As humans, we communicate with others all of the time. We communicate verbally and non-verbally. Some people are effective communicators and seem to get what they want out of conversations with others, and some are not so effective and are often met with rejection and anger.
If you are looking for some ways to improve your effectiveness in communication there are some things that you should know and practice. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has an entire section on how to communicate with others, called interpersonal effectiveness skills. We will walk through the skills to learn for both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Aspects of Verbal Communication
Volume is how loud or how quiet someone is speaking. When someone is loud in their communication, it is more often than not interpreted as aggressive communication. Likewise, a soft, or quiet volume is interpreted as weak. An effective volume is somewhere in the middle, loud enough to be heard in a quiet environment but not so loud that you can be heard over a group of people talking.
If you are trying to grab someone’s attention, maybe use a signal instead of yelling. When you are speaking with a soft but assertive volume, people are much more likely to listen to what you have to say, rather than just hear what you are saying.
Tone of voice is the way you speak to someone that conveys to the other person your emotion. When communicating with others, people are more likely to listen and pay more attention to the tone of your voice for the meaning of a sentence rather than the actual words.
For example, if someone says I’m fine in an angry tone, it is very clear to the listener that that person is not fine. People have a natural tone that they might not even realize, and can be misinterpreted by the listener if the speaker is not aware of it.
Diction is the actual words that you choose to use. When having a productive conversation with someone, it is important that you do not place blame, and the other person does not feel like they need to defend themselves.
One way to avoid this is by using “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. For example, instead of saying you hurt my feelings when you called me a name, you could say; I feel hurt and disrespected when I get called names. “I” statements have you take the responsibly for your feelings, while “you” statements lead to people feeling blamed.
Another way to avoid a road block is to use “how” instead of “why” statements. “Why” statements force the other person to give you an explanation without trying to search for a path forward. “How” statements allow you and the other person to move into a more problem-solving conversation.
For example, if your teen did something that you did not approve of, instead of saying, “why did you get an F on your exam?”, you could say, “How can you prevent this from happening again?”
Unhealthy verbal communication
Criticizing is when you make a negative evaluation of the person, their actions or attitudes. When you criticize someone in a conversation, you are putting the person down and not allowing them to express themselves freely. “You can’t blame anyone but yourself – you created this mess.”
Name calling is when you label the negative qualities of the person. This shuts the person down or puts them on the defensive and creates an argument. “Why did you do that? You are an idiot!”
When you are trying to analyze what the other person is attempting to do with their behaviors. Examples of this are, “I know what you are doing, you are trying to manipulate me.” Or, “just because you took that class you think you are better than me.”
Praising is a really powerful tool in communication and can be used in a healthy and unhealthy way. Using praise before the behavior happens is a form of manipulation. For example, “You are such a great husband, I know you will make me dinner tonight.”
Ordering someone to do something for you is not a healthy way to get someone to do what you want them to do. It places you above the other person and creates an imbalance in the relationship. An example of ordering would be, “Clean the kitchen right now! Don’t give me any back talk, do it because I said so.”
Threatening is when you attempt to gain control of other people’s actions by giving them a negative consequence. This does not provide an opportunity for the person to know the behavior that you would like to see and does not give them an opportunity to correct it themselves. This can also turn into a power struggle since people cannot control other’s actions. An example of this is, “You will do this or else…” or, “turn off the radio or I will take it for a month.”
Moralizing is telling the other person what they should or shouldn’t do because it is wrong, rather than helping them talk through the situation and finding what is best for them. An example of this would be, “you shouldn’t get a divorce, think about how hard it is going to be on your children.”
Excessive questioning can often create a barrier between you and the person that you are attempting to communicate with. These questions are also close-ended and not allowing the person to express their opinions on the topic. An example of this is, “Are you sorry you did that?” “Did you think it was okay to do that?”
Giving advice to someone who is asking for your advice is not unhealthy, it is when they do not want your advice that can lead to a roadblock in communication. When a person comes to you just to be heard, and then you give them advice rather than just listening, it can discourage that person from opening up to you.
When you divert someone, you are distracting them away from their problems, rather than being there for them when they need to work through their problems. People tend to do this when they feel uncomfortable with other people’s negative emotions. An example of this would be, “let’s talk about something happy, you don’t want to dwell on this.”
