There’s more to participating in a conversation than planning what you’re going to say next.
You can read everything you can get your hands on about communication, but it’s mostly a skill you need to practice and experience to do well. Communicating well is especially hard when there are so many ways people share and create meaning.
Lately, I’ve been working on my communication skills. I quickly realized that learning to be a good, effective communicator takes time and practice. It’s not easy. It definitely doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes, my attempts make things really awkward.
Where did I start? I, first, recalled discussions where I felt heard, respected, confident, and valued. I looked back on conversations or moments where I felt good — really good! I started by emulating the best strategies I experienced.
Here are the top 5 communication strategies I've found (and why we should all be using them!):
1. Using "I” Statements
“I” statements are “direct, honest, and promote accountability.” It may feel childish (seriously, we teach kindergartners this stuff), but it works! It’s easy to get caught up in how the other person feels in a conversation. Sometimes it can feel one-sided or aggressive. “I” statements can help!
For example, I’ve both heard and said something like this: “I feel X when you do Y. In the future, if you do A it would help me feel B.”
“I” statements change the tone of the conversation from one of blaming to one focused on you and how you’re feeling and experiencing someone else’s behavior.
2. Asking Clarifying Questions
Rather than assuming what someone means (which can make your head spin) when you’re not sure what they mean, ask!
I’ve experienced this best via writing but it works in person, too. It might sound like, “When I hear you say X, I think you mean Y. Is this true?” Or “What I’m hearing is X. Is this correct?”
When I'm approached this way, I felt like I the person I was speaking with was investing in me and our relationship. It also made our conversation more thoughtful since we were both conscientiously participating.
There’s more to participating in a conversation than planning what you’re going to say next. Listening — rather than just hearing — is essential to an effective discussion. Here’s a chance to hone both your empathic and active listening skills. It usually works best when you restate what you perceive the other person is saying.
I’ve experienced, “Oh, you just mentioned X and that made me think of Y.” I’ve also been asked, “I want to make sure I understand what you mean by X. Can you say more?”
When you listen with fervent curiosity and you’re completely present in the discussion, you show that you’re interested in more than just contributing your own thoughts in the dialogue. This can slow down, balance, and enhance a conversation. It is a powerful process to learn to listen to others and “grow” each others’ ideas!
4. Being Open To Giving and Receiving Feedback
I get it — it’s really uncomfortable to accept critical feedback. But, if you’re open to hearing it, it can also be really influential.
I have experienced feedback in both academic and professional spaces. It’s been most meaningful when I have been asked how and if I would like to receive feedback. I’ve also appreciated being invited to share my perspectives too.
The best feedback I’ve received was accompanied by concise, action-oriented suggestions to improve a specific outcome. It made me feel like the other person was contributing to my success and growth.
5. Paying Attention To Nonverbal Communication
Have you ever asked someone “How are you?” and had them respond with, “Fine”? What does their body language (ex. crossed arms, looking down) tell you? While the statistics are often debated, consensus dictates that communication is more than simply what you say.
For example, tone of voice, inflection, and eye contact all contribute to a conversation (the same is true for emojis in texting/email).
This was most clear to me when my friend explained how my affect changed — “You lit up,” she said — when I talked about my undergraduate experiences.
Sometimes, our actions DO speak louder than our words. Considering nonverbal communication may help you better understand the signals the other person is sending and be more connected to what they’re really saying. It hinges on being attentive to what’s going on below the surface. Remember, this means being conscious of the signals you’re sending — yes, even the eye rolls.
Nobody becomes a great communicator overnight. Here’s what I suggest: Identify people in your life with whom you can practice these strategies. I found an outlet through writing and some great, trustworthy friends. An intentional practice is key to building on these strategies and, with time, you'll strengthen your relationships in the process.