A few weeks ago, I met up with an acquaintance, B, for lunch. Throughout the lunch, I couldn't help but feel there was some sort of communication breakdown. He would cut me off even though I was still talking. He kept offering unwanted advice and opinions, even though I was not asking for help. It became quite frustrating just 15 minutes into the conversation. After 30 minutes, I stopped sharing and nodded away to everything he said.
After the meet-up, I reflected over the situation. It was clear that there were fundamental problems in the communication. For one, there was a lack of active listening on B's part. He didn't sense I wasn't asking for his opinions and kept pushing his way through even when I was shutting out. Unfortunately, he came across the wrong way even though he had his best intentions. On my end, I was too single-minded in my communication to receive B's well-intended advice. I was only looking for certain responses, and when he didn't respond in that manner, I began to tune out of the conversation.
It's easy for us to accuse others of being poor communicators, poor listeners or poor speakers, but the thing about communication is that it's not one-sided - it's 2-way. You can't accuse someone of being a poor communicator without you being a poor communicator yourself.
Through this experience, I learned 10 important keys of communication which I'd like to share with you here:
- Be receptive to what others say
While it's good to enter the communication with a clear objective of what you want, don't be so focused on it that you tune out on important messages the person is trying to communicate. Don't expect the answers to come in a certain manner and certain style. Have a focus and at the same time keep your mind open.
Even if the people come across as critical, learn to deal with critical people and be open to criticism. Many people are quick to shut out criticisms but in the process they lose out on a lot of valuable advice and feedback. Don't take criticisms personally. Look for the message in the criticisms instead. Ask yourself: "What made the person say this? What lessons can I take away from this? How does this relate to my situation?" With an open mind, you can have more answers to what you seek.
- Look out for the subtext
Subtext is the underlying message of the communication. It's more well-known as "reading between the lines". Many misunderstandings between people (especially between females and males) occur because they take each other too literally, vis-a-vis responding to the subtexts. To sieve out subtexts accurately, you have to listen actively to what's communicated and be observant. Watch out for hand gestures, body language, speed of voice and tonality of voice. The most important points of the communication are usually not openly articulated. Knowing how to read the subtext will take you a long way in building great relationships.
- Be positive
By being positive, it means to be generous with your emotions, such as love and kindness. Have you ever communicated with emotionally stingy people? These people are critical all the time. They keep harping on a small mistake and pinpointing every "issue" they can find. It feels suffocating and draining to be around them.
On the other hand, being an emotionally generous person makes you more endearing to be around. Focus more on the positive areas and not the negative ones. Show genuine care and concern for the person's well-being. Give praise where it's deserved. People will look forward to interacting with you because they feel happier and uplifted doing so.
- Respect the person
Any successful communication can only take place with mutual respect. If you don't respect the person first and foremost, it'll show itself during the conversation.
Acknowledge the person's background, expertise and capabilities. Acknowledge the person's position as the owner of his/her life. Even if it's a colleague you dislike, respect him/her for what he/she has done. How do you feel if the people who speak to you don't respect you? That's going to be how the other party feels. Not only that, you can't expect others to respect you if you don't first respect them, can you?
- Maintain eye contact
Looking at the speaker in the eye is a reassuring way of letting the person know you are there and listening. You don't have to be staring 100% of the time. Just maintain the gaze long enough whenever he/she looks over, and give a reaffirming nod every once in a while. You don't want him/her thinking you are zoning out when you are really listening.
- Don't interrupt the person (unless there is good reason)
Don't cut in unnecessarily. Even if the person is long-winded, at the very least give him/her a few chances to fully express himself/herself before jumping in. Sometimes, you may think you know what the person is going to say next, but you may actually be wrong. There have been times when the other party says something that's completely different from what I thought he/she would say.
I've been out with people who are extremely long-winded - they can literally go on-and-on for 30 minutes, talking and talking, without realizing the people around have switched off. When you face such people, let them finish talking for the first few times. If subsequent replies are as lengthy, then chances are the person is very fogged up in his/her thinking pattern. Help him/her zoom down to the answer through the right questions. (Tip #9)
- When in doubt, ask
It's easy to assume, but as the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME. Everyone you talk to is a whole new person, so don't think what applies to person X will automatically apply to person Y too. Erase all beliefs you formed of others and start off the communication on a whole new slate. When in doubt, ask for more details. Get all the facts before making any conclusion.
A good habit is to ask a clarifying question every time the person finishes talking so you know you got the right message. This goes a long way in a good conversation (and relationship).
- Mirror the person
Mirroring is the behavior in which one person copies another person usually while in social interaction with them. It may include miming gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, tempo, accent, attitude, choice of words/metaphors and other aspects of communication. (Wikipedia)
Mirroring is more of a strategy to facilitate communication, rather than the key to good communication. Avoid relying on it solely, and don't overdo it too. Trying to mirror someone 100% will only make you look like an empty shell. That being said, mirroring does help you to ease into the right "state" for communication. The next time you speak to someone, try to mirror the key body movements. If the person is sitting in a slouched position, slouch and match your eye at the same level. If the person is smiling, smile along with him/her. This will encourage him/her to open up more.
- To get the right answers, ask the right questions
Every conversation is made up of questions and answers. Being a better communicator requires you to know what are the right questions to ask, so you can forward the conversation the right way. The direction of the conversation and the type of answers you get is dependent on the quality of your questions.
There are several types of questions. The 1st is open questions. You ask these when you want the person to openly share about something. Example: "What happened?" or "How did the meeting go?". The 2nd is probing questions. These are pin-pointed to uncover more about a particular topic. For example: "What made you think this way?", "What are you unhappy about?" or "What did he do to you?". The 3rd is close-ended questions. You ask these to get a quick yes/no answer on areas you already have specific thoughts on. These help to advance the conversation quickly. Using a combination of these questions help you create the best communication experience.
- Connect with genuinity
Ultimately, it's all about genuine connection. As long as you are communicating with the best intentions, and a sincere desire to know the person better, nothing can go wrong. When I talk to others, I prefer to let my best intentions guide me, and leave other technicalities as secondary. I find that's the most effective way to reach out. For example, even though I've never studied NLP on a professional level, I found that many things I intuitively do in communication are in line with what is taught in NLP (such as mirroring, matching). In the end, let your heart lead the way and the rest will follow.