Simply talking doesn’t make anyone a good communicator — just like hearing someone doesn’t make us good listeners.
In fact, being a good communicator means being a good listener, according to Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance. It also means being mindful of your words and tone, and not taking someone else’s tone personally, he said.
Instead, good communicators “choose to ask questions to gain understanding, rather than give explanations to force agreement. They choose to make the implied feelings explicit by responding to the emotions behind the words.”
Good communicators maintain eye contact and pay attention to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues, said Karmin, who also pens the popular Psych Central blog “Anger Management.”
They don’t get swept up in defending themselves. “As soon as you defend, you lose.”
Below, Karmin shared strategies for helping readers become better communicators in all areas of their lives, including at home and at work.
1. Take ownership of your reactions.
Karmin often hears clients say, “they made me feel ___ or “I had no choice but to yell back.” But, while you might not love your options, you always have a choice, he said.
You have a choice in how you react, and what comes out of your mouth, he said. “We can choose to catch ourselves about to explain, defend, debate, cajole, nag or antagonize, and choose not to do it.”
For instance, trying to defend yourself is actually futile and usually only backfires. For instance, let’s say your partner states, “You never listen to me.” You defend yourself by saying “Of course, I listen. You said to call the plumber, and I did. Here, you can look at the phone bill.”
This rarely makes the other person change their mind, and all that defending just gets disregarded. What it does cause is more miscommunication and accusations, he said.
2. Ask questions.
Asking questions helps you gain a deeper understanding of the situation and possibly reframe it. Karmin gave these suggestions:
- “How does that make you feel?
- What is the worst part?
- What are you trying to achieve?
- What would you prefer instead?”
3. Ask for clarification.
If you’re not sure you understand what the other person is saying, repeat your interpretation, and ask if you got it right, Karmin said. You might start with: “So what you are saying is that…”
4. Agree with feelings, not the facts.
You don’t have to agree with the other person’s “facts.” But you can agree with how they feel, and communicate that you’ve heard them, Karmin said.
For instance, you might say: “You sound hurt. That must be painful.” Karmin gave these additional examples:
- “You sound very ____.
- I don’t blame you for feeling____.
- I’d be ____if that happened to me.
- I’m sorry you’re so ____.
- It’s awful, isn’t it?”
Remember that “feelings are neither right nor wrong; it’s what we do with them that’s right or wrong.”
5. Set limits.
Maintain boundaries, especially when your talk starts escalating into an argument, Karmin said. “Arguing only fuels hostility and it doesn’t get you heard.” He gave these examples of setting limits:
- “I never thought of it that way.
- You’ve got a real problem there. I don’t know what to tell you.
- That would be nice, wouldn’t it.
- You may have a point.”
6. Be precise with your own words.
For instance, instead of saying “always” or never,” which tend to have exceptions, clarify that these words are “figurative or feeling words,” Karmin said. So you might say: “It feels like you never listen to me” or “It feels like you always blame me.”
“By adding ‘feels like’ we avoid sidetracking into the exceptions of ‘always’ and ‘never’ occurrences. This ensures we are being clear and more likely to be heard and understood.”
Communicating well is a skill. The above six tips can help you sharpen it.