Communications Techniques

A 10 point guide to improving communication skills

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

1. Relax, be available, be engaged

If you are preparing for, suspect or sense you're about to engage in a difficult conversation, take a few deep breaths and organize yourself. Use head talk. Gain control. Remember that the level of your anxiety is contagious. If you are calm, it is more likely that the person with whom you are about to interact will be calm. You can even begin the conversation by saying you are a little anxious or nervous because this is a difficult topic. Add that you hope they will bear with you and hear you out before responding (or some variation to acknowledge that there is something about this topic that is difficult).

2. Practice reflective listening

When we refer to verbal communication, there are two pieces: speaking and listening.

Listening is equally and some believe, more important, than speaking. Practice reflective listening skills. If you are unclear about what the person has just said, repeat and/or paraphrase what you think you heard to the speaker. Ask whether what you heard is what he/she has actually said. If the answer is no, try again or ask for clarification. Remember, understanding the speaker's feelings is different from agreeing. Reflective listening is an especially good exercise for someone who has been a poor listener and needs to exercise some new techniques.

3. Speak in the first person

Always attempt to begin a conversation by expressing how you feel. Try to use, I think, I feel, I sense. Everyone is entitled to his or her feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong -- they just are. Avoid creating a sense of group support by saying we or everyone. A tendency toward this language usually surfaces when people have to deliver a strong or critical message or when one is requesting someone else perform a task.

4. Avoid finger pointing

Refrain from using the word YOU! Avoid making accusations. Avoid interpretations. Both are ineffective and promote defensiveness. Try to avoid drawing conclusions. Focus on controlling your responses. Know that your rising emotional reaction has nothing to do with the person with whom you are interacting. Stay in listening mode.

5. Show respect

Give the person you're speaking with the respect of your full attention. Body language speaks volumes. Put down what you are reading. Turn around in your chair and face the person. If you are stopped in a hallway, turn your body toward the person. Use lead in lines to acknowledge the position of the other person, such as: I know you're in a difficult position. I can tell you're upset about this matter. I'm glad you were able to bring this to my attention. I know we always get into trouble when we go down this road so let's agree to try to have this conversation without a major blow-up.

6. Be empathic

Express how you feel but be aware of others' feelings. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Look through his lens. What are her challenges Is he suffering? If you are completely at odds, search for some mutual ground.

7. Avoid making assumptions

Stay focused on the content of the conversation. Don't let your mind run away with only part of the story. Stick to the facts. Gather information to fill in the blanks. Ask questions.

8. Reserve the right to sleep on it

One of the easiest ways to diffuse a tense situation is to ask permission to take some time to sort through your feelings or think about a response. Oftentimes the person who comes to you has had plenty of time to frame his or her conversation. The receiver, on the other hand, is caught unaware. Everyone has the right to ask for some time to think. However, be responsible. Get back to the person and bring closure to the conversation.

9. Be self-reflective

Frequently review and evaluate your participation in any given interaction, personal or professional. Even well planned conversations can go astray. It's important to go back and figure out what went wrong and to think about what you could have done differently. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then work on your weaknesses. Listen to feedback. Everyone knows that negative feedback is tough to accept. It's painful for everyone, except for those who live in complete denial. See if you can use negative input as a catalyst for some positive change.

10. Learn from others

Assess conversations between others (especially difficult ones) that went well. Analyze why. Use what youve learned in your next encounter. Make sure that you do not exhibit some of the same traits you can't tolerate in others.

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