Effective Communication & Active Listening Skills for Increased Connection

effective communication and active listening skillsEffective communication means, “Just say what you mean!”

Sounds simple, right?

But effective communication is far from simple. All too often, we try to communicate one thing, but the other person hears a completely different thing.

It can be frustrating and counterproductive.

Effective communication is a learned skill. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. The more effort you put into it, the better your communication with others becomes.

Learning to improve your communication skills will help you to connect to people. It makes you a better team worker, problems solver, and decision maker. It even aids you when you have to relate negative or difficult messages to others.

Effective communication involves speaking as well as listening. Practicing both good communication skills as well as active listening can improve your connection with others.

How to Speak So That Others Understand

Improve your communication skills by:

Getting rid of unnecessary distractions

If you want to avoid conveying wrong ideas or minimal persuasiveness, you have to nix the distractions. First, put your cell phone down, set your tablet aside, or turn off the TV while speaking with others. Second, think before you talk, so that your words flow smoothly. A lot of Um’s and Ah’s, jerky and slurred speech, or stumbling over words make it hard for others to keep their minds from wandering.

Staying brief and specific

Keep it simple, speak clearly and eloquently, and don’t rush. Arrange your thoughts about what you want to say logically and orderly. Try to express yourself in a way that others will quickly grasp the meaning of your words.

Instead of jargon and overly complicated expressions, use plain language. The easier your words are to understand, the easier your listener will get the point. If you use illustrations or stories, make sure they contribute to the objective of what you are saying.

Speaking spontaneously, not in formulaic ways

Be yourself – genuine and sincere. Speak enthusiastically and from the heart, conveying the emotions you’re feeling in a conversational manner. When you improve your communication skills in this aspect, you will help your listener to be more receptive to what you’re saying. Enthusiasm will also help you hold their interest and may rouse them to take action.

improve communication skillsBeing tactful yet assertive

Being assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive, hostile, or demanding. It means to express your feelings, thoughts and needs with conviction and respect. While you should value yourself and your own opinion, remaining tactful will help you to avoid needlessly offending others. Even when you have to address problems, staying respectful will incline your listener to keep an open mind. Be careful not to come across as judgmental and overreact when they raise an objection.

Displaying empathy and thoughtfulness

Keep your listener’s perspective in mind and consider how they may feel about what you’re saying. Don’t be judgmental, but try to see things from their point of view. Adjust what you’re saying accordingly. Try to put yourself in the same place so that you can see their point of view. Tailor your words. Account for differences in culture, attitude, ability, or past experience. It will make them feel truly valued and understood.

Read more on how to speak to a loved one suffering from emotional and physical pain.

Keeping a positive and kind attitude

Smile. Do your best to stay cheerful, friendly, and optimistic. To make your listener feel welcome, valued, and wanted, don’t talk down to them. Offer encouragement and praise whenever possible. Be constructive and build trust and respect. Stay focused on talking about things that can improve a situation, instead of complaining.

Paying attention to your non-verbal communication

Improve your communication skills by considering carefully what signals you’re sending with your body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, or tone of voice. Effective communication includes your non-verbals and tone.

Your non-verbal signals can have a powerful impact and are 55% of communication. Voice tone is 38% of communication. Others put meaning to your tone and body language. They should match and reinforce your words, not contradict them. That will only lead to misunderstandings.

Ask about needs

Ask, “what do you need from me in this situation?” It might be problem solving, listening, venting, etc.

Practice perspective-checking to prevent misunderstandings.

  • Share a description of the specific behavior noticed.
  • Consider at least 2 possible interpretations of the behavior.
  • Make a request for clarification about how to interpret the behavior.

Acknowledge emotions with a Pearl:

    • Partnership
    • Empathy
    • Apology
    • Reward
    • Legitimize

What is Active Listening?

active listening skills

Active listening can improve your relationship.

Are you a good listener? Even if you think you are, chances are you’re not as good a listener as you may think. Studies have shown that we only remember between 25 and 50 percent of what we hear.

Imagine that you’re giving a twenty minute presentation at work. This means your colleagues only really got ten minutes of what you said. And if your boss is giving you instructions, you’ve probably only remember half or less of what she said! Yikes! Hope the all important bits were in that 50 percent!

It’s pretty easy to see how improving your listening skills can help you out at work. And it’s not too hard to imagine how much better your relationship could be if you became a better listener. Think of all the misunderstandings and arguments you could avoid! Your partner will also be happier, since being listened to makes us feel more acknowledged and valued.

When you listen, you are saying to the other person: “You are important. I want to understand you.”

What is your relationship attachment style? Take this quiz and find out.

How Active Listening Improves Effective Communication

Usually when people have a conversation, part of their minds are elsewhere. They may be distracted by something they have to do after the conversation or, instead of listening attentively, they are thinking of what to say when it’s their turn to talk, like a counterargument.

