Understanding Communication Skills in Mastering Conversations
It is an important starting point to broadly define communication as a function in which human beings convey thoughts, emotions, or meaning to other human beings. Communication is fundamental in how human beings relate to others socially, as well as vital in creating and maintaining societal and cultural structures. Communication is a complex phenomena that includes multiple skills, which work together to allow human beings to pass along and interpret information and messages to others. The following article will provide an overview of the most salient communication skills and how they operate to enhance the way a person conveys meaning. It is important to note that each of the following communication skills are not used in isolation, but are like instruments in a larger orchestra. Each skills often involves the use of other skills.
Active listening can be overlooked when considering communication skills, since communication is often most aligned with providing information or conveying messages to others. However, communication is a two way practice, with listening being vital for understanding. Active listening is different than simple passive listening because it is defined by the focus of attention on the information the other person is producing. The goal of active listening is that all the information conveyed is absorbed by the listener, understood, and can be reproduced at a later point to confirm understanding. A key factor in practicing active listening is to concentrate on the details of what the other person is communicating to you with the goal of taking in those details, as opposed to preparing what you want to say next.
In order to relate to others, whether personally or professionally, it is important to be able to put yourself into their shoes. Empathy is a skill of feeling what another person is feeling as they share an experience, and using the skill of empathy to express understanding and care for another person. Empathy is key in developing relational rapport in the professional world. As a person uses the skill of empathy to relate to another person, trust begins to form, which lays a foundation for future clear, honest, and functional communication. Empathy, while a skill in itself, also involves the use of both verbal and non-verbal communication skills in order to convey a genuine desire to understand the experience of another person. Additionally, empathy also uses other skills of asking questions and providing validating statements in order to demonstrate to the other person that his or her feelings and experiences matter to you. Key strategies for developing strong empathy skills involve conveying genuine care for the other person, asking questions in order to gain understanding of the person's experience, and providing validating statements when another person's expresses a certain feeling or emotion.
Non-verbal communication encompasses a great deal of communication skills including but not limited to facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, forms of body movement, posture, and quality of a person's voice. In fact, non-verbal communication makes up the majority of the way human beings pass information between one another. Human beings are often unconscious of how much they use non-verbal communication to convey information, as well as pick up on other's non-verbal communications. A simple shift of the eyes or use of hand gestures can be interpreted by others as conveying certain emotions or information. Another key factor in non-verbal communication is how much the non-verbal cues align with the verbal language the person is using to express feeling or share information. Some individuals may verbally express certain words, but their non-verbal cues do not seem to fit with what is being verbally said. As a result, others may perceive that person to be unpredictable or difficult to relate to. On the other hand, a person whose verbal words align with the non-verbal cues can seem more approachable and trustworthy. Some ways to develop awareness into your non-verbal communication cues involves the use of mindfulness strategies. Attending to you shift in eyes within different situations, taking notice of your gestures when you are feeling different emotions, or focusing on where you sit in a room; who are you naturally drawn to sit next to, where in the room do you sit? Putting in effort to gain awareness into the role of non-verbal communication cues in your personal and professional life can help in better aligning those non-verbal cues with the verbal language you use to communicate. This can then enhance your relatedness and approachability.
Skills involved in mediating areas of disagreement or conflict can be vital in both a personal and professional arena. Conflict resolution involves the use of compromise and openness. In order to reach an agreement with others, a person must be willing to be flexible and also open minded to other perspective. The sub-skill of remaining open minded can be practiced through the use of active listening and empathy. As a person develops upon his or her active listening and empathy skills, he or she broadens his or her perspective and builds the capacity to be patient and open to others. This practice is vital in conflict resolution. The key is to make the other person feel heard and respected, otherwise, that person has little reason to reciprocate such listening and respect for your own ideas.
Another key aspect of conflict resolution is anger management. When there is a disagreement in the home or workplace, it can be easy to let emotions such as anger take over our ability to be rational. Breathing exercises are very helpful to a person who may be more easily triggered with anger. If you feel you are practicing empathy and listening, yet the other person is being unreasonable, deep breathing will allow you to regain your logical thinking. When reaching a level of conflict that feels as though the other person cannot reach an agreement, reassessing what the goal of your communication with this person can be helpful, such as, "Let's each take a minute and think about what our mutual goal here is?" Mutual goals can help keep each party grounded in the purpose of your discussion and also perhaps allow flexibility on both ends to compromise.
