Be it in work or personal situations, the ability to communicate effectively can make the difference between a cooperative and enlightening conversation and a combative and anxiety-provoking argument. In the longer run, good communication can deepen and enrich a relationship which poor communication might otherwise damage or even end.
Some tips for better communication:
- Let go of blame. It’s okay for there to be a problem without finding a cause. What’s more effective, to point the finger when someone spills the milk, or to say, “Oh, the milk was spilt. Let’s clean it up?”
- Tolerate two different viewpoints. Keep in mind that nothing is absolutely black-and-white. It’s okay for you and your partner to feel differently about certain things. In fact, it’s realistic. Furthermore, it’s preferable. If you and your partner feel exactly the same about everything, it might be time for a reality check about the health and authenticity of your relationship. You are two separate people. Have you and/or your partner sacrificed your individuality for the sake of the relationship? According to relationship researcher and clinician Dr. John Gottman, disagreements are not necessarily a threat to a marital relationship. In fact, two thirds of disagreements are not resolvable, meaning that we learn to live with them and we make compromises. The problem is when we cease to communicate with our partner. We don’t need to agree about everything to be kind to one another and to have a fulfilling relationship. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to understand where they’re coming from.
- Focus on what you can control – yourself. Not the other person. “The irony is that most people are so caught up in trying to control the things they cannot control – other people, circumstances, or outcomes – that in the process they lose control of themselves.” (Dr. Henry Cloud) When we focus on attempting to fix other people or situations beyond the realm of our influence, we waste valuable energy that could otherwise be used to manage our attitudes, words, and actions.
- Avoid unnecessary conflict. Just because someone picks a fight with you doesn’t mean that you have to accept the invitation. If you sense an adversarial tone in someone, you can take a few deep breaths, ask yourself whether it’s worth it to engage in discussion about the matter, and if so, how you can do so in a calm and respectful manner, no matter how the other person is behaving. Remember that your only responsibility is your own conduct. What response on your part will allow you to live at peace with yourself? Sometimes it’s best just to ignore the provocation and go about your business.
- Practice the Golden Rule. Treat the other person as you would like to be treated. Rest assured that your attitude will make an impression. Maybe the person with whom you’re in conflict may feel more understood by you and their anger or fear may abate, even if you don’t see it in the moment. Maybe they’ll go home to their family and be more patient and tolerant, in ways you may never see. Maybe they’ll tell you one, two, or five years down the line that your words or demeanor made a difference to them. I certainly recall things people told me decades ago that still resonate with me and influence my behavior, even if I may never be able to tell them that this is the case.
- Remember that actions are often just as important as words. Saying we’re sorry about something but continuing to commit the offense again and again negates the apology. Making amends meaning that we intend to amend or change our behavior in the future. While we may fall short of our chosen ideal from time to time, if we sincerely wish and strive to do better, we will eventually do so on a consistent basis.
- Ask if it’s okay to talk about something, rather than demanding that the two of you do so. Such a gentle approach will go a long way in reducing defensiveness. Consider the difference between saying, “We need to talk” and asking, “Would it be possible for us to discuss something?” If you were the one being spoken to, which approach would be more appealing to you?
- Avoid sarcasm. While sarcasm may be one of your go-tos, realize that it can make you seem defensive or petty. Sarcasm can also indicate disrespect for the other person.
- Clearly communicate your wants and needs. Recognize others are not mind readers. Nor are you. Do not assume.
- Ask “What do you need from me right now?” After patiently hearing the other person out and using our best listening skills, sometimes it’s still not clear to us what the other person’s request is. Do they need to vent? Help with a specific task? Validation? Sympathy?
- Be your imperfectly perfect self. It’s okay to be wrong about something. If you show a willingness to learn from the conversation, rather than being rigidly stuck in your own viewpoint, this will likely be appealing to your conversation partner. You will come across as being honest and flexible. Think about it. How much do you trust someone who can never admit that they were wrong? Such people seem (and generally are) more invested in being right than in being in touch with reality. Such a close-minded attitude is often indicative of self-delusion. Let go of your pride and ego. Ask for feedback.
- Slow down. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Count to 10. If you feel too agitated to think clearly, take a break from the situation so you can calm down. However, don’t use this technique as an excuse to run from conflict. Do set a specific time with the other person as to when you’ll return to the conversation.
- Don’t talk over the other person. When two people are talking at the same time, the chances of either of you really hearing what the other person is saying decrease greatly. In fact, you can even allow a few (or more) seconds of silence before responding to the other person, once they’ve finished speaking. Doing so can indicate that you’re giving some thought to what they’ve said. However, if the other person isn’t giving you a chance to speak, you may need to jump in with, “May I respond?”, “May I say something?”, or words to this effect.
- Have open body language. Uncross your arms, face the other person, and look at them. Try not to engage in nervous habits such as twirling your hair, shaking your foot, or picking at your fingernails.
- Be curious. Ask open-ended questions. Allow your conversation partner to teach you. Be open to learning new information. “Listen first to understand, then to be understood.” (Dr. Stephen R. Covey) Address the other partner’s concerns. Acknowledge their feelings and empathize with their point of view. Repeat or paraphrase their concerns back to them, to make sure you understand. Even if your initial perceptions were a little off, the other person is likely to appreciate your attempt to understand. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
- Find common ground. Chances are that the two of you are not in disagreement about absolutely everything. When you acknowledge ways in which you agree, you will decrease the level of defensiveness in both the other person and yourself.
- Boost your conversation partner’s self-esteem. Act as if this person is the most important person in the world at this moment. Give them the gift of your full attention. Find the kernel of truth in what they’re saying and indicate that you understand why they might feel that way. This is a lot more effective than labeling the other person as stupid or wrong for having a particular perspective or feeling.
- Maintain your personal values despite what others want or think. Remember that you can’t please everyone, even some of the time, much less all of the time. Treat yourself with respect and dignity. You are entitled to your perspective and feelings.
- At the same time, be willing to change, if to do so would improve your relationship with the other person and enable a good solution to the problem at hand, while remaining true to yourself.
- Consider whether you are personally taking action to meet your own needs, so you are not asking something of the other person which is actually your responsibility.
- Accept when someone says no to your request, without trying to force, intimidate, or continuing to demand your way. Receiving a “no” does not necessarily mean that you were wrong to ask for what you did, but that the other person’s wishes also need to be considered.
- Be tactful. Remember that not all your thoughts need to be expressed. To quote Isaac Newton, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Try using the THINK test: Is your thought True, Helpful, Intelligent, Necessary, and Kind? If not, think twice before verbalizing it.
The next time a conflict emerges in your relationship (and it will), look at it as a problem to be solved, instead of a contest to be won. Your conversation partner need not be considered your enemy just because they feel differently than you about an issue. Instead, try to imagine that there are really three entities here – you, the other person, and the problem. In this scenario, problems are an opportunity for you and your conversation partner to actually be on the same team, working together to creatively deal with the matter at hand.