Active listening involves a structured pattern of listening and responding to help build good listening habits. The listener pays close attention to what is being said and how the speaker is saying it – examining what emotions are behind the words. After the speaker has finished talking, the listener repeats what was said in his or her own words.

This gives both the listener and the speaker the opportunity to see if the listener accurately understood what was said. If not, the speaker can elaborate on what he said or try to explain it in a different way that is clearer for the listener.

Active listening is particularly helpful in conflict resolution. During an argument, when you are trying to explain your side of things, have you felt like your partner just wasn’t listening? This probably made you angry and lash out, saying something nasty to pique their attention. Or it made you feel sullen and withdrawn. Active listening can help both of you explain in more detail what and why you feel that way. This leads to quicker and more harmonious problem-solving.

How to Improve Active Listening Skills and Communicate Effectively

1. Give feedback and demonstrate your attention 

Your body language is key here, but don’t just give the ol’ nod-and-smile. Use verbal affirmations like “I see,” “I know,” “Sure,” “Thank you,” or “I understand”. Lean in to the speaker or mirror their body language.

2. Build trust and establish rapport

Demonstrate concern for the speaker and take an open, neutral, and non-judgmental stance. Be in the present moment with the speaker. Reflect back what you hear the speaker say.

3. Understanding does not mean agreeing

Sometimes repeating what the speaker has said can make it seem like the listener is agreeing with what was spoken, even though she is merely trying to ascertain whether or not she has properly understood what the speaker is saying. To avoid this, it can be helpful to start with leading phrases like “I’m hearing that ___” or “It seems to me like___” or “I think I understood that ____.”

This also reinforces to the speaker that the listener is doing their best to hear what the other person is saying. Also, try your best to respond without judgement. Don’t interrupt, but do ask questions when the meaning is unclear.

4. Validate the speaker

Acknowledge the individual’s problems, issues, and feelings. Listen openly and with empathy, and respond in an interested way — for example, “I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a difficult issue. . .”. Remember that validation doesn’t mean you agree. It means you understand. This can go a long way in conflict with your partner.

5. Paraphrase and restate important points

Wait to fully understand the message and avoid judging or preparing a counter-argument. Summarize what the speaker has just said. This eliminates misunderstandings and lets the speaker know if the message was communicated correctly.

Reassure yourself and the other person that you got it right. “So you’re saying that…”. “Let me make sure I understand.  You want me to…?” Wait to give your feedback until you’ve truly heard and understood what the speaker has communicated.

6. Use “I” language.

A phrase that begins, “You always . . .” is likely to escalate an argument. One like “I feel . . . ,” or “I’d like to . . .” keeps the focus on the speaker and their thoughts and feelings.

7. Follow the effective listening ratio – 3:1

    • Silence. (be ok with silence!)
    • Minimal Encouragers
    • Repeat/Paraphrase

8. Ask open-ended questions.

This encourages the speaker to provide a thoughtful response which facilitates understanding. It also conveys interest in what the speaker is saying.  Open-ended questions generally start with, “How? What? Where? Who? Which?”

9. Regulate your emotions.

It can be hard to respond without emotion, but just let your partner know when this is happening. Taking this step back to acknowledge your emotional response can help you calm down enough to give better feedback.

Take our emotion regulation quiz and identify what skills can help you manage your emotions. 

Barriers to Effective Communication

Barriers to effective communication and active listening 1. Ordering, commanding. These messages communicate that you don’t trust the other person’s judgment.

2. Warning, threatening. These messages make the other person fearful and may produce resentment and anger.

3. Preaching, lecturing. These may cause guilt feelings and may lead to the other person resisting the “shoulds” more strongly. This communicates to the other person they are inferior or inadequate.

4. Giving advice, suggestions or solutions. This communicates that you don’t have confidence in the other person’s decision making ability. The other person may become dependent or develop inferiority feelings.

5. Judging, shaming, blaming, ridiculing, or criticizing. These are destructive message that make the other person feel inadequate, stupid, worthless and bad.

6. Praising, reassuring, humoring. False praise may lead the other person to mistrust your perceptions. They may feel you don’t truly realize the depths of his or her feelings or that you don’t feel these feelings are important.

7. Talking over someone or telling your story before you’ve heard theirs. Give the person a chance to tell their story first. Restate what you’ve heard, then tell. your story.

8. Defensiveness or arguing. Don’t argue. Even if you win, you lose. Avoid trying to “convince” the other person or defend your behaviors. Focus on listening instead.

9. Closed-mindedness, all-knowing or opinionated stances. This prevents you from fully hearing or understanding the message. And it sends the message that you are right and others are wrong. It is also a one-up, one-down stance, which can lead others to feel invalidated, hurt or misunderstood. Practice taking an open-minded perspective when listening.

