As simple as the concept of communicating seems, many of us experience difficulties connecting successfully with others. Much of what we try to communicate – and others try to communicate to us – can be missed or misunderstood, causing conflict and frustration.
In the information age, we send, receive and process huge numbers of messages every day. But effective communication is about more than just exchanging information:
- It requires us to understand the emotions behind the information.
- It can improve relationships by deepening our connections to others and improving teamwork, decision-making, caring and problem-solving.
- It enables us to communicate even negative or difficult messages without creating conflict or destroying trust.
Effective communication combines a set of skills that includes nonverbal communication, attentive listening, the ability to manage stress in the moment and the capacity to recognize and understand your own emotions as well as those of the person you are communicating with.
While communicating well is a learned skill, it is more effective when it is spontaneous rather than formulaic. For example, a speech that is read from notes rarely has the same impact as one delivered spontaneously.
Of course, it takes time and effort to become an effective communicator. I have found four simple skills that may help you in this.
Skill One – Listening
When you really want to fully understand and connect with another person, listening effectively often comes naturally. If it does not, follow these tips:
- Focus fully on the speaker. If you are daydreaming, checking text messages (something that we all seem to do these days) or doodling, you are almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on what someone is saying, try to repeat their words over in your head; it will reinforce their message and help keep you focused.
- Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You cannot concentrate on what others are saying if you are forming what you are going to say next. Most often, the speaker can read your facial expression and knows that your mind is elsewhere.
- Avoid seeming judgmental. To communicate effectively with someone, you do not have to like them or agree with their ideas, values or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand.
- Show your interest in what is being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person and make sure your posture is open and inviting.
Skill Two – Nonverbal Communication
When we communicate things we care about, we do so mainly with nonverbal signals. Wordless communication, or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, the tone of your voice and even your muscle tension and breathing. The way you look, listen, move and react to another person tells them more about how you are feeling than words alone ever can.
Here are two tips for improving how you read nonverbal communication:
- Watch people and notice how they react to one another.
- Be aware of differences across countries and cultures; others may use nonverbal skills differently.
Here are some tips for improving how you communicate nonverbally:
- Make sure your nonverbal communication reinforces what you are saying. Don’t allow it to contradict your message. If you say one thing and your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you are dishonest.
- Adjust your nonverbal signals according to context. The tone of your voice should be different when you are addressing a child than when you are addressing a group of adults, different when you are chatting in the kitchen than when talking in a formal meeting. Also take account of the emotional state and cultural background of your audience.
- Use body language to convey positive feelings. For example, in a job interview where you are nervous, stand tall with shoulders back, smile, maintain eye contact and deliver a firm handshake. It helps you feel more self-confident and helps put others at ease.
Skill Three – Managing Stress
In small doses, stress helps us perform under pressure, which is the norm in the fire service. However, when stress becomes constant and overwhelming, it can impede effective communication by disrupting your capacity to think clearly and creatively and to act appropriately.
When you are stressed, you are more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals and say something you will most likely regret. How many of us have done this? I admit that it has happened to me, and it was a challenge to reverse the outcome.
When stress strikes, you cannot always temper it by taking time out to meditate or go for a run, especially if you are in a meeting (though it is sometimes tempting). By learning to quickly reduce stress in the moment, you can safely face any strong emotions you are experiencing, regulate your feelings and behave appropriately.
Here are some tips to deal with stress during communication:
- Listen to your body. Recognize when you are becoming stressed.
- Slow down. Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation or postpone it.
- Bring your senses to the rescue. Quickly manage stress by taking a few deep breaths, clenching and relaxing muscles, or recalling a soothing sensory-rich image (waterfalls, ocean waves or whatever calms you down).
- Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to diffuse stress when communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.
- Be willing to compromise. If you can both bend a little, you will be able to find a happy middle ground that reduces stress levels for everyone concerned.
- Agree to disagree. Take a quick break and move away from the situation. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance can quickly reduce stress.
Skill Four – Emotional Awareness
Emotions play an important role in the way we communicate at home and work. It is the way you feel, more than the way you think, that motivates you to communicate or to make decisions. The way you react to emotionally driven nonverbal cues affects both how you understand other people and how they understand you.
We all need to understand that emotions play a big role in communication. Have you ever had an argument with your spouse before work and then snapped at everyone all day at work, saying or doing something that got you in trouble?
Emotional awareness helps us:
- Understand and empathize with what is troubling other people.
- Understand yourself, including what is really troubling you and what you really want.
- Stay motivated to understand and empathize with the person you are interacting with, even if you do not like them or their message.
- Communicate clearly and effectively, even when delivering negative messages.
- Build strong, trusting and rewarding relationships.
- Think creatively, solve problems and resolve conflicts.
Our goal should be to make ourselves more aware of our communication skills and to build on what we already know. Effective communication skills can be learned; we just need to remember the tips and practice them.