Logical arguments are based in fact and reason, but they do not consider the other person’s emotions in the conversation. This can be seen as harsh and insensitive and tend to push people away. There are times and places for logical arguments such as when you are setting a budget. Other times, it is more important to attend to the other person’s emotions than it is to point out the facts. An example of how logical arguments could be harmful is when it is a fact that cannot be changed. “If you didn’t get that new car, we could have paid for rent this month.”
“Reassuring?” Why would reassuring be something that would be unhealthy for communication? It is unhealthy because it stops the person for being able to feel the emotion that is natural to feel. This can lead to bottling emotions up or not knowing how to deal with emotions when they happen. Ex: “There is nothing to be afraid of, I will protect you.”
When catastrophizing, one implies that there is no way that there can be a positive that comes out of the present situation. This creates hopelessness and a loss of drive in the other person. Ex: “You got another F? you are never going to be able to graduate.”
When the word “but” comes up in a conversation it usually means that there is a disagreement. It is okay to disagree on something, and making sure the other person feels respected is the key to a productive argument. When you use the word “but” it discounts everything that you said before the “but.” “okay, I can see where you are coming from, but I think you are wrong.” This really says to the person, I’m not trying to hear what you are saying, I just know that I am right.
Asking questions to which you know the answer:
This is setting a trap and letting someone walk into it, waiting and hoping to catch them in the act. This encourages the other person to lie so that they do not “get in trouble with you.” For example, when you know your child got in a fight at school and you ask them how their day at school was. A healthy way to approach this would be, “I got a call from your principal today telling me you got into a fight, what happened?”
Active listening is also referred to as reflective listening. This is the act of listening to someone while they are talking, without interrupting them, and then summarizing what that person said back to them when they are done talking. This is done for a couple of reasons. The first reason is to let the other person know that you actually heard what they were saying. Second, we can check in with the other person to assess for understanding. Third, this gives the other person a change to correct what they said, to what they meant to say because you react.
Validating is letting the person know that they are worthy of having the emotions that they are feeling. Validating someone can be as easy as saying “I am here for you, and I support you.” Validating can also just be listening to someone without trying to give advice or trying to make it better. “I am here for you if you ever need someone to listen, I know you are going through a rough time right now.”
Writing a letter:
Writing a letter is a great option when communicating in person is proving to be difficulty in conveying the message that you want to convey. Writing a letter allows you to slow down, get all of your thought and emotions out, and make revisions. Being able to communicate about topics that you are passionate about without letting your emotions get in the way is difficult, and writing a letter allows you to express these emotions and thoughts in a productive manner.
The way that you are standing or sitting communicates a lot to the other person in the conversation. Your posture can tell the other person if you are interested or not, have confidence or not and even sometimes your emotions. Being aware of what your posture is like can help with effective communication.
When talking about positioning, this is talking about where you are in relation to the other person. This can be you standing while the other is sitting or sitting across from the person rather than sitting right next to them. Standing over someone or being close to someone’s face can be interpreted as being aggressive even if it was not the intention.
Watch out for gestures, such as hand movements and eye movements. Eye movements can mean the difference between saying something with sincerity and saying something sarcastically.
When talking with people, eye contact is very important in letting people know that you are listening to them and that all of your attention is on them. Continued eye contact can be uncomfortable for some people, so looking at someone’s nose, forehead or ears will still appear like you are attending to the speaker, without making you feel uncomfortable.
Communication Across Cultures
Different cultures have different rules in their communication. Something that is seen as a gesture of good will, might be a curse work in another culture. Some cultures see eye contact and speaking up as rude and being aggressive. Some cultures use a loud volume and use their hands a lot when they are having a calm and controlled conversation. In some cultures, it is even forbidden for men and women to be seen speaking to each other. If you are speaking to someone from a different culture than you, it is important to ask them about these cultural differences so that you both can be on the same page in communication.
Christian Counseling for Better Communication
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“Telephone” Courtesy of Delwin Steven Campbell, Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0 License; “Talking”, Courtesy of Maya Aleshkevich, Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0 License; “Catfight”, Courtesy of Found Animals Foundation, Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0 License; “Talking Couple”, Courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simoes, Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0 License