We communicate constantly, and tend to assume that what we are communicating is what we mean to communicate. Often this is the case. However, sometimes, especially during difficult conversations or misunderstandings, the meaning gets lost in the delivery and the ending conversation has little to do with the original meaning.
Learning effective communication skills can greatly improve communications in all your relationships, and generally reduce the level of conflict. It is important that, as much as possible, both participants have the same ground rules for communicating.
You must first choose to trust yourself and your ability to trust others. For effective communication to occur, there must be a general level of trust between the parties, this is especially true for personal and intimate relationships. In general, the more intimate the relationship, the greater level of trust is needed. For example, if you do not trust your partner, you will not be able to be vulnerable, relay your disappointment, or ask things from him/her. In other words, without trust you will not be able to communicate what you really want to say, nor will you be able to hear what is being said to you.
It is important to remember to breathe during conversations, especially difficult ones. All too often anger or fear take over and we stop breathing and stop communicating effectively. Making sure to take slow deep breaths is a way to keep the level of negative emotion down and effective communication up.
3. Stay Present
It is important to stay focused on the topic at hand. There is a tendency to bring in past issues to defend or accuse, but this must be avoided. Bringing up the past does nothing but confuse and deflect the issue at hand. Remember the past cannot be changed, so bringing it up does nothing but add fuel to a potentially combustible discussion.
4. Really Listen
All too often listening is the last thing that we are doing when the other person is talking. During arguments, we often are simply waiting for our time to speak, or just looking out for the other person to say something that can really be jumped on. If effective communication is going to take place we have to really listen to try to understand what the other person is saying, even if it is something that we may not like. Listening, and repeating what you heard being said, is the best way to ensure that you have actually “heard” what was intended.
5. Try to Understand Other Point of View
Even when you do not agree with what the other person is saying, it is important to try to understand their point of view. It may be a tendency to think of “understanding” as “agreeing”, but these are two very different ideas. By understanding the other person’s point of view, you are simply moving toward resolution and effective communication. You cannot communicate your point of view without understanding where the other person is coming from. Imagine someone trying to communicate with you, when they do not understand your point of view.
6. I Statements
“I Statements” are one of the most powerful tools in communication. Used correctly they remove any accusatory tone in your statement and allow you to express your point without getting a defensive reaction. There are 3 important components to an I Statement: (1) Stating your feeling, (2) Connecting the feeling to an issue, and (3) Stating what you want to have happen. As an example, instead of saying, “You don’t let me say what I want to do”, say “I feel frustrated when we talk about making plans and I don’t get to say what I want to do, I want us to both to have input”.
7. Take a Break
Sometimes it is important to take a break and not continue the conversation. The break gives everyone a chance to get some perspective, step away from the negative feelings, think about what the real purpose of the conversation is, and how to proceed. All too often people will start talking about one thing which triggers negative thoughts or feelings, leading them to start arguing about something else altogether. People also spend a great deal of time looking for resolution in a discussion, when no real resolution is possible. Taking a break gives permission to stop the conversation once the point has been made.
8. Do Not Focus on “Winning”
Very often, especially when arguing, people focus on winning, or being right, which tends to mean that they are asking the other person to admit that he/she was wrong. You may also find yourself reacting to the feeling that you are being told that you are “wrong” when arguing. When people focus on winning, others tend to experience this as having his/her feelings or perspective discounted or disrespected. This is only going to lead to defensiveness and escalation from both parties. Instead focus on understanding the perspectives and not being right or winning.
9. Know What Your Purpose Is
When having a discussion with someone it is important to know what your purpose of the communication is. Although you cannot change others, change the past, or control the future, this may often be your purpose. If your goal is something that you are not in control of, communication is going to be frustrating to say the least. Remember that often the only reason to communicate your feelings is to give them a voice. It is the responsibility of the other person to choose to take action if they want to help you feel better.
10. Admit Your Responsibility
We all make mistakes. Sometimes we even hurt those we care about most. Allow yourself to recognize and acknowledge the less than admirable things that you do. If you hurt someone, even if you did not mean to, accept this and apologize. Once you have accepted the responsibility, the real communication can begin. It is important to remember that hurting someone, or making mistakes, does not make you a “bad” person, nor can you always have someone immediately stop feeling hurt just because you apologized.
By Erin Johnston, L.C.S.W.