Ask a hundred people whether they’re good communicators and a hundred will say yes. In reality, all of us need to improve our communication skills. Good communication can help improve our lives in so many ways, so we can’t afford to take it for granted. Here are ten basic steps to help improve communication, whether with a colleague at work or a loved one at home.
- Eliminate assumptions. Many relationships have unspoken rules and assumptions underlying them, including "elephants in the room" -- the taboo things never spoken of. These can damage relationships and destroy open, necessary communication. Understand that your assumptions may be wrong, and that ignoring elephants is NOT a sustainable strategy for any relationship. Bring issues to the surface, because they're impacting communication whether you raise them or not. What works better is for all sides to openly communicate their needs and expectations. Playing games or manipulating is not effective communication.
- Find a good place and time to communicate for all involved. Communication won’t work when one of the parties is distracted. Don't talk about important issues in the car, for instance, when conversational focus is limited. Find a quiet place and, if the communication is difficult, make sure you’ll have privacy. When emotions are already high enough, don’t add distractions into the mix.
- To be heard, listen first. You never want to begin by imposing a solution. If there’s a problem, simply describe what the the problem and how it's impacting you. Once the problem has been described, ask in an open way, “what can we do to resolve this?” Then stop and listen and be flexible. The biggest and most common communication killer is the failure to really listen.
- Be open-minded enough to really hear feedback from the other side, absorb it, and develop a solution that combines both what you want with what they want. To listen and then impose your preferred solution is not listening. Use non-verbal behaviors (head-nodding or an open posture) to show you’re absorbing what they’re saying. Do not think about how to answer while the other is talking, and don’t interrupt until you know they’ve finished. Be present. Listening sends the best message of all: we’re working flexibly to find a mutually-acceptable solution.
- Ask questions to get feedback, show that you’re listening, confirm understanding, and give respect. Questions are wonderful and powerful tools, and should be used often. Questions clear the air, and can get you vital information. If you’re not sure about a detail, ask for confirmation. If you want to hear feedback from the other person, just ask them. If you're making an assumption, ask the other person to confirm your understanding. When you combine listening with asking relevant questions, you’ve opened up some powerful, two-way communication.
- Expressing emotion is important, but so is continuing the dialogue with respect. Emotion is important information that we need to use wisely, but emotions can damage two-way communication. What you need to do is WORK with the other person to find a way to solve the problem. That process can be emotionally-charged on both sides, but try not to derail the process due to emotion. Use emotion well. Emotion is part of communication, but shouldn’t be the end of it.
- Pay attention to the non-verbal messages you send and receive. It’s hard to have open communication if both sides have their arms folded, their jaws clenched, and refuse to look each other in the eye. Here, the non-verbal signals are shouting even if the words aren’t. Be careful about your tone of voice too, because it sends a clear signal. If non-verbal messages are overwhelming the conversation, it might be better to wait until some calm has arrived and try communicating later.
- Communicate about the present and the future, but don’t assume that what happened before is what will always happen. Never accuse someone of "always" or "never" doing something -- it's false and it's the opposite of constructive. The good news is that effective communication can bring positive change, even if things have been bad for a long time. Focus on the things that can change, not the history. If you want changes in behavior, you’ll need to be forward-looking and believe that change can happen. It might be easier or feel better to condemn someone, but that's not effective communication.
- Recognize and reinforce positive behaviors. Effective communication is a constant activity, and you’ll need to reinforce the other person for accommodating you. Show gratitude when you see positive change in order to reinforce it. This is a win-win, and will keep the channels of communications open.
- Be patient and don’t expect miracles. Communication is so important, and so hard. Communication doesn’t eliminate differences, but it allows them to be accommodated. Ultimately, good communication isn’t about “winning” but about strengthening relationships. Change doesn’t happen overnight.
In conclusion, following these ten steps will enhance the quality of your communication and strengthen your relationships. What ideas can you add to improve communication?