Do you ever find yourself listening to someone, but focusing more on what you want to say next? Maybe they're telling you about their weekend, when you think: "Wow, I can't wait to tell them about what happened to me last Saturday. What a story!"
Or maybe you have the opposite problem: You keep it all in. You wouldn't want to bother someone else, or hurt their feelings. Maybe it's easier for you to avoid conflict by hiding your feelings when you're upset.
Most of us are guilty of these mistakes. In fact, these communication errors are such a normal part of life, that most of us don't even notice when we're guilty of them. Usually they aren't such a big deal. We move on with the conversation and that's that. However, the consequences of poor communication take a toll. Feeling unheard can lead to resentment, frustration, and pain.
With practice, you'll learn to communicate more effectively by spotting common errors, and learning techniques to both hear and be heard. Even if you aren't having relational issues, learning to communicate effectively can improve almost every facet of life. It can help you land a better job, improve relationships, and feel more understood.
Having strong communication skills isn't a quick-fix for all issues but it's a great place to start to find common ground and navigate solutions even if that means ending with the acknowledgement: "We disagree." But that's OK‐it's far better than the alternative: "I'm right, and you're wrong."
This post outlines several methods that will help you hear and be heard. Try to think of these techniques as training wheels. They'll help you work toward the ultimate goal of communicating in an open, honest, and fair manner. You will probably start by using these skills in a more formal manner, but with enough practice, they'll become a natural part of how you communicate.
Communication consists of two parts; listening and responding. If we want to grow in the area of communication we must first listen, take in the information, process it accordingly and then reply in a way that honors our needs. At times we may think we are ‘listening’ but do you ever find yourself nodding along, all the while formulating your next sentence in your own head? This ‘pseudo-listening’ is opposite of what we should be striving for…which is actively listening and taking in all the information before processing our response.
So, how do we “actively listen”? Review the points below to get started.
SHOW YOU'RE LISTENING
Put away distractions. Watching TV, using your phone, or doing other things while listening sends the message that the speaker’s words are not important. Putting away distractions allows you to focus on the conversation and help the speaker feel heard.
Use verbal and nonverbal communication. Body language and short verbal cues that match the speaker’s affect (e.g. responding excitedly if the speaker is excited) show interest and empathy.
Verbal: “mm-hmm” / “uh-huh” “that’s interesting” “that makes sense” “I understand”
Nonverbal: nodding in agreement reacting to emotional content (e.g. smiling) eye contact
Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that encourage elaboration, rather than “yes” or “no” responses. Open-ended questions tell the speaker you are listening, and you want to learn more.
“What is it like to ____?” “How did you feel when ____?” “Can you tell me more about ____?”
“How do you ____?” “What do you like about ____?” “What are your thoughts about ____?”
Use reflections. In your own words, summarize the speaker’s most important points. Be sure to include emotional content, even if it was only communicated through tone or body language.
Speaker: I’ve been having a hard time at work. There’s way too much to do and I can’t keep up. My boss is frustrated that everything isn’t done, but I can’t help it.
Listener: It sounds like you’re doing your best to keep up, but there’s too much work. That sounds stressful!
STRIVE TO UNDERSTAND
Be present. Listening means paying attention to body language, tone, and verbal content. Focus your attention on listening, instead of other mental distractions, such as what you want to say next. When possible, save sensitive conversations for a quiet time with few distractions.
Listen with an open mind. Your job is to understand the speaker’s point of view, even if you don’t agree. Avoid forming opinions and making judgments until you fully understand their perspective.
PASSIVE, AGGRESSIVE, AND ASSERTIVE COMMUNICATION
Passive, aggressive, and assertive communication refers to three styles of interaction. Everyone has the capability to use all three styles, and everyone uses them all at least occasionally. For example, someone might act passively with their boss, and assertively with their partner.
