If you desire quality relationships, you'll probably agree with the old cliché that tells us that “communication is key”. And so for our relationships with others to be good, our conversations should have some quality as well. But that's much easier said than done. And even if we feel good about the conversation, it doesn't mean that the other party feels the same way. Communication is simply a science.
You may be surprised at how much your ability to actually listen to the other person matters, and how your responses can help them express themselves accurately and completely. That's a conversation everyone will fondly remember having with you. So definitely do practice active listening if you wish to become a better communication partner to others. But how about the other side of the conversation?
When you take the floor
Focusing more on active listening to your counterpart naturally doesn't mean that you have to be the shoulder to cry on for others and just nod patiently every time, giving them all the space without saying anything yourself. Communication should be balanced and both sides should be given equal space, give or take (1).
But just like active listening, proper expression of ideas is a rather complex discipline. If we shower the other person with a waterfall of words and shift all the responsibility for understanding what we are trying to express onto them, they are unlikely to leave the communication feeling good. Either they will be confused and not know what to say, or, in a worst-case scenario, they will misinterpret our words and jump to conclusions leading to an argument. That will be followed by lengthy explanations of your original point.
So how to speak a language that others can understand?
We cannot always avoid being misunderstood. A large number of factors play a role, such as communication noise, our own filters through which we perceive the world, our mood, or assumptions (2). It would be impossible to try to control all of them.
This is why it is crucial that we communicate consciously and develop our expressive skills in such a way as to minimize the influence of these variables. In fact, proper communication and formulation of our words act as the most effective prevention.
So what would we recommend? Šimon Steffal, founder of Mindset Mentors (an education agency focused on internal communication), has shared his tips with us (3) Most of them are based mainly on the principles of non-violent communication (4).
Always be specific
If we express ourselves too generally or vaguely, the other person will hardly be clear about what we are trying to say. And in the gaps that arise, assumptions slowly but surely start to grow. These are particularly dangerous, but unfortunately for us, they are a natural human reaction to an unclear message. Our brain demands an explanation and if one is not presented to us, it just sort of deduces it on its own (5).
What does it matter that such an inference has nothing to do with the real situation and intention?
We only realize the real impact of assumptions when we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict that quite possibly ends with many phrases like "well, but I thought..." or "oh, we totally misunderstood each other."
Don't give assumptions a chance and be specific. The point is not to bog down the other side with superfluous details, but you should avoid generalization as much as possible.
Forget sentences like "You never do the dishes!" or "You're always late!" and instead describe the specific situation:
"You didn't do the dishes today." or "You were very late yesterday."
Describe, don't evaluate.
Unless we're sharing kitchen gossip, we can assume that most of us are striving for constructive conversation. One of the pillars of constructiveness is the aspiration to be objective. We should focus only on the facts and the description of the situation as it is.
Try to avoid evaluating the communication partner or even other people, as such judgments and condemnations are superficial and can trigger all sorts of emotions. The other party may become angry or feel caught off guard and uncomfortable (6).
For example, if you are discussing with a colleague that your trainee's presentation went badly, you should refrain from saying things like "He is totally incompetent!".
Instead, describe what actually happened and try to stick to the facts: "The presentation didn't go well. Management gave us bad feedback on it."
It is very difficult to remain objective, but if we at least try, it will be easier for the other person to understand what the problem is.
Be a little selfish
You may have heard that someone is all "me, me, me..." and certainly not in a positive way. But the truth is that in the field of communication, speaking in the so-called “ich form” is the only thing we can recommend.
Speak for yourself and describe your feelings and needs. It really does make a big difference.
If we describe the actions of the other party, they will easily get the impression that we are attacking them and will feel the need to defend themselves. If we focus our attention mainly on a third party, we will easily slide into evaluating. (7)
But if we are specific and describe the other person's behavior objectively, all that remains is to add how we feel because of it and what our need is. Why do we want to discuss this topic?
This is the best way to maintain objectivity and keep the discussion on a constructive level. We also make it clear to the other person why the topic is important to us and how we wish to resolve it. In this way, we greatly help them understand us.
For example, you might say, "When I have to clean up your mess, it makes me sad and I feel like you don't care about us keeping things tidy. Could you please pay attention to that?"
How to find the right balance?
So you already know how to listen to others properly and actively, and also how you can express yourself better. This closing tip looks at how to keep the conversation truly balanced. Try talking to the other person in what is called “cycles of balanced conversation”. (1) One cycle looks like this:
At this stage, you give the other party some basic information. It shouldn't contain too much detail; it's sort of an introduction to the topic you want to bring up.
"I read an interesting article yesterday about how to be a better communicator and I learned that it is very important to be able to actively listen."
Involve the other person in the conversation
To avoid the conversation becoming more of your monologue, it's a good idea to "invite" the other person to weigh in on the topic. Ask a question that is ideally effective and open-ended.
"What do you think?"
Pay full attention to the other person's response and listen to what they are saying.
The key is to let the other person know that we are interested in what they have said and that we have heard them and understood. Some appropriate response or summarizing their message in your own words is a great way to do this.
"That's interesting, so you can actually say from your own experience that when you actively listen, people talk to you more, right?"
Well, now just to practice…
So at the moment you are equipped with a whole set of tips on how to be a better communication partner for others. It's not about being perfect and putting them all into practice right away. We are all continuously learning and developing. Pick just one or two points and focus on them. Watch how a change in your behavior affects the quality of your conversations with others. That's the best way to see for yourself which tips will be useful for you in practice.
And if you really want to improve your communication skills, remember that you have the matter in your hands and change it.
Author: Gabriela Gargošová, Mindset Mentors
(1) Revolution Learning and Development Ltd. The Balanced Conversation Cycle.
(2) J. Saman. (2021). Communication is an exchange of hidden biases.
(4) Marshall B. Rosenberg, Deepak Chopra. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships. PuddleDancer Press.
(5) Shirley Taylor. Making Assumptions During Communication.
(6) Modern Therapy. (26. 10. 2018). 5 barriers to effective communication.
(7) Good Therapy. (14. 2. 2018). “I” Statements.