Improving our communication skills is a challenge most of us face in our lifetime. If we want to function in human society, that is. If your closest buddies are the penguins you are studying in the Arctic, I guess you are excused. So how do we go about improving our communication skills?
The number one way to improve your communication skills is by becoming a great listener. Many people believe that the exact words you say, the hand movement you made in that particular moment or the way you argue your point is the essential parts of communication. These factors play a small part compared to what makes the really effective communication happen. Your ability to understand a social situation and apply empathy in a tactical manner – will make or break your effectiveness as a communicator. Your most important tool for accomplishing this is your listening skills.
Why is listening so important?
There is a difference between hearing and actually listening to what people say. Most of us are thinking about other stuff and what to say next when we are listening to others. Or rather hearing them talk. About 10 percent of us listen effectively. What we are actually doing is just hearing the words of our conversational partner, while we are thinking about what we are going to say next ourselves.
Listening builds the connection between you and your counterpart
Often times this can go unnoticed by most of us, and we think that we are great conversational partners. In reality, though, it shines through for the other party when we are not actually listening to what they say. And they will not call us out on it. As we think about what to say next, our connection will crumble and spread to the winds.
Let’s think about it for a second. If you are not able to interpret and really hear what people are telling you, you are not going to build connections with people. And building connections is where the magic happens in effective communication. What people are actually telling you isn’t just on the surface level. The words they say are just a fraction of the communication happening.
How are they saying it? Do they seem genuine or are they lying for some other benefit? Is this simply something they say because they actually need help? Why would they be saying this?
Finding the deeper, hidden meaning in the communication
There is always a bunch of hidden information below the conversational level of communication. And if you are just hearing, not listening, you will not notice the deeper communication happening.
Communication is about transferring information from one party to another. That means part of having good communication skills involves being able to receive and interpret the information in an effective way as well.
After all, we have two ears and only one mouth – so perhaps we should listen twice as much as we speak.
If you can listen to what people are saying, and make them see that you are listening. Great things will happen.
Using empathy to maneuver your way to communication success
Any social situation is fluid. That means it’s always changing, and the premises are never the same. What worked great in your previous conversation may have little value in the next one, if applied without context. This is why you need to apply empathy to achieve communication success, whether that is informing, convincing, persuading, entertaining, negotiating or some other goal. By using empathy you will build rapport and find out how to leverage the situation.
While your listening skills are some of your tools, empathy is more like your building stones. You use these building stones to make a foundation for communicating effectively.
This foundation is really your connection with the other party.
Because what is empathy, really? It is when you see things from the other party’s side, even if you don’t like it. Just by acknowledging and understanding their perspective, clearly and correctly.
When you have built this foundation, this common ground, your conversational partner will be open to listening to you.
Well then. How do we understand how our counterpart sees the situation? Their wants? Their needs? How do we get the information we need to show them that we understand them?
By listening. More precisely by actively listening.
Active listening can be trained like any skill. Although it is hard to master with all its nuances, with practice you can develop your skillset for active listening. As the name suggests, you will take an active role. This means giving your counterpart all of your attention and concentration. Put away your phone and make sure the TV is off!
A big part of active listening is making it all about your counterpart. Make sure they feel they can talk without interruptions and pour their hearts out if they feel like it. And it’s part of your job to make them feel like it. Show them interest and encourage them to talk further, and you will gradually unlock layers to the conversation that previously didn’t seem accessible.
As empathy is the foundation that builds the connection between you and the other person, you have to make sure not to break some “ground rules” that will instantly wreck the tower of trust you are trying to form, into a thousand pieces. If you are at any point showing judgment towards what your counterpart is telling you, they will retreat back into their shell or attack your judgment. Clearly, this is against our purpose here. Also, note that it’s not just if you judge with your words. If your face is saying “I don’t approve of this” or your body language closes into folded arms mid-sentence, they will pick up on it and retreat back to basecamp. You have to be aware of this.
The same goes for interrupting, making the conversation more about you than them, clearly misunderstanding what they are telling you over and over again, or simply getting distracted while they talk. Seems like a lot? It’s really just all about keeping the focus on your conversational partner. Let’s dive into some of the elements of active listening.