You can probably picture examples of each communication style just based on their names. During passive communication, you put the needs and desires of others first while neglecting yourself. Aggressive communication is just the opposite: You concern yourself only with your own needs at the detriment of others. Both of these styles can occasionally be appropriate, but are typically ineffective. Assertive communication refers to a healthy balance between passive and aggressive communication. You clearly state your own needs, and you advocate to have them met. However, you listen to, acknowledge, and respect the needs of others. This means finding compromise.
During passive communication, a person prioritizes the needs, wants, and feelings of others, even at their own expense. The person does not express their own needs, or does not stand up for them. This can lead to being taken advantage of, even by well meaning people who are unaware of the passive communicator’s needs and wants.
Soft spoken / quiet
Allows others to take advantage
Prioritizes needs of others
Poor eye contact / looks down or away
Does not express one’s own needs or wants
Lack of confidence
Through aggressive communication, a person expresses that only their own needs, wants, and feelings matter. The other person is bullied, and their needs are ignored.
Speaks in a loud or overbearing way
Unwilling to compromise
Use of criticism, humiliation, and domination
Frequently interrupts or does not listen
Disrespectful toward others
Assertive communication emphasizes the importance of both peoples’ needs. During assertive communication, a person stands up for their own needs, wants, and feelings, but also listens to and respects the needs of others without behaving passively or aggressively . Assertive communication is defined by confidence, and a willingness to compromise.
Clearly states needs and wants
Willing to compromise
Stands up for own rights
Confident tone / body language
Good eye contact
Respect yourself. Your needs, wants, and rights are as important as anyone else’s. It’s fine to express what you want, so long as you are respectful toward the rights of others.
Express your thoughts and feelings calmly. Giving the silent treatment, yelling, threatening, and shaming are all great examples of what not to do. Take responsibility for your emotions, and express them in a calm and factual manner. Try starting sentences with “I feel…”.
Plan what you’re going to say. Know your wants and needs, and how you can express them, before entering a conversation. Come up with specific sentences and words you can use.
Say “no” when you need to. You can’t make everyone happy all the time. When you need to say “no”, do so clearly, without lying about the reasons. Offer to help find another solution.
PUTTING IT INTO ACTION
Ok, so we know what we SHOULD be doing and HOW to do it…but where do we even begin?
Use “I” Statements
During sensitive conversations it can be easy to unintentionally place blame, or to feel blamed. The goal of these conversations isn't to make the other person feel bad, but to resolve a problem. Feelings of blame quickly derail a conversation away from its original intention, and turn it into an unproductive argument.
Using "I" statements will reduce the likelihood that you come across as blaming during sensitive conversations. Additionally, "I" statements are a good way to practice speaking assertively because you will be forced to take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.
Using an "I" statement serves several purposes in this example. First of all, the "I" statement will be interpreted by most people as less accusatory. The "I" statement feels softer, like you are saying "I'm having a problem you can help with", as compared to the alternative statement that feels like you are saying: "You did something wrong".
Next, the "I" statement emphasizes why the issue is important. If an "I" statement isn't used, the feeling word (in this example, worry) often gets left out altogether. This can cause you to come across as controlling or demanding. Sharing your feeling allows the other person to better understand your perspective, and to empathize with how their behavior affects you.
Finally, the "I" statement forces you to speak clearly and assertively. You explain how you feel, and why you feel that way. There's no beating around the bush, mocking, put-downs, or anything that distracts from the message. It's clear and concise.
Don't make the mistake of using the "I" statement as a license to say anything that's on your mind. Of course, you still have to be tactful, polite, and reasonable. Saying "I feel upset when you act so stupid" still isn't going to go over well.
The ability to express your own ideas effectively is only half of what it takes to be a good communicator. Listening is the second half. This doesn't mean simply hearing words. It means hearing, thinking, interpreting, and striving to understand. If you're thinking about the next thing you want to say, you aren't really listening. You're just hearing.
Using a technique called reflection can quickly help you become a better listener. When reflecting, you will repeat back what someone has just said to you in your own words.