Knowing When to Lead and When to Follow
This communication skill follows closely to conflict resolution because it is a skill in which you are working to read the other person. The essential component of this skill is to understand when you should take charge in a conversation or let the other person lead. This is a very complex skill to acquire and requires continued growth in one's own self awareness as to one's strengths and weakness. Professionally, if you know that you may not be as well versed on a topic compared to a colleague, using the skill of active listening and focused questioning can demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow. Alternatively, if you have confidence in a certain topic because of your education or extensive experience in that area, it is fitting to take the lead on providing information to others. However, an important question to ask yourself before you endow another person with the knowledge or information you have, or as you begin to drive a conversation is, "What is my goal for telling this information?" Depending on the context, your goal may be to impress your boss, in which case finding a window to direct the conversation to demonstrate your strengths is appropriate. In other contexts, your goal may be to teach others what you know, in which case it is important to avoid the desire to portray your strengths, and instead focus on the objective of teaching the others what needs to be learned. Overall, knowing the context and the goals of the needed conversations is the foundation to knowing whether to lead or follow.
Perceiving in the Present
Every human being perceives situations. Perception involves the use of the senses, along with non-verbal cues and the prior knowledge of a person or situation. A person perceived him or herself in a certain light depending on his or her past experiences with other people. Additionally, a person perceives others based off past experiences with other people. As a result, people will develop schemas that can lead a person to predict what will happen if x, y, or z are present in a certain situation. Developing such schema's is adaptive for human beings because it allows each person to feel some level of control as they move through life. On the other hand, schemas can restrict the perception of people because a person may have "tunnel vision" within certain situations or around certain people. This "tunnel vision" means the person already has formed beliefs or opinions about a situation or a person without being present to truly perceive what is going on in that unique context. As a result of this tunnel vision, the person's perceptions can be skewed. For example, a person may have experienced in the past a person who is very talkative and loud to be "negative." The person formed a schema about talkative and loud people, so that now when they encounter someone with a loud toned voice or that talks at a rapid pace, they feel anxious and form negative perceptions of that person. When in reality, they have not taken the time to use skills of empathy, questioning, and active listening to really get to know that person.
While past experiences can be important for our own ability to predict situations, when communicating with individuals it is important to try and be present with that person. Gaining all the facts and information about that person, as an individual, as opposed to letting assumptions form your perceptions of that person. The skill of being present is key to reading and sensing who the other person is. While additionally, the skill of perception can allow you to avoid becoming unfairly defensive toward a person who may remind you of a past negative experience, but in reality had no involvement with that moment. Avoiding assumptions is a sub-skill of perceiving in the present, as it allows you to remain open and also be able to connect with the immediate conversation.
Use of Language
While we discussed that non-verbal cues actually make up the majority of communication, this should not take away from the power of word choice. Being able to select the words you use in a conversation intentionally and thoughtfully can pave the way for ease of communication and understanding between parties involved. The use of language skill relates closely to many other communication skills discussed here. Active listening is key in selecting the words you will use to convey your own understanding of the other person. Also connected to active listening is the skill of perceiving in the present and avoiding assumptions. As you actively listening to the words used by the other person, it is important to not assume you know the definition as it relates to that person. So a key skill is to ask the person, "What do you mean by "X"?" Here you demonstrate to the other person you are actively listening by using his or her word choice. You also demonstrate an avoidance of assuming you know what that person means and therefore are not being clouded by past experiences, but rather perceiving in the present during that conversation.
Use of language involves your own taking in of the other person's specific word choice, which will then influence the words you choose to try and convey a message or give information to another person. Redundancy of words can lead to confusion on the part of the person you are communicating with. Pay close attention to the words you are using; if you notice you use the same words over and over, yet the other person still does not seem to understand what you mean, it may helpful to try and select different words. However, if over the course of the conversation you still find yourself being redundant and the other person finds you unclear, it may be an indicator you also are confused about what you are trying to convey. This may mean you may benefit from stepping away from the conversation and doing some reflection on your own end as to what message you are trying to communicate. Once you feel more sure of the meaning, you may then be able to use more concise and specific language to convey your message or give your information. At the end of your conversation, a helpful strategy for ensuring understanding is to avoid questions like, "Any questions?" or "Do you understand?" Asking for any questions is too broad and many people will often not speak up to this, while asking if the person understands is prompting for a yes or a no. Instead try, "Can you repeat to me the information I just gave you?" In a professional space, this question is appropriate because it is also not simply for you to check up on the other person's listening, but also to gauge how well you gave the information.
Making a point on culture is important when considering communication skills. Gaining awareness of other culture's styles of communication is an important skill to acquire, and one that feeds into all the other skills discussed here. Especially in regard to perception and assumptions, working to ask questions about another person's culture can help to broaden your own perspectives. For example, a person may not make eye contact and you may have past experiences that lead you to form a perception of that person as timid and lacking confidence. However, being able to take a step back to get to know that person's culture, not only establishes rapport through empathy and active listening, but also allows you to avoid wrong assumptions. It may be that that person is from a culture that views direct eye contact as disrespectful, so in fact his or her lack of eye contact is his or her attempt to demonstrate respect.