Life can be stressful and relationships difficult, true or true!
What is communication?
The dictionary says that communication is “The exchange of information… the use of a common system of symbols, signs, behaviour… a verbal or written message…”
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So, why is this simple “exchange of information” so difficult?
Communication is a complex process. It can be verbal, non-verbal or written. It is by nature interactive and open to interpretation or misinterpretation. It’s influenced by relationships, context, personalities and mood. So, given all this, it’s hardly surprising we sometimes get it wrong!
And, when we do get it wrong, the consequences can be huge. Misunderstanding, arguments, conflict, feelings of frustration, helplessness, low self-esteem and disrespect…
However, there are three simple skills that make all the difference to how effectively you communicate and, as a result, how successfully you relate to others.
We learn to talk, we learn to read and write but when do we learn how to listen?
What happens is we “hear” rather than “listen”. We acknowledge the sounds, we register the words, but we don’t process them.
Learning how to listen actively is an essential communication skill. It’s about listening to understand, rather than to respond. Think back to conversations you’ve had with your partner, children or colleagues. As you listened, were you trying to understand the meaning and emotions behind their words, or were you thinking about what you were going to say in response? If it’s the latter, don’t worry, we all do it!
Listening, understanding and showing that you understand are absolutely essential for good communication. You’ve no doubt experienced uncomfortable situations where the person you’re talking to is obviously not listening to you. Does this make you feel valued and respected? Absolutely not!
The old saying “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” really is true!
Imagine you’re explaining something to your spouse or partner and he or she says, “Why did you do that?”. How do you feel at that moment?
Imagine the same situation, but this time your partner says, “What made you think of doing it that way?”. See the difference?
“Why” questions make us feel defensive, that we need to justify our actions. They imply criticism, even if criticism is not intended.
To show that you value openness and interaction use “open” questions that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no”. So, “Did you have a good day at school?” becomes, “What went well at school for you today?”. Try it and experience the difference.
It’s important to regard feedback as positive, even though our instinct often tells us otherwise. Feedback is a means of checking understanding, gaining clarity and offering learning to another. If you have to give negative feedback, give it positively and always receive feedback willingly. You don’t have to accept it, however, you may well learn something!
Imagine you’re checking your child’s school work and you find it’s disorganised and unclear. Give your feedback by prefacing the things that need improving with a positive statement, such as, “You’ve got great ideas and I like the way you’ve put your introduction together…however, I think you can make reorganise it to make it better. What if you rearranged the middle part, how might make it clearer?”
Compare that with saying, “It’s really not clear what you’re trying to say. Your introduction’s OK but the rest is disorganised, especially the part in the middle…”.
Which do you think would produce the more positive outcome?
And, yes, one word to definitely avoid is “but”! Saying something positive and following it with “but”, is like giving with one hand and taking away with the other!
Putting it into practice
If you practice a new skill for 21 consecutive days, it becomes a habit. So, for the next 21 days practice:
- Listening actively. Listen deeply to the words, hear the emotions behind the words and get yourself, and your preconceived ideas, out of the way!
- Eliminating “why” questions. Use sentences that begin with “what, how, when, where…” instead
- Sharing your feedback positively. And, when others share theirs, listen!
Effective communication is the key to successful, stress-free relationships. So, if you want to improve all your relationships, take responsibility for improving your own communication skills!