Effective communication skills help us to better understand a person or situation; resolve differences and build trust and respect; and create environments where creative ideas, problem-solving, affection and caring can flourish. But many of us experience difficulties connecting successfully with others. Much of what we try to communicate — and others try to communicate to us — gets overlooked or misunderstood, which can cause conflict and frustration in both personal and professional relationships.
I thought my communication skills were pretty good, as I took Interpersonal Dynamics at the National Fire Academy, as well as a speech class or two in college. But as a recently promoted chief officer who would start attending more meetings of a political nature, I decided I should brush up my skills so that I could be heard — and so I could understand what was being said.
Effective communication is about more than just exchanging information; it also requires us to understand the emotion behind the information. That understanding can improve relationships at home, work, and in social situations by deepening your connections to others and improving teamwork, decision-making, caring, and problem-solving. It enables us to communicate even negative or difficult messages without creating conflict or destroying trust. Effective communication combines a set of skills including nonverbal communication, attentive listening, the ability to manage stress in the moment, and the capacity to recognize and understand your own emotions and those of the person you’re communicating with.
While effective communication is a learned skill, it is more effective when it’s spontaneous rather than formulaic. For example, a speech that is read from notes rarely has the same impact as one that is delivered spontaneously. Of course, it takes time and effort to develop these skills and become an effective communicator. I have found four simple skills that may assist you and hopefully me in becoming better communicators.
Skill 1: Listening. If your goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening effectively often will come naturally. If it doesn’t you can follow these tips:
- Focus fully on the speaker. If you are daydreaming, checking text messages (something that we all seem to do these days), or doodling, you’re almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try to repeat their words over in your head – it will reinforce their message and help keep you focused.
- Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what they are saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next. Most often, the speaker can read your facial expressions and knows that your mind’s elsewhere.
- Avoid seeming judgmental. In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don’t have to like them or agree with their ideas, values, or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand a person.
- Show your interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally (not a head bob when you fall asleep), smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting.
Skill 2: Nonverbal Communication. When we communicate things that we care about, we do so mainly using nonverbal signals. Wordless 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 tells them more about how you’re feeling than words alone ever can.
Tips for improving how you read nonverbal communication:
- People watch and notice how people react to one another.
- Be aware of individual differences (countries and cultures) they may use nonverbal skills differently
Tips for improving how to deliver nonverbal communication:
- Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said, not contradict it. If you say one thing and your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you are dishonest.
- Adjust your nonverbal signals according to context – the tone of your voice should be different when you are addressing a child then when you’re addressing a group of adults. Also take account the emotional state and cultural background of your audience.
- Use body language to convey positive feelings – an example is a job interview where you are nervous; stand tall with shoulders back, smile, maintain eye contact and deliver a firm handshake. It helps you feel more self-confident and helps put others at ease.
Skill 3: Managing Stress. In small doses, stress helps us perform under pressure, which is the norm in the fire service. However, when stress becomes constant and overwhelming, it can impede effective communication by disrupting your capacity to think clearly and creatively, and act appropriately. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and say something that you will most likely regret. How many of us have done this? I will admit that it has happened to me once or twice and it was a challenge to reverse the outcome.
When stress strikes, you can’t always temper it by taking time out to meditate or go for a run, especially if you’re in a meeting (it’s tempting sometimes though). By learning to quickly reduce stress in the moment, you can safely face any strong emotions you’re experiencing, regulate your feelings, and behave appropriately.
Tips to deal with stress during communication:
- Recognize when you are becoming stressed – listen to your body.
- Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation or postpone it.
- Bring your senses to the rescue and quickly manage stress by taking a few deep breaths, clenching and relaxing muscles, or recalling a soothing sensory-rich image (waterfalls, ocean waves, or whatever calms you down).
- Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to diffuse stress when communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.
- Be willing to compromise. If you can both bend a little, you’ll be able to find a happy middle ground that reduces stress levels for everyone concerned.
- Agree to disagree – take a quick break and move away from the situation. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance can quickly reduce stress.
Skill Four: Emotional Awareness. Emotions play an important role in the way we communicate at home and work. It’s the way you feel, more than the way you think, that motivates you to communicate or to make decisions. The way you react to emotionally driven, nonverbal cues affects both how you understand other people and how they understand you.
I’m not getting touchy/feely here, but we all need to understand that emotions play a big role in communication. Think how many times you may have had an argument with your spouse before work and you snapped at everyone all day at work and then said or did something that gets you in trouble or vice-versa?
Emotional awareness helps us:
- Understand and empathize with what is really troubling other people.
- Understand yourself, including what’s really troubling you and what you really want.
- Stay motivated to understand and empathize with the person you’re interacting with, even if you don’t like them or their message.
- Communicate clearly and effectively, even when delivering negative messages.
- Build strong, trusting, and rewarding relationships, think creatively, solve problems, and resolve conflicts.
My intentions for this article is to make us more aware of our communication skills and to build upon what we already know with the four simple steps that I mentioned. Just remember that effective communication skills can be learned. We just need to remember the tips and practice them.