10. Mind-reading.  Don’t assume what others think or feel. Test or check them out first.

11. Rehearsing. Watch out for thinking of what you’re going to say next while you’re listening to the other. If you’re rehearsing in your mind, then you’re not listening.

12. Rushing to save via: jargon and euphemisms, premature advice, false reassurance, talking about facts.

13. “Yes-no” questions or asking two questions at once. “Why” questions can also make people defensive.

Identifying Feelings and Needs to Increase Connection in Communication

Effective communication and connection is enhanced when we are in tune with our feelings and how they are expression of met or unmet needs. The greater in touch we are with our feelings and needs, the more authentic and rewarding our communication will be.

Read more about how to express your needs in a relationship. 

Identifying your feelings is hard, especially if you grew up in family where expressing emotion was taboo. For some, identifying needs can be even more difficult, particularly if you’ve learned to suppress them. The feelings and needs wheels listed below are excellent tools to help you begin to identify your feelings and needs accurately. They offer a wide range to help expand your feelings vocabulary and offer greater clarity to your needs.

The feelings and needs wheels are based on the work of “nonviolent communication (NVC).” Nonviolent communication is based on the assumption that are human needs are universal. Actions are an attempt to meet those needs and our feelings point to met or unmet needs. Another way of saying this is that the way we feel is based on our needs being met/unmet.

Further, NVC assumes that connection arises from mutual understanding of the needs behind behavior. There is enough for all to meet our basic needs. And, moving away from “right/wrong” judgments supports us in making peace. Effective communication is enhanced by the ability to identify your feelings and needs.

Disconnection Occurs When We Communicate Using:

  • Criticism and labels (“you are insensitive”)
  • Diagnosis (“you take everything to seriously”)
  • Comparison (“we did it better at my last job”)
  • Punishment (“If you don’t do __ you’ll regret it later.”)
  • Should, have to, must
  • Deserve (‘they got what was coming to them”)

Using Empathy for Effective Communication

Communicating through empathy keeps us feeling connected.

The four keys of communicating with empathy:

– Perspective-taking

– Staying out of judgment

– Recognizing emotions

– Communicating our understanding of emotions

Effective Communication with Difficult Feelings

When triggered, hurt or angry, it can be especially difficult to communicate in a connecting manner. Here are some steps to follow to maintain connection and communicate with empathy, especially with difficult feelings. This can be helpful when communicating to children as well.

Rather than using power and control, which fosters submission or rebellion, empathy fosters connection and compassion. Further, when using connecting language we model the connection and care we want from others (and what we want children to learn).

Steps to Communicate with Empathy

Step 1: State what you observed or heard without added interpretation.

Step 2: State what you are feeling (I feel…). Use the feeling wheel below to help you identify your feelings more specifically. Review the second page to identify when feelings are “judgments” vs feelings. For example, “I feel abandoned” is not a feeling.

Go back to the feeling wheel and find the most accurate feeling word. Also, “I feel that’ or ‘I feel like” are not feelings, they are thoughts.

Download (PDF, 3.82MB)

Step 3: Identify your need or what you are valuing. Feelings often arise out of our needs, which are universal. Needs are not dependent on the actions of others. State your specific need vs. the other person’s actions as the cause. For example, “I feel annoyed because I need support” vs “I feel annoyed because you didn’t do the dishes.”

Download (PDF, 6.61MB)

Step 4: Ask clearly and concretely for what you want (not what you don’t want). For example, “would you be willing to come back tonight at the time we agreed?” vs. “Would you make sure not to be late again?” When we make requests, we must stay open to hearing “no.”

Responding with Empathy:

Step 1: Give the other person your full attention.

Step 2: Reflect back the other person’s observation, feeling, request and/or wish. For example, “You would like (something).”

Step 3: Connect to the universal need or value as a “guess”. For example, “Are you feeling?” “Is NEED important for you?”

Step 4: Savor the need – softly repeat or say the need. For example, “You are feeling sad.” “You’d like to stay at the playground.” “You love to have fun.”

Self-Connection

Connecting with our selves through care and compassion means listening inwardly to connect to our own feelings and needs. For example, “I am feeling XXX because I need XXX.”

Get Support & Build Strong Communication Skills

It can time, patience and practice to learn effective communication skills. Emotion awareness and regulation can impact communication effectiveness. If you find yourself in familiar patterns of not being heard or understood, repetitive arguments, or misunderstandings, you may benefit from counseling.

Working with a therapist can help. you increase your awareness of what’s going on behind the surface that is impacting your communication patterns. A therapist can also help you more effectively regulate or understand your own emotions and needs to have more productive and connecting interactions with others.

We offer therapy in person or online in multiple areas. Give us a call at 832-559-2622 or schedule a consultation to find out how we can support you.

We also offer a Couples Communication & Connection skills group. 

Effective Communication & Active Listening Skills for Increased Connection
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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