So you want to be a better communicator! What does that even mean?
Part I – How to Begin
Well, let’s start with your motivation. Why do you want to be a better communicator?
A few of the reasons that folks have reached out to me in the past include:
- You want to have an easier time explaining what’s going on in your mind.
- You’re unhappy with a current situation, and need to take steps to change it.
- You’d like to have an easier time reaching agreements or compromises with other people.
- You frequently fight with your friends or partners, and want to try to change that.
- You want to work better within a group.
- You (and a partner) have a life change coming up, and you’d like it to go smoothly.
There are plenty more reasons why someone would like to get better at communicating – any motivation is valid.
So, what are some kinds of communication?
There are three main types of communication: verbal, written, and non-verbal. Each of these can look several ways, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to use one, two, or all three kinds of communication when you’re interacting with other people.
How can you get better at communicating?
I’m going to list a number of steps that you can take. You can take all of them, or only the ones that really appeal. I’d advise moving through them from higher in the list to farther down, as all of the skills build on each other, but not everyone is beginning in the same place. You might be great at vocalizing needs, but less great at introspection. Or you might have a lot of opinions, but don’t feel secure enough to share them. Read over this list, and think of it as a skill chat – you can check off the ones you’re already good at, and practice the ones that need work.
A great way to start becoming a better communicator is to know yourself better, You can’t say what you don’t know, after all.
Try journaling, either when you’re trying to figure out what to do in a tough situation, or every day for about 10 minutes. You can write a stream of consciousness, you can try to organize your thoughts on paper, you can write pro/con lists, you can write a letter to a real or imaginary person. It’s a good way to train your mind to turn your feelings into words. Are you having weird, nameless emotions? Write down all of the things it might be – naming something is powerful! Probably, by literally putting pen to paper, or cursor into textbox, you’ll learn more about yourself. Make verbalizing your emotions a habit by journaling frequently.
Processing out loud
For some people, writing doesn’t activate the parts of their brain where the real gritty processing goes on. Are you the sort of person that figures out how you’re feeling by talking it out with a pal? Time to take advantage of that, and process out loud! The down side to being a person who processes out loud, is that means you often figure out how you’re actually feeling when you’re halfway through a conversation or argument with a partner or friend. That means that most of the emotional energy that you’re expending in that interaction is spent on a revelation, and not on solution finding. So you need to learn how to do that on your own.
Take a stuffed animal, a poster, a can of black beans, whatever. And talk to it. I am not even joking,. You’re going to feel like a goofus, but you need to have a real conversation with that can of black beans. Speak out loud, maybe even fill in the bean’s responses, as if it were your partner. Ask it probing questions, or have it ask you probing questions. No one else is actually around, so you can answer those questions without needing to be embarrassed about what another person would hear from you. But saying it out loud will activate the parts of your brain that physical writing might not do, allowing you to find out more about your emotions or thoughts.
Writing longer text messages
Most of us are probably millennials, and communicate by text. I think that’s great, but I’m also aware of the limits of textual communication, when it comes to brevity and tone.
“Hey do you want to go out tonight”
That “nah” could mean a lot of things. Maybe it means “I’d like to see you, but I don’t have spare cash. Can we do something free?” or it means “I’m not feeling great and want to stay in – want to come over instead?” or “boy, I am sick of you texting me, leave me alone.” While the short answer means you don’t have to necessarily start a longer conversation, it also means that all of your motivation for declining (or saying whatever it is that you want to say) stays hidden. Consider expanding on your short text messages, to give the receiver more information. Think about how you’d respond if someone spoke to you face-to-face, and write that into your text message.
Start with specific people
You don’t suddenly have to become the world’s best communicator with every single person in your life. Being extra-communicative can be a lot of work – start small! Pick one or two people that you’re motivated to be clear with, and try to use your words more carefully with those people specifically. Solicit feedback from those people – when you have a conversation or argument, ask them “how could that have gone better? What did you like about it?” Relatedly…
Tailor your communication style
Communication is a really personal thing. To be a good communicator, you might end up using different method and styles with different people. Ask someone you love, “what’s the best way for me to give you constructive criticism, without you feeling hurt by it?” or “if I’m having a lot of feelings, would you prefer to talk back-and-forth about it, or to read something I’ve written?” Don’t ambush someone hangry to ask them about their portion of the rent. If your partner is overwhelmed or upset, maybe that’s not the best time to talk about opening up your relationship (though some people deliberately use that as a way to escape hard conversations, by overwhelming themselves on purpose, so keep that in mind).
Remember that you’re allowed to have a specific communication style as well. Ideally, all people communicating will be respectful of each other’s needs, so feel empowered to tell other people the way YOU best absorb information, or the best time to approach YOU about something touch.
If you accidentally speak to someone with a communication style that’s bad for them (like being aggressively honest when delicate tact might have done better), acknowledge that the way your message was conveyed didn’t fit them right, (if you hurt them) apologize, and try again.
Adding one framing detail to each communication. “Because”
When you send a text or make a request or give any kind of short form communication, add a framing detail.
A lot of arguments happen when the following occurs:
“I need to take the car tonight.”
“Why?” ←That ‘why’ can sound accusatory, and responses to that can be defensive. Head that ‘why’ off by explaining on the front end.
“I need to take the car tonight, because I won’t be anywhere near a train station”.
“Because” is a good word. Get in the habit of giving more details.
“hey, I’d like to take you out for dinner, because I haven’t seen you all week and I’m hungry.”
“I’m taking the long route home, because I need to stop by the gas station.”
“I don’t want to go camping this weekend, because I’m getting my period and I feel terrible.”
Remember – you don’t have to explain yourself to everyone you speak with. You’re entitled to make statements without explaining yourself. “No.” is a complete sentence. But if your goal is to head off a tiff, try giving information on the front end, instead of making your partner drag it out during a conversation.
This concludes Part I – stay tuned until tomorrow for Part II, with more advanced communication goals!