· Purpose of Conversation
Before you begin a conversation with a friend, family member, or significant other, think about the purpose of the conversation. Is your goal to solve a disagreement, or to share how something they said or did made you feel? Are you expecting the conversation to end with a specific resolution, or is your goal to feel heard? Having a clear objective or purpose in mind can help keep the conversation on track and help you decide what you want to say.
Whether or not a conversation goes well can sometimes depend on the timing of the conversation. For example, if you know that your significant other often comes home from work stressed and exhausted, starting a meaningful conversation with them right after they get home may not be the best idea. The stress and exhaustion they feel from work may be redirected at you and escalate the conversation into an argument. Whereas, if you choose a different time to have the same conversation (such as after they have had some time to relax after work or on a weekend) the outcome may be much better.
· Word Choice
Words can have different meanings to different people. For instance, the word ‘consequence’ has a negative connotation for most people. In other words – it sounds bad, or it sounds like a punishment. For another person, consequence may just mean an outcome, or a natural effect of an action or behavior. Additionally, certain words (such as ‘always’ or ‘never’) can sound accusatory to the person you are speaking with and illicit a strong reaction. Thinking of the potential meanings or implications of the words you use can help prevent a conversation from escalating into an argument.
In addition to the words you use, the way you say your words can influence the conversation. Putting emphasis on certain words, volume of speech, or the “attitude” you have when speaking can affect the way a person reacts to the words you are using in a conversation. For example, if you are trying to set a boundary with someone by telling them ‘no’, but you say it quietly, they may not take you as seriously as they would if you use a firm voice.
· Body Language
In the same way that tone can direct a conversation, so can your body language. Eye rolling, crossed arms, or facing away from a person can be seen as dismissive, closed off, or insincere.
On the other hand, eye contact, avoiding fidgeting, or facing your body toward the person while speaking and listening can communicate openness and confidence.
· Active Listening
Possibly the most important aspect of communication is listening! When you actively listen to a person, you are listening to what they are saying in an attempt to understand them rather than listening to plan your response. It can be helpful to check in with the person to ensure you truly understand their meaning before you respond. For example, you may say to your partner, “I’m making my lasagna for the party, if it turns out well.” Then your partner responds with, “I hate when you do that!” Not wanting to be immediately defensive, you use active listening to clarify, “You hate when I make lasagna?” Your partner laughs, “No! No, no, no, I hate when you put yourself down like that! Your lasagna is amazing! Have confidence in it!” Had you responded defensively, rather than using active listening to clarify, when you thought your partner may be insulting your cooking, this conversation could have escalated into an argument!
Finally, if you utilize the above strategies for effective communication and still find yourself in an argument, try using a time-out. A time-out is a break from the conversation, but it has a couple of rules. Best practice is to discuss the concept of taking time-outs during an argument before the argument is happening. Then, when you are in an argument and you feel like the conversation is going in circles or you feel strong anger and are worried you may say something you don’t mean, you can ask for a time-out. When you ask for a time-out, be specific about how long you need the time out to be (i.e. a couple of minutes, an hour, or a few days). Spend the time-out calming down and thinking about what you want to say when the time-out is over. After the time-out is over, continue the conversation. It can be tempting to avoid returning to the discussion in order to avoid another argument, but avoidance does not resolve the core conflict!
Feel free to share these communication tips with others so they can utilize them as well! You can also check out Part 2 for tips on how to address typical blockers in communication that you might encounter when using effective communication skills with others.