Everyone wants to communicate better. But how? Where to start?
Communication is weird. It can be wild. It’s difficult to do well, and is often harder than you think.
I’ve talked about what “good” communication is. The ideal of good communication is something to strive for, but it is different from the skills and behaviors needed to communicate better.
So, how can we start to communicate better to improve relationships?
Communication never goes quite perfectly. That’s just how it is. In most interactions, no matter the outcome, communication is quite simply “good enough.” We get by and go on. Exceedingly normal. But it is always possible to improve how we communicate. This is important to remember.
When I used to teach, there was rarely a class where I didn’t walk away thinking, “I could have explained this better” or “I should have asked this question instead.” Granted, this is one specific type of communication interaction. But you too have probably had this feeling. This sort of second guessing is par for the course when it comes to communicating. Who hasn’t walked away from a date or an interview thinking “I shouldn’t have said that!”?
The good news is that communication is an ongoing imperfect process: Because we’re constantly communicating, we always get new chances.
So, how to improve?
The #1 thing you can do to improve communication is to listen more. Listening is an overlooked piece of the communication puzzle. People don’t listen enough because our first instinct is to talk more to get our point across. This is like the default, self-centered mode of communicating. We think of listening as an easy, automatic, and natural part of communicating, but this causes us to overlook how listening is a skill that can be honed.
If you want to communicate better, talk less and pay attention more. Check out this book out on listening by Kate Murphy.
Watch your language. Language is communication’s most elemental code. The words you use matter. Language is how our brains bring communication’s power to life. Language shapes reality. Be mindful of it. Pay attention to the words you use, the stories you tell, the questions you ask, how you address people, and how you define things. The language you use underlies every part of the relationship you build on top of it. Think of language as Lego blocks. Words are individual pieces. You can do anything with language just as you can rearrange Lego bricks in any formation.
I’m serious. When you communicate, you should try to be nice. Remember the person across from you has feelings like yours. They are trying to make sense of the world as they move through it, just as you are. Try to keep their interests in mind a little. Showing warmth and caring if possible is a tactful way to connect.
Of course, being nice isn’t always possible. I’m not naive. Humans are animals after all. Sometimes people need to be stood up to or confronted. Being direct can also be liberating. For example, I’m proud of the time I quit my job at Home Depot at age 17. I was scolded for taking a weekend off from pushing lumber carts to attend my junior prom. I sternly told my manager I quit as I dropped my orange apron on his desk. I stood up for myself and wasn’t particularly nice about it. Nevertheless, I felt proud.
Being tactful isn’t always the right decision. But being nice will get you pretty far in most everyday professional and personal interactions.
Every situation is different. Context is inescapable.
Movie night with the girls is different than FaceTiming with grandma. Group meetings are different than tweeting.
Reading situations and deciding how to act is a tough challenge. Think about the expectations and goals of the interaction. What are the norms or routines of this situation? What is expected of me? What’s the flow?
Answering these sorts of questions can help you make good communication choices in the moment.
Frederick Douglass wrote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” If you want to communicate better, you have to be willing to push your own boundaries. You’ll need to change your behavior.
There are many ways to start communicating better. There’s no magic switch you can flip to fix all your communication problems at once. Listening more is a good place to start, but you can begin anywhere. Small changes are best. You are the best judge of what steps to take for you, but a good way to start is to pick one of the above topics and targeting that skill.
Maybe you need to listen when your urge is to talk. Conversely, maybe you need to ask questions when you would rather stay silent. Perhaps you need to work on using language that connotes respect for others. Maybe you need to be more concise or share more. Productive self-analysis of your communication is the way forward.
Ask yourself how you want communication to be and then try behaviors that get you closer to that ideal. You want to be less combative? Ok, how can you do that? You want to be more outgoing? Ok, how can you do that?
Communicating well takes practice. Have an improvement mindset. And don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you’ve made a mistake! Remember, there’s always a next time.
Better communication is worth pursuing. The benefits of communicating better are bountiful: Better relationships. Happiness. Cohesion. Learning. Growth. Satisfaction. Collaboration. All of this — and more — comes with improving communication. The solutions are up to you.
There’s no one way to communicate better. This is the opportunity, not the obstacle. The feature, not the bug.
Next Week: Listening