Speaker: "I've been feeling really stressed about work, and then when I get home I'm still in a bad mood."
Listener: "Work has been so stressful that it causes you to feel frustrated all the time."
The benefits of reflections aren't obvious on the surface, but reflections are one of the most powerful communication tools available. Those who haven't used reflections fear that it'll seem like they're just parroting the other person without contributing to the conversation. However, reflections typically result in a positive response.
So, what do reflections actually do? They act as confirmation that you heard, and understand, what the other person has said. Reflections validate the person's feelings by showing that you get it. It might seem like a reflection would kill a conversation‐there's no new question to answer. Surprisingly, the opposite is usually true. Reflections encourage more sharing, because the person can trust that you are listening.
Speaker: "I get so angry when you spend so much money without telling me. We're trying to save for a house!"
Listener: "We're working hard to save for a house, so it's really frustrating when it seems like I don't care."
Speaker: "Yeah, pretty much... It makes me feel like you don't care about the house or our future."
Listener: "It worries you because it makes you think I don't care about our relationship as much as you do."
Speaker: "Well, I know that you do care, but I still get worried sometimes."
You may have noticed that in this example the listener makes small interpretations about what the speaker really means. In the last reflection, the interpretation wasn't entirely correct. That's OK! The speaker sees that the listener is trying to understand, and corrects the small misunderstanding. This is exactly why reflections are so valuable.
Reflections aren't just some exercise to practice in a therapy session—they're a great technique to use at any time. As you first begin to practice it's typical for reflections to feel a bit forced. But if you implement reflections well, they'll quickly start to feel natural once you see how positive the responses are.
IF THINGS GO SOUTH...ALWAYS 'FIGHT FAIR'
Before you begin, ask yourself why you feel upset. Are you angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you angry because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this is just one more piece of evidence? Take time to think about your own feelings before starting an argument.
Discuss one topic at a time.
Don’t let “You left dishes in the sink” turn into “You watch too much TV.” Discussions that get off-topic are more likely to get heated, and less likely to solve the original problem. Choose one topic and stick to it.
No degrading language.
Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to express negative feelings while making sure your partner feels just as bad. Doing so leads to more character attacks while the original issue is forgotten.
Express your feelings with words.
“I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” Structure your sentences as “I” statements (“I feel emotion when event”) to express how you feel while taking responsibility for your emotions. However, starting with “I” does not give a license to ignore the other fair fighting rules.
Take turns speaking.
Give your full attention while your partner speaks. Avoid making corrections or thinking about what you want to say. Your only job is to understand their point of view, even if you disagree. If you find it difficult to not interrupt, try setting a timer allowing 1-2 minutes for each person to speak without interruption.
Sometimes, the easiest way to respond to an argument is to retreat into your shell and refuse to speak. This is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more upset. If you absolutely cannot go on, tell your partner you need to take a time-out. Agree to resume the discussion later.
Yelling does not help anyone see your point of view. Instead, it sends the message that only your words matter. Even if yelling intimidates your partner into giving up, the underlying problem only grows worse.
Take a time-out if things get too heated.
In a perfect world, we would all follow these rules 100% of the time... but it just doesn’t work like that. If an argument starts to become personal or heated, take a time-out. Agree on a time to come back and discuss the problem after everyone has cooled down.
Attempt to come to a compromise or an understanding.
There isn’t always a perfect answer to an argument. Life is too messy for that. Do your best to come to a compromise (this means some give and take from both sides). If you can’t come to a compromise, simply taking the time to understand your partner’s perspective can help soothe negative feelings.
DIDN'T COMMUNICATE PERFECTLY? ...OWN IT, MOVE ON, DO BETTER NEXT TIME
Apologizing is tough. It means expressing regret for something you did. A sincere apology involves reflecting on your actions, taking responsibility for them, and making changes to improve things in the future. Giving an apology can help repair a damaged relationship while showing care and respect for the other person.