How to Improve Interpersonal Communication Skills

The ‘soft skill’ with solid results.

Communication is often seen as the key to a long-lasting marriage and a successful career. Communicating effectively could save a relationship or land you a promotion. Unfortunately, most of us are never actually taught this important skill.

Studies have shown that over the past two decades, there has been a 50 percent increase in collaborative work between managers and employees. This means that teamwork, and therefore good conversationalists, are more important than ever.

Healthy communication may be a miss when it comes to our polarised political landscape, but when it comes to our friendships and workplaces it doesn’t have to be. So, here are 7 ways you can improve interpersonal communication.

  1. Actively Listen

Listening is often seen as a passive function — if you have a functioning ear (or two if you’re lucky), you’re on the right track. However, the importance of listening as a skill cannot be understated. As Julian Treasure explained in his Ted Talk: “listening is our access to understanding”. If you want to have productive meetings or resolve a conflict you first have to understand others.

To listen properly you need to focus, and this means no multitasking. While external multitasking, such as looking at your phone, the clock or picking your nails are obvious signs of a lack of attention, internal multitasking can be just as harmful.

Internal multitasking is when you are not mentally present. You’re not fully present if you are busy formulating what you are going to say next. As humans, we have a tendency to habitually relate everything back to ourselves. As Stephen Covey said in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply’.

“Oh you had a tough time at work, so did I…”

Often this comes across as self-centered. Even if you refrain from saying this out loud, people can usually sense from facial expressions when your attention is elsewhere.

2. Let Them Finish

“We are sooo in sync, we finish each other’s sentences.”

“Nope, you just interrupt me.”

While finishing each other’s sentences may be endearing in an inordinate number of Rom-Coms, in real life it is rarely appreciated — especially in a work meeting. You may believe you are showing them how “in sync” you two are. In reality, however, it implies that what they are about to say is not worth listening to.

A common misconception is that for a conversation to flow there needs to be consistent talking. The opposite can sometimes be true, particularly when it comes to a pause. Don’t be afraid to slow down your own words or stop to absorb what someone else has said. Short reflective silences show that you are contemplating a sincere response.

3. It’s Something in the Way You Move

A few quick clicks and you can find a flood of articles presenting tips and tricks on how to appear to be listening to others, such as nodding and smiling or leaning in. However, as journalist and speaker Celeste Headlee have poignantly said: “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are, in fact, paying attention.”

She has a point. Nevertheless, sometimes we unwittingly exhibit negative body language because we are otherwise anxious, stressed or tired. So, it is important to take note of the kinds of body language that promote open communication.

Placing your hands on your hips can give off the impression that you are being defensive and having your arms crossed gives off an air of being closed-off. Similarly, fiddling and fidgeting, even if they are a result of being nervous, can come across as a lack of interest.

Open body language is fundamental to positive impressions. Maintaining eye contact, having an open stance with your shoulders back, sitting on the edge of your seat and slanting sideways are all signals of engagement. These gestures put those around you at ease and improve your own image.

4. Repeat and Respond

Repetition is a wonderful method of clarification. Paraphrasing what someone else has said back to them can show that you have truly understood, or it can give the speaker a chance to elucidate if there has been a misunderstanding. Repeating little details someone has given you can also help you remember them. So, the next time you bump into that potential business partner you can ask “How is Charlotte doing at football?”. This accelerates the closeness of a relationship and forges stronger bonds.

Micro feedback like ‘yeah’ and ‘mmm’ also show you are engaged. Be careful not to overdo it though; repeating regularly or over-responding can come across as patronising and unnatural.

Asking questions is another great way of showing engagement. Inquisitive and non-judgemental questions such as “When you said…what did you mean?” can go a long way. If you don’t understand, say so. The most successful people are not the know-it-alls, they are those who are humble enough to learn and receive feedback from others.

5. Skip the Waffle

There are two types of waffles and only one of them has a fanbase. Many of us also have a tendency to repeat or paraphrase ourselves over and over to emphasize a point. We may believe this is persuasive, but in many cases, it can be interpreted as condescending instead. Try and make your point clear and follow it with an example. Then you can gauge your listener’s reaction as to whether you can move onto the next point or if they need clarification. Babbling on encourages others to tune out, and they may miss out on a nugget of gold you said 2 minutes in.

6. Stay Calm

Emotional reactions are often the reactions we regret most. We have all fallen out with a friend or family member, fell into a rage, and said something we didn’t mean to.

When you are stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, you are more likely to make knee-jerk reactions, misread other people and misrepresent yourself. Even if your anger or upset is completely justified, you may be presenting it in an unproductive manner. Part of emotional intelligence is making the distinction between justified feelings and justified responses. Try and let logic take the lead.

If you are dealing with any conflict at work, a great guideline to follow is the Interest-Based Relational Approach, which entails separating the problem from the people involved. This requires a great deal of compromise and courtesy but is a great way to mend or protect fragile relationships.

7. Be Assertive

Standing up for yourself is key to earning the respect of others. In the case of work, failing to be assertive could, quite literally, cost you. Indeed, those who self-advocate are more likely to be promoted.

Your choice of words could be holding you back. Lower-status groups, especially women, depreciate their value by self-deprecating far more than others. We may say “I think” when we know — or “I was just wondering” when our question is highly relevant. Those lacking confidence also tend to use qualifiers, for example: “I’m not an expert in this, but…”. This effort to be perceived as polite can give off an impression of incompetence instead. If you want to be likable, you don’t have to self-deprecate in the process. Instead, use light humour or positive statements such as “I am really looking forward to this” to express your warmth.

Many of us avoid being assertive out of a fear of appearing aggressive, but they are two very different forms of expression. An assertion is about respecting yourself, aggression entails disrespecting others. Aggressive people may raise their voice or make things personal; they often character assassinate or exaggerate the faults of others. Aggression is saying “that idea is ridiculous” rather than acknowledging their idea and politely pointing to a better alternative.

If you focus on equally respecting yourself and others, you will find the right balance.

We’re All Winners

Advancing your interpersonal communication can boost the happiness, productivity, and satisfaction of yourself and those around you. There is certainly a myriad of factors to consider. If you have to start with just one, I would recommend starting with listening. As Calvin Coolidge famously said: “No man ever listened himself out of a job” — or a relationship for that matter.

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