Expressing ourselves effectively is important in all areas of our lives. It’s important at work with our boss and colleagues. It’s important at home with our friends, partners and parents. It’s important when we feel strongly about an issue; when we need to communicate an important message; when we want to be understood; and when we are asking someone to meet a need, said Debbi Carberry, a clinical social worker in private practice in Brisbane, Australia.

But expressing ourselves isn’t exactly easy. For starters, we might not even know what we want, she said. Or maybe we know what we want but can’t articulate it. Maybe we’re afraid of being judged or rejected. Thankfully, by incorporating a few suggestions — like the ones below — you can express yourself effectively with anyone. Because it’s a skill you can sharpen.

Be mindful of your emotions.

When emotions run high, it’s hard to articulate what you need. We’re too entrenched in fight or flight mode and aren’t able to think clearly. That’s when mindfulness can help. Mindfulness helps us to feel our emotions without responding in a way that’s unhelpful, said Clare Sillence, a clinical social worker, mindfulness practitioner and therapist who specializes in acceptance and commitment therapy in Brisbane, Australia.

It helps us become calmer and more in tune with our inner voices, she said. We’re able to talk about topics with others without getting heated; “thus, truly connecting in our relationships in some rich and meaningful ways.”

Sillence suggested these steps:

  • Focus on your breath.
  • Notice what you’re feeling. Try to name the emotion you’re experiencing.
  • Don’t try to distract yourself from this emotion, or push it away.
  • Consider the circumstances surrounding your emotion.
  • Notice how you’re breathing when you experience this emotion.
  • Explore this emotion further by asking yourself: “Can I feel it in a particular part of my body? Is my breathing changing? Is any part of my body tenser than other parts? How big does this emotion feel? Do I feel like I want to make the emotion go away? If I do, can I just notice that this is what is happening?”

Gather your thoughts beforehand.

Take the time to understand the purpose of your conversation beforehand, said Carberry, who specializes in relationship transformation and teaches an online course called “Rewrite Your Brain for Better Relationships.” Think about what you really want to say and what you want to achieve. For instance, maybe you want to resolve a problem, share something important or teach something, she said.

Psychotherapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW, suggested cutting what you want to say in half, and considering these questions:

  • How can I reflect back what the other person is saying and express empathy?
  • Am I taking responsibility for my thoughts and feelings?
  • Is my desired outcome concisely expressed?
  • What is the clearer and more direct way I can express my point of view?

Hanks shared this example: Leslie and Shelley are life-long friends, who planned a trip together. But because of finances and family commitments, Leslie had to cancel. Shelley emailed her about feeling deeply disappointed and abandoned. According to Hanks, this is how Leslie responded to the questions and to Shelley:

  • I think Shelley needs me to understand how hurt she feels right now.
  • I am wondering if Shelley thinks I’m a bad friend, a flake and insensitive. I’m hurt that she isn’t more understanding of my situation. I’m afraid I’ll lose our relationship.
  • I think Shelley needs me to understand how hurt she feels right now.
  • I want to work through this and remain dear friends.
  • “Shelley, I know that my decision to back out of our trip is very disappointing and is bringing up old feelings of abandonment for you. I’m so glad you shared that with me and it makes sense that you’d feel hurt about my decision. I know it is the right decision for me. You are one of my dearest friends, and I know that we will work through this together.”

Avoid rehashing history.

Sometimes, we muddle the conversation by bringing up the past. We share a laundry list of remember when you did this, remember when you did that. We try to prove a point that doesn’t need proving, said Hanks, author and director of Wasatch Family Therapy.

Instead, stay on topic, Carberry said. “When we stray from the immediate topic or bring up historical issues, we confuse the message we are trying to convey.” This leaves us feeling misunderstood or shut down, she said. And it puts the other person on the defensive.

Communicate clearly and respectfully.

Don’t criticize, name-call or belittle the other person, Carberry said. Don’t yell or be passive-aggressive. The best approach is to be clear, direct and polite. Hanks shared these examples:

  • “I’d like to spend more time together. Can we put something on the calendar?”
  • “I’m under a lot of stress at home right now. Please let me know if I am coming across as cold or unkind.”
  • “Will you clarify what you meant by that comment? I’m not sure how to take it.”
  • “Will you call me during lunch so we can touch base? It helps me feel loved and connected.”

If you find yourself losing your cool, tell the other person that you’d like to take a break and will return to the conversation.

Set solid boundaries.

Similarly, be clear about your boundaries before you start the conversation, especially with hot-button topics, Carberry said. She suggested letting the other person know what is unacceptable, such as “using contempt or put downs, or becoming aggressive.” If they communicate in this way, you’ll end the conversation.

Focus on compromise.

“Compromising preserves relationships that are important to us,” Carberry said. Because the relationship is more important than any specific issue, she said. “[W]ork to understand and empathize with the other party about their perspective on the topic—rather than pushing your own point of view across.”

Listen carefully to what they’re saying, instead of listening to respond, which is what most of us tend to do. (Here are more tips on becoming a better listener.)

Expressing ourselves effectively may not come naturally. And that’s OK. Because it doesn’t come naturally to most people. But thankfully, we can learn to become better communicators. Thankfully, this is something we can work on and practice.

Express Yourself image via Shutterstock.