So you want to be a better communicator! What does that even mean?
Part II – the tough stuff.
Here are some tougher, but possibly more productive steps you can take to be a better communicator.
Take more time before speaking
Most conversations happen really quickly – we hear something, we formulate our response while listening, and we answer immediately. While we’re answering, our conversation partner is deciding what to say. This doesn’t give either of us a chance to really listen to what we’re hearing, and to absorb and process it.
Active listening involves focusing entirely on your conversation partner while they are speaking, processing what they have to say, and then choosing how to respond. Tennis match talking is a tough habit to break – humans are pretty egocentric, and we want everything to be about us. That’s natural, but needs to change if you want to be a better communicator.
Take 10-30 seconds after your conversation partner finishes speaking. Let their words hang in the air. Think about what they said with some real effort and concentration. Then, and only then, allow yourself to decide what words you want to say to them next.
Restate what you hear
When the person you’re speaking to finishes saying something, try saying it back to them, to make sure you understood. “What I’m hearing is that you’re upset at how I spent my holiday bonus, and you wish I’d asked you first. If that right?”
“what I’m hearing is _________. Is that right?” is a REALLY powerful structure. It allows you to explain what you gathered from the other person, and then allows them to correct you if a) you heard it wrong, or b) they realize that they SAID it wrong, and only recognize that when you restate it.
(If you take nothing else away from this post, I’d recommend that you take this. In fact, I’ll likely write in more depth about it sometime in the future.)
White lies can be helpful. So can big lies, sometimes. But what they won’t help you with is clear communication.
I’m not here to judge you for why you tell untruths, but I am here to tell you that you need to be clear about your motivations, your wants, and your needs. If a partner says something like “hey, you didn’t *really* want to go home to your parents for the holidays, did you?”, it’s certainly easier to give them the answer that they want, but that won’t make your line of communication clear and useful. You can say “Yes, I did actually want to go home to my parents. Can we have a conversation about it, please?”
You will never get what you don’t ask for.
You will never stop what you don’t ask to be stopped.
This one is really important when talking about sex, especially. If you have a kink or a sexual need that you know is important to you, and you’re monogamous, you need to tell your partner. You just have to. It doesn’t have to be on the first date (Dan Savage suggests the third date, but he also says that trans folks who don’t medically transition won’t ever have their gender confirmed by a partner, so fuck that guy), but it should be early in the sexual relationship. If your partner asks “do you like that?” and you don’t, SAY NO. If your partner asks if you want to be polyamorous, and you don’t, SAY SO.
You don’t have to conform with what your partner wants, just because it’s easier. You get to say what you need. You HAVE to say what you need. If you have an incompatibility, talk it out, or ask a friend for help, or break up, or go to therapy. Lying isn’t going to fix problems.
Sometimes, when something first comes out of our mouth, it has a tone that we didn’t intend. One solution is to apologize for the harsh tone, even if it was unintentional, and to clarify.
“Why are there dishes in the sink?”
“I just got home 10 minutes ago!”
“Hey, I’m sorry – I realized that the way I phrased that question seemed really accusatory. I was honestly just wondering where the dishes came from.”
“Are we having leftovers again?”
“uh, I guess we don’t HAVE to, if you want to cook.”
“I didn’t mean for that to sound so harsh – I don’t mind leftovers, I was just curious about dinner.”
“Are we out of coffee?! Wait, you don’t have to answer that. It isn’t your job to keep the house stocked with coffee, I was just surprised.”
Assuming goodwill is a great way to keep peace in a household, but so is clarifying or giving small apologies when your tone or words inadvertently make someone else think you’re attacking them. Some folks feel uncomfortable with the idea of “tip-toeing” around, apologizing for everything they say, so you get to decide to what extent you want to use this trick. But if everyone in a household or social circle employs micro-apologies and clarifications, then there’s a lot less unintentional snappishness.
Using more precise language
Related to the previous point – try using more precise language when you speak. A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.
If you mean something specific, say that specific thing. This can cut down on unnecessary back-and-forth, as well as head off misunderstandings before they even start.
“How’re you feeling tonight?”
What does ‘fine’ mean, here? Depending on who’s saying it, it could be okay, not bad, not great, happy, alright, etc. Try replacing that with more precise words.
Consider the following statements.
– Andrew is bad for you
– You and Andrew aren’t in a healthy relationship
– Andrew frequently acts unkindly towards you
– Andrew uses derogatory language when speaking to you, and makes fun of your ideas
See how each statement became more precise with what it was saying? Each statement gives more information to the reader, and allows them to respond with maximum data (and y’all know I love more data).
– You’re a bad roommate
– You’re a messy, disrespectful roommate
– You use my things without asking and leave them around the apartment
One of those is designed to start a fight, the next is giving some information, and the last is a call to action, or the start of a productive conversation.
Initiate hard conversations
It’s time to be the one to bring up the tough stuff.
It’s possible that you’re learning how to communicate to match a partner who is good at using their words, but it’s also possible that you’re the one taking a step ahead. That your loved ones aren’t great at using their words, and that causes a lot of conflict. You need to take some responsibility, and initiate the hard conversations.
Start by taking some of the steps from up above. Do some journaling or external processing. Tailor your style of communication to fit the person you’re speaking to. Frame your message carefully. Then dive in.
Often, the sooner your address a hard issue, the easier a time you’re going to have dealing with it. Letting things fester, waiting until the last minute, becoming resentful… these are all ways to lose out on healthy relationship/friendship time. When you notice a topic that needs to be dealt with, don’t wait. Make your partner some tea, take your friend out to dinner, sit down with your coworker, and just go for it.
Relatedly, you should be…
When you initiate tough conversations, it’s because you’ve noticed something is wrong, or something difficult is coming up. There’s been a miscommunication, and you want to fix it. That’s why you take that step and you bring up the tough stuff. What happens if your partner notices what’s wrong, and you don’t? How can you address those problems?
You should check in.
There are a few ways to do that. You can organize a dedicated family night, where everyone in the household comes together with notes to address the things they want to talk about. You can make a clear “open door policy,” where you *explicitly* state that anyone can come to you with concerns. You can occasionally reach out to other people, and ask how they’re doing, how they feel about your interactions, what they need from you.
You can even make clear that what you’re doing is soliciting their feedback.
“Hey, I’ve noticed that I’ve been the one reaching out when I need support from you for the last few months, but that you don’t really reach out to me. Are there ways that I can facilitate you speaking with me when I could be helpful to you?”
One of the ways to be a better communicator is not *just* sharing every single thing that pops into your mind. You should also make it clear to the people around you that it’s a two way street, and that you’d like it if they communicated more of their thoughts with you, too.
Give positive reinforcement, and THANK your loved ones when they communicate clearly with you, even if what they’re sharing hurts your feelings or makes your life more difficult. I try really hard to do that, even during the tough conversations that make me cry. It can be a vulnerable place, to know that you’re hurting someone else’s feelings but that you need to say something anyway. Thank them, for doing that, if you’re emotionally able.
As a reminder – you don’t have to do ALL of these. Heck, you don’t have to do any; I’m just making a suggestion, here. But these are all methods to make communications smoother and more productive. To get more out of your interactions with other people. To add layers and depth to your conversation.
You got this.