Humans communicate constantly, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Effective communication is a skill, just like painting or playing an instrument. Some people have a natural talent for it, but most of us need to learn the skills and put in the practice to be able to make ourselves understood.
Learning these skills can help build closer, more satisfying relationships and limit anger-inducing miscommunications.
Clarity is one of the most important parts of communication. Whether writing or speaking, keep it clear and to the point. Rambling without a purpose is fine when you're catching up with friends or brainstorming new ideas, but it is not effective or helpful in most instances.
Studies show that the longer a conversation is, the less information people retain from it. Avoid flowery words and try only to express the exact goal or meaning that you are trying to convey. If this is something you have trouble with, make notes on paper or in your phone before a conversation, so you know which points you need to hit.
Two of the biggest aspects of communication that people struggle with are thinking quickly and expressing themselves on the spot. The secret to beating this is simple: prepare ahead of time. Speech coaches sometimes recommend adopting a stand-up comedy mentality. Just as a comedian hones their jokes to a “tight five”—five minutes of their best jokes—build a small repertoire of reliable fallbacks for conversations.
In casual interactions, these could include interesting facts, relevant news, and personal interests. Then, talk to yourself! Imagine what questions a person might ask about them and how to respond when they do.
As mentally taxing as it may be, recording ourselves is the best way to see and hear our shortcomings. Record a video while giving a speech or practicing a conversation, and you'll quickly see where there could be improvements. Maybe posture is an issue, or lack of eye contact, or perhaps you need to work on enunciation.
Watching or listening to self-recordings is a powerful tool that many communications students utilize to dramatically improve their speaking abilities.
If you worry about your vocabulary falling short, remember this: often, the words we use are not as impactful as our body language or speech patterns. In fact, some researchers think that, at least for sighted individuals, nonverbal cues make up over 90% of communication. For instance, if a person is red in the face and throwing things around while saying, “I’m fine,” most people will quickly guess they are not fine.
Learning to recognize this and utilize it is integral to effective communication. In some ways, utilizing nonverbal communication is more important than being a skilled speaker because it allows us to express more information than our words could.
An extension of nonverbal communication, tone is one of the best ways to add power and context to words. However, the wrong tone can completely disrupt a conversation. Even something as simple as the word “okay” can feel negative or positive, depending on the tone.
Saying it with a smile and upward inflection results in the listener feeling more positive about the interaction, while grumbling expresses displeasure. Many people recognize this instinctively, but in written communication—which makes up more and more of our regular conversation—it can get tricky. It's much harder to express sarcasm or jokes in writing, so reread important communications before you send them to make sure the tone is correct. It can be helpful to have someone else read it and tell you how they interpret it.
Different methods of speech and topics are appropriate for different audiences. A close friend may view an insult as a joke, while a stranger or coworker takes it personally. Using jargon and work slang is fine when speaking with coworkers, but people outside the industry may not understand any of it.
Besides that, some words have different meanings across cultures. It can be difficult to know what might upset or confuse any given person. Keep these factors in mind when talking with others and if there is a miscommunication, simply apologize and explain the intended meaning.
Sarcasm is a great way to add some humor to a conversation, but it is extremely dependent on social and cultural contexts. People who are neurodivergent or have a different primary language find it extremely difficult to identify sarcasm in a conversation.
Plus, many people don't know how to use this "witty" form of speech appropriately. Avoiding sarcasm will help with clarity and intent in formal conversations or with people you don't know well.
Many people who lack confidence in their social skills worry about what other people think. This increases confusion between the parties and often leads to viewing benign interactions more negatively.
One of the best ways to have more confidence in a conversation is to assume positive intent. Believing that the other person in the conversation has only positive intentions makes it far easier to talk with them and clear up any miscommunications.
When speaking with someone, face them and practice active listening. This means maintaining an appropriate amount of eye contact and occasionally providing relevant responses. However, it also involves paying attention to certain social cues. If a conversational partner is pausing frequently or trailing off their sentences, they may be looking for someone else to carry the conversation or provide their input. On the other hand, active listening also means focusing on what the person is saying while they're saying it, not just thinking about what you'll be saying next.
Studies show that effective active listening leads to all participants feeling more positive about the interaction, while a lack of it resulted in greater feelings of anger and anxiety.
Whether presenting to a room full of people or just chatting with one other person, always try to keep your "audience" involved in the conversation. People tend to dislike being spoken at, preferring instead to be part of the interaction.
Ask questions, encourage others when they add their thoughts, or even throw out a hypothetical thought to see if anyone responds. If or when they do, see the previous tip (active listening)!
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