Life is full of relationships and without good communication skills our relationships start out hard and get even harder, if they continue at all. We communicate with spouses, family, friends, co-workers and even strangers daily. We have to be good at effectively communicating our thoughts and feelings, but also receiving and understanding the communication of others. In every instance of communication, no matter the type of relationship, people are bringing different things to the table. We all have different past experiences, points of view, expectations, and levels of communication skills. We don’t all have effective skills for communication, yet!
These skills don’t always come naturally, but they can be learned and/or improved, so don’t worry if you need some help in some areas. Trust me, I’ve been there and you can completely change the way you communicate just by some self-reflection and practicing these steps. Here are some key components to good communication that I learned to improve my relationships. These points are in no particular order. The truth is, I could write “this is the most important skill in communication” beside each of these points. You need them all, they are all equally valuable to good communication.
Talking is not our most useful communication skill, listening is. The first mistake I used to make in communication was to rush to get my point across. Over time, with self-reflection, I found that this came from two things: the fear of being misunderstood and the belief that I was always right. Whatever our reasoning for wanting to be heard first, everyone should learn to listen first.
Communication gets easier when it’s more important to us that we understand than it is to be understood. Don’t get me wrong, in a good conversation, both sides will be heard and understood, or at least respected. But when we try to understand the other person’s point of view first, we will often find our response to be a different one than we had originally planned when we had (in our own minds) the only logical viewpoint. Ask questions, as many as needed to feel like you have the clearest possible understanding of the other person’s side.
Sometimes we end up with unresolved issues. Not because the other person wasn’t willing to resolve them, but because we were unwilling to be open and honest about our feelings. This is probably the hardest part of communication for most people because it’s the part that exposes us to vulnerability. A little secret I learned in my quest to become a better communicator: think of one person in your life who you’ve been holding back from. Work up the nerve to be blatantly honest with that one person about everything you’ve held back. It will be one of the hardest but most freeing things you will ever do in your life. After that, you will probably speak freely, openly and honestly with ease (in comparison to the past and in most instances) from that day forward.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF SILENCE
This is another big one. In sales they teach you never to be afraid of silence. When you pitch whatever you’re selling and the potential buyer just sits in silence, it can make you uncomfortable. Then you start changing your offer in fear that you’re about to lose the sale. You think they don’t like what you just said and there’s no way they’re going to go for it. Usually during that silence they are just processing the information you’ve given them, but you can’t read their mind so you’re freaking out. Communication can be a lot like this.
It can be terrifying to spill all your feelings and then have to sit there wondering if you have just changed the way that person feels or thinks about you entirely. But don’t start backpedaling, don’t start telling them what you know they want to hear. This might make the moment more comfortable, but it will make your life much harder in the long run. Just like in sales, you won’t land the love, understanding or respect of every person in your life. Go ahead and come to terms with that now.
DON’T DISCOUNT FEELINGS
Feelings are important, but they are not facts. Our emotions shouldn’t serve as a guide, but more as a gauge. The trouble is, especially in communication, we can end up with negative emotions as a result of feeling misunderstood or like we aren’t being heard. No one should be made to feel bad or stupid for the emotions they are feeling. So don’t discount feelings, dig deeper to see where they are coming from. If you are feeling super emotional, first you need to slow down and relax. Remember that your feelings matter but they might be misleading you. Be honest about how you’re feeling and see if you can work through those feelings with the other person.
If someone is coming at you with a lot of emotion, the worst thing you can do is discount the importance of how they are feeling. Even if you think they are overreacting, they do not feel like they are. This goes back to the importance of trying to understand where the other person is coming from. So listen and ask questions. Do your best to understand and empathize, just as you would want them to do for you.
PRACTICE MAKES YOU BETTER
Just like any skill, communication takes practice. But just like any other human, you are not perfect. Communication isn’t precise, it’s colored by each person’s reality and sometimes our idealistic notions. There will always be variables that you’ll need to adjust your approach for. There will also be times that you fail miserably at good communication. The important thing is that you look first at what you can do to make communication go more smoothly. At times this will feel very unfair, but like you’ve heard from me so many times: it’s doesn’t matter what they do, it only matters what you do. That is the extent of your control and your life will get proportionately better based on the amount of responsibility you take for it.
EDIT 10/24/19: Recently there has been a quote graphic floating around the social media world that says that the most important communication tool is not being a good listener, which we often hear, but instead comprehension. Meaning that if the other person doesn’t comprehend what you’re communicating, the communication is useless. Comprehension is absolutely important. I wanted to add that in here just to say two things. One, I would argue that a good communicator is first more concerned with comprehension or understanding the other person’s point, instead of the comprehension of their own point. I only say this because when we are super concerned with getting our own point across, we often miss the other person’s point entirely. All the while getting annoyed that the other person seems to be missing our point and, in turn, chasing our tails.
The other thing I wanted to note is that if you concentrate on all the things I mentioned above then you will likely end up with comprehension on both sides. After all, that’s the point of learning to communicate well, to end up with a clear understanding. I hope you’ll comment below if you have any other ideas for improving communication.