Become an engaged listener
People often focus on what they should say, but effective communication is less about talking and more about listening. Listening well means not just understanding the words or the information being communicated, but also understanding the emotions the speaker is trying to communicate.
By communicating in this way, you’ll also experience a process that lowers stress and supports physical and emotional well-being. If the person you’re talking to is calm, for example, listening in an engaged way will help to calm you, too. Similarly, if the person is agitated, you can help calm them by listening in an attentive way and making the person feel understood.
How do you become an engaged listener?
If your goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening in an engaged way will often come naturally. If it doesn’t, try the following tips. The more you practice them, the more satisfying and rewarding your interactions with others will become.
- Focus fully on the speaker: his or her body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues.
- Favor your right ear: The left side of the brain contains the primary processing centers for both speech comprehension and emotions.
- Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns: by saying something like, “If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.” Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk.
- Show your interest in what’s being said: Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes” or “uh-huh.”
- Try to set aside judgment: In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don’t have to like them or agree with their ideas, values, or opinions.
- Provide feedback: If there seems to be a disconnect, reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” or “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back.
Pay attention to nonverbal signals
When we communicate things that we care about, we do so mainly use nonverbal signals. Nonverbal communication, or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, the tone of your voice, and even your muscle tension and breathing.
The way you look, listen, move, and react to another person tell them more about how you’re feeling than words alone ever can. Developing the capability to understand and use nonverbal communication can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations, and build better relationships at home and work.
- You can improve effective communication by using open body language—arms uncrossed, standing with an open stance or sitting on the edge of your seat, and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re talking to.
- You can also use body language to bring attention or enhance your verbal message—patting a friend on the back while complimenting him on his success, for example, or pounding your fists to underline your message.
Keep Stress in Check
To communicate efficiently, you need to be aware of and in control of your emotions. And that means learning how to manage stress. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to misinterpret other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into harmful knee-jerk patterns of behavior.
Staying calm under pressure
- Use stalling tactics: to give yourself time to think. Have a question repeated, or ask for clarification of a statement before responding.
- Pause to collect your thoughts: Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing—pausing can make you seem more in control than rushing your response.
- Make one point and provide an example or supporting piece of information: If your response is too long or you waffle about a number of points, you risk losing the listener’s interest. Follow one point with an example and then measure the listener’s reaction to tell if you should make a second point.
- Deliver your words clearly: In many cases, how you say something can be as important as what you say. Speak clearly, maintain an even tone, and make eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed and open.
- Wrap up with a summary and then stop: Summarize your response and then stop talking, even if it leaves a silence in the room. You don’t have to fill the silence by continuing to talk.
Direct, assertive expression makes for clear communication and can help boost self-esteem and decision-making. Being assertive means showcasing your thoughts, feelings, and needs in an open and honest way, while standing up for yourself and respecting others. It does not necessarily being hostile, aggressive, or demanding. Effective communication is always about understanding the other person, not about winning an argument or forcing your opinions on others.
To improve assertiveness
- Value yourself and your opinions: They are as important as anyone else’s.
- Know your needs and wants: Learn to express them without infringing on the rights of others.
- Express negative thoughts in a positive way: It’s OK to be angry, but you must be respectful as well.
- Receive feedback positively: Accept compliments graciously, learn from your mistakes, and ask for help when needed.
- Learn to say “no.”: Know your limits and don’t let others take advantage of you. Look for alternatives so everyone feels good about the outcome.
Developing Asserting Communication Techniques
- Empathetic assertion: conveys sensitivity to the other person. First, recognize the other person’s situation or feelings, and then state your needs or opinion.
- Escalating assertion: can be used when your first attempts are not successful. You become increasingly firm as time progresses, which may include outlining consequences if your needs are not met.
- Practice assertiveness: in lower risk situations to start with to help build up your confidence. Or ask friends or family if you can practice assertiveness techniques on them first.