7 Communication Skills That Will Improve Your Relationships

Bad communication habits could be standing between you and your best possible relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Consider these expert tips and learn how to truly hear and be heard.

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1. Account for your emotions

Before a single word is spoken, your emotional state can influence the quality of a discussion. For instance, if you’re stressed, your higher brain functions temporarily weaken, your perspective narrows and you are literally less able to hear what’s being said.

When you need to address something upsetting, it’s best to wait until you feel calm. And if an exchange becomes heated, remember that time outs aren’t just for kids. “You can say that you need to take a break,” says Jacqueline Peters, a relationship and executive coach who teaches communication skills at InnerActive Leadership Associates in Calgary. “But reassure the other person that you’re going to revisit the issue later at a set time so that this strategy doesn’t become a form of conflict avoidance.”

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2. Think like a negotiator

People often enter into high-stakes conversations having rehearsed their own position ad nauseam, which may be counter-productive. “Don’t go in thinking that there’s only one solution and that you already know what it is,” says Misha Glouberman, a Toronto-based communication skills trainer. Instead, he suggests sparking a joint problem-solving effort by thinking about what outcomes really matter to you, and then keeping an open mind.

For example, if your neighbour’s tree is shedding leaves on your lawn and your arthritis makes it hard to hold a rake, you could demand that she just cut the tree down. That’s one possible solution, but what really matters to you is facing less yardwork. Maybe a higher fence could help. Or if you talk to your neighbour about your needs, perhaps she’ll suggest that her kids come over to play in the leaves, clean them up and enjoy some hot chocolate afterwards.

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3. Ask questions before speaking

Trying to communicate without knowing where the other person stands is like attempting to thread a needle in the dark. “People get really intent on telling their side of a story first,” says Peters. “But I’m a big fan of starting by asking questions.” This, she says, will help you avoid assumptions: you might think you know what you and the other person agree and disagree on, but you could be wrong.

If you’re giving someone feedback, for example, first ask them if they have their own ideas about where problems lie. “This is especially pertinent if you have power over the person, such as in a parent-child or boss-employee relationship,” says Ric Phillips, President of 3V Communications, a coaching and training firm in Toronto. “If you just unilaterally tell them your own assessment, they could feel like they have to pretend to agree with you.”

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4. Pay close attention to non-verbal cues

Reading body language isn’t an exact science, so a particular gesture doesn’t always have the same meaning. That said, we can make educated guesses, and we’ve been hardwired by evolution to pick up on someone’s discomfort. “It could be in the body, the face or the voice,” says Phillips, an expert in communication skills. “Your natural instinct is a pretty good warning system.”

If something seems off, ask about it, suggests Peters. “You could say, ‘Hey, I noticed a little shift in the atmosphere of our conversation. What do you think about what I’ve been saying? Is something not landing right with you?’” This way you’ll see if you’ve been misunderstood, if the other person has an opinion they’re hesitant to share or if you’ve accidentally hurt their feelings. Noticing unhappiness in real time lets you address issues right away, before they fester.

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5. Take turns

Sometimes it’s perfectly fine for one person to do most of the talking—in a lecture, interview or counseling session, for instance. But in a conversation, the ratio should be more or less even. Brain imaging shows that talking about yourself tends to activate the dopamine-reward system. So that everyone gets that same pleasure, fight the urge to indulge in conversational narcissism, and give some attention back. Responses that shift the topic to yourself (for example, “I just bought a house, too! I plan to spend the next year renovating it.”) should be balanced by replies that show interest in others (such as, “Congratulations; what neighbourhood is your new house in?”)

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6. Avoid making judgments

A common reaction to criticism is to stop listening, so it can be hard to get your point across if you put someone on the defensive. One of the most valuable communication skills is to address a situation by stating how it makes you feel instead of describing the other person negatively. You could say, “I’m stressed out by my workload,” rather than “You’ve created a miserable work environment,” or “I feel ignored when I ask a question and you don’t answer,” rather than “You’re a bad listener.” Whether a situation is acceptable or not or whose fault it is may be up for debate. But your own feelings are indisputable facts, so they’re a good place to start.

Make sure, however, not to simply lean on the “I” statement. “What matters is the underlying attitude, not the exact words,” says Glouberman, warning that you will sound phony if your non-judgmental language isn’t matched with an empathetic state of mind.

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7. Express appreciation

Communicating gratefulness is relationship gold. “It may seem a bit kumbaya, especially in the workplace, but it can be done without sounding contrived,” says Peters. “The trick is to wait for the moment when you feel authentically appreciative of something.” It needn’t be anything revolutionary: even if someone has merely performed a task that is part of their job description, you might still feel glad that they did it well. Tell them so.

Next, find out how to get past small talk and have meaningful conversations wherever you go.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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