Five Tips for Enhancing Your Interpersonal Communication
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion
that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
I was born in Honduras and came to the US at the age of eight. What I remember most is the frustration I felt wanting to communicate in school and being unable to because I didn’t speak English.
Once I became fluent, I was surprised to find the frustration remained, though for completely different reasons. It was no longer a matter of not speaking the language, but of not being on the same channel with others when communicating in general.
I studied public relations in college because I wanted to learn how to communicate my thoughts, feelings and needs clearly and also help others, including brands and companies, achieve the same. By the time I graduated and started working in the field, I’d learned that communication goes far beyond a conversation between two people.
We communicate with ourselves (intrapersonal communication) when we think as we work through making a difficult decision, give ourselves a pep talk when we’re about to embark on something scary, and even jot down tomorrow’s ‘to-do list’ before we leave work each day. We also communicate with others (interpersonal communication) to express our needs and feelings, create and strengthen personal and professional relationships, advance our careers and partake in social activities.
We can’t all afford our very own communications specialist to help us develop and deliver key messages every time we want to speak, but there are certainly things we can do that will improve how we communicate every day.
Here are five tips that will ensure your messages are not lost in translation.
1. Don’t Just Hear–Listen
“I’m talking to you, did you hear me?”
“I heard you!”
“Yes, but are you listening?”
How many times have you had a similar conversation? Hearing is one of five senses and involves perceiving sounds by detecting vibrations. It is an automatic response to noise; it is passive and doesn’t involve effort on our part. Active listening, on the other hand, is far more than just hearing sounds or words. It requires being mindful, open minded and giving someone our undivided attention.
We can improve our listening by eliminating the noise and distractions that regularly surround us. How often do we take a conference call and multi-task by reading emails or working on an assignment? Or respond to a text message and take calls during dinner with our family? To be good communicators, we first have to be good listeners.
2. Take Responsibility For Your Thoughts and Feelings
The most difficult part of communication is taking ownership of your thoughts and feelings, and that can only be achieved with self-confidence and self-honesty. Sometimes we use language that derails our responsibility for what we think and how we feel.
For example, following a presentation that did not go well, we may say to a colleague,
“You made me feel inadequate about my job performance in there,” insinuating he/she caused this feeling in us. It’s easier to blame someone else for that sentiment than to realize the way we feel is something that comes from within. What we may mean is we don’t like to be in a position where we don’t feel prepared and informed about a certain subject matter, and that’s how we felt in the meeting.
So the next time we feel hurt, upset or frustrated, we should ask ourselves, “Where are these feelings really coming from, and who should I take them up with, myself or someone else?” In taking a more strategic approach to communicating our feelings, we’ll reduce the probability of provoking a conflict.
3. Respect Differences in Opinion
Nothing causes us to shut down sooner than someone telling us our opinions are wrong or our feelings are unimportant. One of the most important characteristics of effective communication is validating the thoughts and feelings of others. To be an effective communicator, we should never disregard what others share about themselves, whether it’s our significant other expressing how alone he/she feels since we started traveling for work, or a colleague sharing ideas for an upcoming project. Even if we don’t agree with what the other person is saying, we should always communicate respect to those who made an effort to communicate with us.
4. Be Clear, Not Abstract
In art, it’s referred to as abstract art. In communication, it’s referred to as abstract language and it looks a little like this: “I need you to be more responsible with your assignments.” That phrase is loaded with suggestions but doesn’t really explain how or why the employee is not responsible. Is the employee missing deadlines? Is the work sloppy? Using abstract language leads to misunderstandings because the language is unclear and indirect. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to prevent misunderstandings, but we can be more selective and conscientious of the words we use to construct our message, and in doing so, our thoughts and feelings will be clearly conveyed.
5. What You Say Isn’t As Important As How You Say It
I got through third grade in the United States by looking at what my classmates were doing and mirroring it. When my classmates would get too rowdy, my teacher would place her finger on her lips, lift her other arm and raise two fingers. Whenever she did this, I noticed my peers would stop talking, sit up straight, place both their arms on their desks and interlock their fingers. It almost seemed as if they were praying, but in essence their body language was saying, “I’m sorry. I’m being good now.” It wasn’t until much later that I learned my teacher’s body cues and language were asking for ‘peace’ and ‘quiet.’
Non-verbal communication, also known as body language, accounts for a much larger part of our message than the words we choose to utter. Among many other things, it includes the inflection, tone and volume we use to speak; our facial expressions and posture, which express our feelings; eye contact; and our appearance and body movements as we speak. Non-verbal communication is perceived as more honest; therefore people tend to trust non-verbal behavior more than spoken words. For this reason, it is critical that our non-verbal behaviors are congruent with the message we are communicating. Any discord could be interpreted by our audience as dishonesty.
Every aspect of life involves communication. We aren’t born effective communicators, but we can take the time and make the commitment to learn the skills that can improve our communication. After all, communication is the basis of culture and our greatest tool for social interaction, professional growth and personal fulfillment.