There’s a big difference between talking and communicating. People talk all the time, yet poor communication is still one of the most common struggles in relationships of all types. Marriages fail because of it, children get in trouble because of it, wars are started over it!
Many of us have never been taught how to communicate effectively. In fact, with the increase in technology, including texting, chatting, and various forms of social media, people today are even less prepared for healthy communication, especially face-to-face. If we want stronger relationships, communities, and families, however, we need to focus on learning the skills of communication.
The Skills of Communication: Learn them. Teach them.
While there are certainly some people who are more naturally inclined to be good communicators, communication is a skill that can be learned and improved by anyone. This is excellent news for a couple of reasons: 1) Improved communication leads to improved relationships, and 2) Improved communication helps us get our own needs met, increasing our sense of self-worth and joy in life.
It’s up to us to work on communication–with those we love and, yes, with those we don’t like at all, as well. We have a responsibility–to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world–to learn and teach skills of healthy communication. As adults, we must make the effort to learn skills of communication in order to teach them to our children; schools and churches should teach these skills, and leaders and governments should also make communication a top priority. Together, we can make a better world, one clear conversation at a time.
Where do we learn how to communicate?
Early on, we learn communication from our parents and caretakers. Some of us may have had skilled parents who taught us well, but most people probably grew up with poor examples of communication. We may have seen how our mother always became emotional and yelled, or how our father shut down, put up a wall, or refused to communicate at all. Perhaps our parents never seemed to resolve problems in front of us, so we have no idea how to do that now. Or maybe, we learned to just handle things on our own–not to talk about it. Whatever the case, we learn from watching our parents’ interactions, then we grow up and tend repeat the same patterns.
We don’t have to stay stuck in those patterns, though. We can learn to do better. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to be an expert communicator. It requires effort, learning, and practice, sure, but communicating effectively will be one of the best skills you will learn, one you can apply in almost every area of your life–in your marriage/partnership, with your kids, your family, your career, friendships, community, and yes, even with yourself.
How to Improve Communication
In simplest terms, communication requires two parts: 1) stating clearly and accurately your need, want, or feeling and then, 2) having a partner who not only listens but hears and interprets accurately what you have said. In other words, communication consists of talking and listening.
First let’s discuss a few things to help you improve the “talking” part of communication:
1) Learning to clearly, concisely state what you want, need, think, or feel is a crucial step in creating healthy relationships. Using “I” statements is the ideal way to do this. For example, “I feel__(hurt) when you __(uninvite me for Christmas).” This works in all kinds of relationships. Using I statements puts the ownership for the issue on YOU. It takes out the blame that happens so often in communication, and makes it much more likely the other person will stick around long enough to really hear what you’ve so clearly said.
2) Expressing your needs is important. Be specific if you can, such as “I need an hour to myself without hearing the kids crying for me,” or “I need to get to the gym three times a week, will you please help me make that work?” You’ll be amazed how eager your loved ones are to help when they know what they can do. For more tips on How to Get Your Needs Met, read this.
3) Women tend to have a bigger issue with the “express your needs” part, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. We want others, especially the men in our lives, to be “mind readers,” to “know” what we need without having to tell him. I hear it all the time, “He should know better!” But ladies, the truth is, most of the time they simply don’t, and if you don’t ask, you have no right to expect a thing.
The second part of communication, listening, is equally important. Here are a few ways to improve your listening skills:
1) Active listening is key. Many people say they’re listening, but they fail to accurately hear what you’re saying. Take my husband, OJ, for instance. When I would tell him, “You’re not even listening to me” he used to quickly reply, “Yes I am” and repeat back the last few words I said. Sure, he may have heard a few of the words, but he’d been caught! He actually had no idea what I was really saying. There is a difference between hearing words and actively listening to the meaning behind the words. Active listening is the way to find understanding.
2) Reflective listening is a great tool. Reflective listening involves repeating back what the other person says and adding an interpretive quality. For instance OJ may say, “So, you’re saying you feel abandoned when I golf every weekend?” “Yes, exactly,” I might reply. And the conversation continues on from there until he cancels his golf plans to stay home and play with the kids all day so I can take a nap and read! Well, something like that anyway.
3) We too often fail to repeat back our interpretation of things, and that’s where we get in trouble. After all, it’s not about the facts as much as each individual’s interpretation of the facts that makes up our differences. Good communication involves making sure you understand what the other person is really saying, then making sure they know you understand.
Improve Communication=Improve Relationships
The examples above show how improved communication can strengthen our intimate relationships. When each partner is able to speak, and feel heard and understood, it only increases our connection and intimacy. It also helps prevent unnecessary problems from either a lack of communication or misunderstandings, and significantly improves problem-solving skills as a couple, too.
Communication skills are great for children, too. Teaching children to actively listen and reflect back their interpretation of what you or others say will be incredibly valuable as they navigate friendships, budding romances, and as they become adults.
Our children are even more lacking in communication skills than we were, thanks to the digital age of texting, emails and Facebook. They don’t even have to learn to spell correctly, let alone speak face to face, if they choose not to! Asking for dates, breaking up, fighting, making up–all are done via text these days. It makes for some poor communication skills.
Encourage your children to call their friends on the phone, to speak face-to-face about more important matters, and teach them what to say and do in social situations. I’ve taught my teenage sons that if they ever break up with a girl via text I will personally drive them to her house so they can make an embarrassing formal apology!
It’s also very important to model healthy communication for our children by using these skills in our relationship with them. We can also encourage them to keep the communication open. The most important job I feel I have as a parent is to make sure my children are comfortable talking to me. I make sure that if they come to me I will not condemn them. I will simply listen and do whatever I can to ensure they are safe, well, and loved; and yes, I will enact consequences as they are needed. But mostly, I want them to keep talking to me. That way no matter what kind of trouble comes their way, they feel safe coming to me. That matters.
Communicating well with others only strengthens us as individuals. It is the way to get our needs met and to resolve issues that may otherwise lead to mental or emotional distress. Healthy communication helps us improve the relationships that mean so much to us, and healthy relationships bring greater peace, joy, and love into our lives, too. Healthy communication also leads to greater health, relaxation, and less stress, overall, because when we ask for what we need, we tend to get it. Being a strong communicator is also a sign of a strong sense of self-worth. It shows we value who we are, what we think/feel, and what we need, and we are willing to make our voice known in this world.
Communication is everything. In order to keep ourselves strong and healthy, and our relationships flourishing, we must be open with one another. We must practice the skills of communication in order to keep our marriages, friendships, partnerships, families, and communities strong. Practice your communication skills. I guarantee, it is worth it!
“True listening, total concentration on the other, is always a manifestation of love. An essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, stepping inside his or her shoes. This unification of speaker and listener is actually an extension and enlargement of ourself, and new knowledge is always gained from this…. It also temporarily involves total acceptance of the other.”
~M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 128
What would you add about communication? Where do you struggle? What strategies and skills have helped you improve communication? Share with us by leaving a comment, below!
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