Some key elements to active listening:
- Maintain eye contact
- Open body language
- Listen with all your senses
- DO NOT contemplate your next contribution to the conversation while they are speaking
- DO paraphrase what they are telling you, back to them occasionally
- Nod, smile and use other cues where appropriate
- Say “yes”, “uh-hmm” and “I see” to show interest as they talk
- Use open-ended questions to make them clarify or elaborate
- You can also make them elaborate be repeating what they said in a questioning way
- Be non-judgemental
- Be patient and curious
Eye contact and body language
Your eye contact and your body language will communicate a lot of unspoken information to the person you are listening to. Keep your eyes on the prize. Maintain eye contact for most of the time, but break it up from time to time to avoid the creepiness factor. This will signal that you are paying attention and concentrating on what they are saying.
Folding your arms is a big no-no. Lean a bit in and try to keep an open and welcoming body language that makes people relax.
Listening with all your senses
To stay focused on what is being said you need to zoom out other stimuli and really concentrate on only the interaction. You do this by focusing all your senses towards the interaction. Listen with both your ears. Not only to the words spoken, but the way they are being said. Listen for hints to stuff they can elaborate and go deeper into the issue on. Look at their face and body language. Are they comfortable? Are they lying? What do you see?
You might not be able to smell a lie, but if you focus all your senses to the right place, you won’t be distracted either.
DO NOT contemplate your next contribution to the conversation while they are speaking
This is something you don’t want to do. It is also something that kind of makes you not listen so “active” anymore. You should be present and show interest, while you make the conversation about the other guy, not you. What you do instead is this ?
DO paraphrase what they are telling you, back to them occasionally
After listening intently, you repeat their words back to them, in your own, paraphrased version. Make sure your capture it correctly and until you get all the details. This is an important part of being a good listener and really demonstrates empathy. It’s very appreciated when you get it right. You will often hear stuff like “you get me”, or “that’s right!”. They will start to feel like you understand. Which you do.
Nod, smile and use other cues where appropriate
Show interest while listening by nodding. You can smile to show that you are engaged at a happy part of the conversation. Other stuff like flapping your arms like a seagull to show your disappointment at an appropriate time in a story can be relevant, but you need to read the situation. Especially if you are going full seagull.
Say “yes”, “uh-hmm” and “I see” to show interest as they talk
Simply a sign of interest and understanding as you are being talked to.
Use open-ended questions to make them clarify or elaborate
Open-ended questions are great for a lot of stuff. Man, I love them. They can get you out of a jam. But I sort of digress. In this scenario, open-ended questions can be used to get the other party to clarify their point or elaborate further. This is useful information for you as you get more information to build a connection on. People also add different importance to the things they tell you. Something is easy going and not so important, some other stuff means a lot to them and they don’t tell it to everyone, and so the list goes on. This importance is a shortcut for you, though.
You wouldn’t tell a stranger your secrets, would you? You would perhaps tell it to your close friends. What we can pull from this is that if you can get someone to tell you something deeper, more meaningful to them, or perhaps even secret – surely you must be a trusted person to them. That is what their brain will backward rationalize it as, anyway. Sometimes asking questions can be a bit straightforward though. And if you do it too much, it can be irritating.
You can also make them elaborate be repeating what they said in a questioning way
Another way to make people elaborate is repeating the last sentence they told you, in a questioning way and be silent. This way you are not asking a question, per se. And it will fly under their radar. It’s more fluid communication.
Previously mentioned. This can be a deal-breaker. Don’t break the deal. Your aim is to listen and see the issue from their side. You don’t have to agree, but don’t show any judgment either.
Be patient and curious
Lastly, I would highly advise you to be patient and curious. We are a bit self-centered by nature, and listening intently to others for a stretch of time can be exhausting. Therefore you should genuinely be curious about the other person, the issue at hand and how you can get to the bottom of this wonderful mystery.
Remember that your mission is to listen, not give unsolicited advice or solutions. Listen, empathize and connect. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s the same with communication. If you want to be an effective communicator, you have to be a great listener.