Couple in need of communication skills arguing
  • Do you feel like people just cannot seem to get what you are saying?
  • Do people often tell you that YOU don’t get what they are saying?
  • 80% of our messages are non-verbal (eye contact, body language, facial expression).
  • Of the 20% that is verbal, we can learn to be mindful of which words work best for our message.

Communication skills are about how to listen and how to be heard, not just how to talk. Communication is a cooperative process; in other words, while one person is speaking, the other must cooperate by listening. While this seems rather intuitive, we have all experienced how difficult it can be. Read on to learn how to slow down and simplify the process.

Seek to understand first

I believe it is Steven Covey that says, “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” This really captures the essence of listening.

We can all relate to times when somebody was talking to us and we were so lost in thought planning our response that we neglected to really listen to what was being said to us. This communicates disinterest and a lack of respect for the speaker. Seek to understand.

Tips on showing you are listening & understanding

Make eye contact–don’t stare them down, but show your
attention by looking into the speaker’s eyes occasionally.

Have open body language–try not to sprawl out on
the floor, but keep a generally ‘open’ stance that shows you are receptive
to the message being sent to you. Nod occasionally to let them know
you are listening. Use your facial expression to show interest, compassion,
or confusion, but make sure you are not being dramatic or sarcastic/judgmental.

Reflect back–say back to the speaker what you heard
them say (the ‘content’ versus the ’emotions’ (see validation below for
emotions). For example, “If I am hearing you correctly, you are saying
that the paint is the wrong color”. This is not saying parrot or mimic
them; rather it is to encourage paraphrasing and checking out your understanding
of what was said. . . this can prevent a great deal of confusion as if
you heard it wrong (or if they sent the message unclear fashion),
the speaker can then restate their point.

It is important to avoid sarcasm or any other judgmental attitude
about their emotional experience even if you disagree with what they
are saying or feeling. Quite often, both of you are correct: if you hold
a quarter up with tails facing them, and heads facing you, then each
of your reports of what you see is ‘correct’ but different. When dealing
with conflict, it is easy for the ego to try and exploit this difference
as a place to attack. Do not fall into this trap.

Validate emotions–This is similar to Reflection,
however, it refers to the emotional experience of who you are talking
to. It is important to avoid sarcasm or any other judgmental attitude
about their emotional experience. Even if you disagree with their
emotional response (i.e. they are angry that you like chocolate ice
cream . . . it makes no sense to most of us, but it is their feelings
and they have a right to feel that way; besides, you cannot usually
just ‘turn off’ emotions that don’t make sense to others).
You validate emotions by calmly letting them know that you see that
they seem to be feeling hurt, angry, happy, etc. Sometimes it is helpful
to ask if you are on the ‘right track.’

Take a one-down stance–this can help to nullify a perceived
power differential. These words can put you in a one-down stance, “Help
me understand. . . . ” By inviting the person to ‘teach’ you what
they are feeling or experiencing, you are showing them that you truly wish
to hear what they are saying–use Reflecting (see above) make sure you
have heard them correctly.

Ask ‘open’ questions–these are questions that are most
easily answered with a sentence rather than a single word like ‘yes’
or ‘no.’ These open questions invite more discussion, rather than
quick responses.

Watch your tone and word choice — 80% of communication is non-verbal. So use a calm tone
and words that are not ‘loaded.’ I would extend this to mean do not
be passive-aggressive in general. We all know the little communication
games that can be played where we ‘say’ the ‘nice’ words but with
an air of sarcasm or malice. Nobody misses this kind of game. And
it really never helps.

Listen well and be heard

Many people seem to believe that only children and teens struggle with how to interact with peers. In fact, the older you get, the more complicated this may feel. A child does not have to worry about dating or professional peers. A teen’s romantic interactions or job interactions may not be as intense as those of a high-level professional in a long-standing marriage. Thus, it benefits any aged individual who struggles with peer interactions at any level to deal with it directly and honestly.

Mastering communication skills fundamentals

Genuineness is the ultimate building block of peer relations. Both genuineness with yourself so that you can be honest with others, and genuineness to others, which actually is manifested by honesty itself. People are great lie detectors . . .we all have the ability inside of us that Robert DeNiro has in “Meet the Parents.” Most of us just do not have it as finely tuned as his character; however, our bodies know it–and we can all ‘feel’ a certain vibe when someone is not genuine, or congruent, with their feelings and actions. Alan Watts sums it up nicely in this quote from The Culture of Counterculture (pg 11):

“I was once associated in a business way with somebody who was
a complicated person. He always pretended that he was a great idealist
and that whatever he was doing was for the benefit of mankind, for the
furtherance of mutual understanding, and to promote unselfishness and
love between human beings. Actually, his dealings were very shady ethically.
And I couldn’t get along with him, because he wouldn’t come clean. If
he had said, “Look, I’m in a jam, and in order to get around it,
I need you to manipulate things with me thus and so. I know it isn’t
ethical, but this what I need you to do.” I would have said, “Well,
I’m entirely in agreement with you.” If he hadn’t come on in his
usual pious way, which I found sickening and offensive, but had come
on in a human way, we would have understood each other.”

This is a great example of how genuine action (coming on “in a human way”), no matter how difficult, will usually lead to more beneficial relationships and partnerships. Of course, this applies to not only professional interactions but also to social and intimate ones as well. In short, be honest about what you are feeling–both to yourself and to others, in thought and in action.

Being self-aware offers you the opportunity to monitor your interactions; being overly aware can, however, be a hindrance (usually this is an issue for those who struggle with self-esteem). Being aware of if you are being overly self-focused in the conversation vs. having a healthy balance of interest in the other person (or people, if in a group) is extremely helpful. If you find that you are too much on either side, then use your awareness to either pull back a little on your storytelling about yourself or to pull back a bit in the relentless questioning of others. . . whichever applies. Being aware of other people’s body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice will aid you in determining if you would do well to alter your level of interaction. If you find that you should, please do not beat yourself up–what will shine through to the other people involved is your perceptiveness and ability to adapt–not the initial interactions.

Trusting yourself can be difficult as you learn to improve your peer relations skills with others. If it has not gone smoothly in the past, you may have a difficult time trusting in the signals you are trying to be aware of. Seeking honest feedback from a trusted teacher, counselor, spiritual leader, friend, or family member who seems to have a solid grasp of social skills may be helpful. In this case, you may find yourself trusting externally before moving internally–this is only one perspective though. You have to trust yourself enough first to decide which person to approach. You will notice that you may have an initial impression of who it is you trust and can learn from–this immediately shows your ability to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy models. This trust of self can be expanded to help you realize your comfort in many peer situations.

Empathy for one’s self is most evident through the increase in comfort as one learns to negotiate the complexities of interacting with others.
When you have genuine compassion for yourself, you begin to relax a little, this relaxation shines through in your interactions with people. Remember that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As you find yourself giving yourself a little room to learn, you may find yourself offering others the same latitude in their actions–you begin modeling for them the balance you yourself have been working so hard to learn. When this happens, you have moved into a higher level of learning the social complexities involved in interactions.

Learn more about Couples Counseling in Austin.

Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.

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