How to *Actually* Communicate

Orange telephone on a table

As much as we talk, sometimes we’re pretty bad at actually communicating. As social beings, though, our well-being depends upon effective communication. In fact, studies show good communication not only helps us meet our basic needs for food and shelter, but it’s key to establishing trusting relationships and achieving higher personal goals such as self-fulfillment.

Communication may be a vital part of our day-to-day interactions, but that doesn’t mean we automatically know how to do it effectively. In fact, in my practice, I find one of the biggest sources of relationship distress centers on communication. So how should you actually communicate?

Learn to Get Your Point Across Clearly

Several factors affect how well others understand what you mean. Even more important, these factors determine if others take you seriously — whether they feel a need to act on what you’ve shared. Before you sit down with someone for that tense heart-to-heart, consider the following:

What do you hope to gain?

Do you need help changing your behavior? Do you want the other person to change theirs? Are you stressed and needing relief? Support? A sense of connection? Giving some thought to what you hope to achieve can help you focus the conversation.

What do they hope to gain?

Again, it can be helpful to ask the other person what they want to accomplish. Are you and your partner trying to decide how to spend an extra $100, or are you looking to reconnect after a stressful time? Are you trying to decide whether to have a kid, or just how to discipline the ones you have? Identify general goals. Keep in mind what’s realistic for one discussion; this avoids disappointment or resentment and encourages continued communication after the first talk.

When can you talk again?

If the goals are lofty, plan now and schedule more than one conversation. This reduces the pressure to solve everything at one, and encourages a collaborative partnership.

How do you come across?

As cliché as it sounds, “I statements” are still effective. Rather than being accusatory or judgy with “you statements,” focus only on your own thoughts and feelings, and own them. For example, don’t say, “you make me feel guilty for taking time to myself.” Instead say, “I feel guilty when I take time to myself, so I need your help.” In addition, mind your non-verbal cues — avoid eye rolling, sighing, and scowling.

Hear the Other Person, Not Just Listen

We often forget that listening is just as important as talking. In fact, how you listen says a lot about how you communicate, so doing it well is a great skill to have. In fact, therapists have several strategies to help them listen to clients effectively. You can take a couple of pointers from these.

Embrace silence

Sometimes the best communication happens when we listen, not when we talk. You don’t want to give a cold shoulder or seem dismissive, but you need to give the other person space to talk so the conversation moves forward. If you’re uncomfortable being silent, try explaining yourself, perhaps saying, “I’m listening, but I’m being quiet to give you time to speak.

Listen, don’t plan

We often start thinking about our own responses to the person’s words — before they’re even done saying them. It takes practice to stop this behavior, but it’s crucial to hear what’s being said without thinking about your response. Hear their words, then take a moment to register your reaction. To avoid seeming detached, you can tell the other person you’re thinking so you can respond thoughtfully.

How Therapy Can Help You Communicate

You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness or have any specific stressor to seek a therapist’s help for communication skills. If you frequently feel frustrated or dissatisfied with your interactions with other people, you might need some help understanding your communication patterns and how to improve them. Here are a few ways therapy can help with communication. Therapy can help:

Teach insights about your needs so you know exactly what you’re trying to communicate.

Teach you about your communication patterns by being a neutral person who can observe and interact with you, then give you feedback about your habits. A therapist can be honest about changes that might help, whereas people you know might not feel comfortable giving you that feedback.

Teach new ways to communicate so you can be more effective and get along better with others.

Give immediate feedback on your approach so there’s not so much guess work. Instead of wondering after the fact if you said the wrong thing, you’ll have in-the-moment direction to help you practice the changes you’re making.

Effective communication is a dynamic process — that is dependent on other people, their communication style, and their responses — so it’s impossible to boil it down to just a few strategies. Still, by using these techniques, and possibly even getting some help from a therapist, you can improve your interactions with other people and, ultimately, have more rewarding relationships.

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