Communication- the act of conveying and receiving information- is the building block of relationships. Used openly and authentically it can help us to understand each other and connect at a deep level. Used in a defensive, hostile or closed off way, it can cause a great deal of suffering.
We are always communicating. We communicate with our words, but far more than that, we communicate with our body language, our facial expressions, the tone, volume and speed at which we talk. In fact, psychologists believe that up to 70% of our communication is non- verbal. So in other words, (no pun intended!) it’s not so much what you say that is important, but how you say it.
How we communicate is revealing information about ourselves. For example, if we say “ I’m not angry” but our tone of voice sounds angry, then which will people believe, our words or our tone?
This is even more true when we are talking to children. Long before children master language, they are communicating with us. From very early infancy they can read our non-verbal expressions, and can use this information to gauge whether we are there for them to take care of their needs. Even as their use of language develops, non-verbal communication is the primary way in which children read the cues of their family members.
So how can you improve your communication skills, and by doing so build stronger relationships?
Step One- Communicating with Self
When we communicate with others we are always revealing our own relationship with ourselves. So I invite you now to take a look at your own inner relationship. How do you communicate with yourself? Have you internalised the messages you received from others, or messages that you told yourself when you were young? Maybe you have adopted an unconscious belief that you are not good enough and nobody will want to listen to you, or maybe your inner defence mechanism has created a story that you are better than others. Maybe you feel the need to be in control all the time. Maybe you find it hard to listen, and want to talk over others. All of these scenarios have been cleverly created by your unconscious in an effort to protect yourself, and they reflect your inner relationship with yourself. So in order to change your communication style, you first need to reflect and understand yourself, and find out what defensive patterns you use.
Psychologist Carl Rogers said “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change” (1). So try to look at yourself without judgement. You might start to see where your communication style has come from and what purpose it has served. Look at your non-verbal communication too. How do you hold yourself? Are you hunched up in an attempt to make yourself small? Are you tense and rigid, as if wearing protective armour? How do you dress? Do you wear clothes which make you blend in to the background? Or do you want to draw lots of attention to yourself? Can you look at yourself now and love yourself, warts and all? Or do you need some help and support to reach that level of self acceptance? It can be very helpful to start to reflect on your relationship with yourself. It may be helpful to find someone you trust to support you with this, or perhaps you could keep a journal to reflect on your inner thoughts and feelings. Learning to be more loving towards yourself is not a selfish act. Quite the opposite, in fact, because when you learn to be more comfortable in your own skin you naturally become easier to be around and more open to being kind, patient and understanding to the people around you.
Step Two – Listen!
To really listen to another, without judging, assuming or interrupting, is quite a rare art. Most people are only half listening to the other while also listening to their own internal dialogue, waiting for their turn to talk, or thinking of what they want to say. It can take practice, but when your goal of listening is to understand and connect with the other person then a whole deeper relationship can evolve. Try to become aware of how you listen to others. If you find yourself wanting to cut in or thinking about what you want to say, try to breathe and relax and bring your attention back to the speaker.
To convey to the other person that you are hearing them it is very helpful to use what is called ‘active listening’. Active listening means listening well with the aim of understanding another, and reflecting back to the person the message that you hear and understand them. Here’s how it is done:
Make eye contact. (put down your phone!) Get down to their eye level and face your whole body towards them.
Give the person time to speak. Don’t be in a hurry to jump in with an answer. This can take a lot of practice for some people! Sometimes when you hold back and give the person more time to speak, they can be drawn out to say more.
Nod, or give little prompts such as “uh hu”, “umm”, “I see” “oh”… or similar phrases, that let the speaker know you are paying attention.
When there is a pause, repeat back or paraphrase what they have said. For example, “ your disappointed because you didn’t get invited to the birthday party” or “so what you’re saying is that you got really mad at your brother because he took your toy” This lets the speaker know that you hear them and are trying to understand how they feel.
Name their feelings. If you are not sure, guess, and give them the opportunity to correct you. For example, “You are very happy to be chosen for the part in the play, but you seem a little nervous as well”
Ask for more information. For example, “Can you tell me what happened next?” How did you feel when the teacher shouted at the class?”
Keep the focus on the speaker. Many people make the mistake of turning the focus back to themselves. For example, “Well I think you should….” “When I was your age I….” “you think you have had a bad day? You should hear about mine”
Step Three: Speak Personally
The way that we talk to people can have a huge impact on our relationship with them. Do you find yourself talking to people or at people instead of talking with them?
Let me explain-
‘Talking to‘ means lecturing, giving your opinions, telling people what to do or what they should do, or giving unwanted advice. These are very common forms of communication, and are well meant, but they can make the listener feel dis-empowered. Nobody likes to be preached at.
‘Talking at‘ means nagging, criticising, blaming, shouting or communicating in ways that are hostile or disrespectful. No parent deliberately chooses this way of communicating, and if you recognise yourself in this category it is a sign that you are disconnected from your self and need some help and support to learn to be gentle with yourself and others.
‘Talking with‘ Means talking and listening, in the attempt to understand and be understood. In this style of communicating, the speaker talks personally, and gives the other person room to reply and voice their opinion, even if it differs from the speaker. Together, a solution can be sought.
Using ‘I’ messages
When you learn to speak personally you are far more likely to get a favourable response. For example, If you are talking at the person using a ‘you’ message, such as “You always leave your towel on the bathroom floor.”, the person will immediately feel attacked, and be on the defence. They will be far more likely to be thinking to themselves, ‘She’s such a nag!’ rather than, ‘oh, I shouldn’t have done that, I will remember next time’.
If you say something like, “This morning I found your towel on the bathroom floor. I feel frustrated when you forget to hang it up. Next time can you please hang up your towel after your shower.” (keep your tone of voice calm and respectful. If you are not feeling calm, take some deep breaths and wait until you are before you approach the person)
Here are some more examples of ‘I’ messages:
“I feel worried when ….” “I felt angry because…” “I liked it when you helped your brother” “ I don’t like it when….” I am feeling frustrated because…” “ I am too angry to talk just now. I am going to go to another room for a few minutes to calm down and then we can talk about it”
Changing your communication style may feel awkward or strange at the beginning, but with a bit of practice, using these techniques can become second nature to you, and you will see a big improvement in your relationships. Learning to communicate well can be challenging for some, because old patterns run deep, and unconscious defences and insecurities can lead to ineffective communication. For more help in this area, I run a workshop on communication skills, where you can get the chance to explore your communication style, discover any blocks you may have to effective communication, learn how to use your body language, and get support as you practise communicating more effectively. To find out more about upcoming workshops in your area you can contact me on 086 8072322, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Carl Rogers” BrainyQuotes.com Xplore Inc,
2015. 30 October 2015