Effective communication is one of the most important life skills we can learn—yet one we don’t usually put a lot of effort into. Whether you want to have better conversations in your social life or get your ideas across better at work, here are some essential tips for learning to to communicate more effectively.
- Watch Your Body Language
You tell your partner you’re open to discussion, but your arms are crossed; say you’re listening but haven’t looked up from your phone yet. Our non-verbal and non-written cues often reveal more than we think they do. Whether it’s how you make eye contact or how you hold yourself during a video interview, don’t forget that you’re constantly communicating even when you’re not saying a word. One strange way to tap into your body for better communication? Think about your toes. Or adopt a power pose if you need to boost your confidence before a big talk. Or learn how to read other people’s body language so you can respond appropriately.
- Get Rid of Unnecessary Conversation Fillers
Um’s and ah’s do little to improve your speech or everyday conversations. Cut them out to be more persuasive and feel or appear more confident. One way is to start keeping track of when you say words like “um” or “like.” You could also try taking your hands out of your pockets or simply relaxing and pausing before you speak. Those silences seem more awkward to you than they do to others, trust us.
- Have a Script for Small Talk and Other Occasions
Small talk is an art that not many people have mastered. For the inevitable, awkward silences with people you hardly know, it helps to have a plan. The FORD (family, occupation, recreation dreams) method might help you come up with topics to discuss, and you can also turn small talk into conversation by sharing information that could help you and the other person find common ground. Hey, all that small talk could make you happier in the long run.
- Tell a Story
Stories are powerful. They activate our brains, make presentations suck less, make us more persuasive, and can even help us ace interviews. Learn the secrets of becoming a phenomenal storyteller with these rules from Pixar or by simply using the word “but” more to structure your narrative. Everyone’s got at least one great story in them.
- Ask Questions and Repeat the Other Person
Let’s face it, we’ve all drifted off when someone else was talking or misheard the other person. Asking questions and repeating the other person’s last few words shows you’re interested in what they say, keeps you on your toes, and helps clarify points that could be misunderstood (e.g., “So to recap, you’re going to buy the tickets for Saturday?”).
It also helps for small talk and to fill in awkward silences. Instead of trying to stir up conversation on mundane topics like the weather, ask the other person questions (e.g., “Got any plans for the summer?” or “What are you reading lately?”) and engage in their answers. It’s more important to be interested than to be interesting.
Small talk is pretty tough, both in practice and in principle. No one likes pointless conversation, …
- Put Away the Distractions
It’s pretty rude to use your phone while someone’s talking to you or you’re supposed to be hanging out with them. Maybe we can’t get rid of all our distractions or put away technology completely, but just taking the time to look up could vastly improve our communication with each other.
- Tailor Your Message to Your Audience
The best communicators adjust how they talk based on whom they’re speaking to; you’d probably use a different style of communication with co-workers or your boss compared to when you’re speaking with your significant other, kids, or elders. Always try to keep the other person’s perspective in mind when you try to get your message across.
- Be Brief Yet Specific
There’s actually a BRIEF acronym—Background, Reason, Information, End, Follow-up—to help you keep your emails short without leaving anything out. It’s a good policy for both written and verbal communication (I’ve always felt that my job as a writer was to clearly get the point across and then get off the page as soon as possible. Just two more items on this list!) Clear and concise are two of the 7 Cs of communication, along with concrete, correct, coherent, complete, and courteous.
- Up Your Empathy
Communication is a two-way street. If you practice taking the opposing viewpoint, you can reduce the difficulty and anxiety that sometimes arises when trying to truly communicate with others. (For example, knowing what your significant other really means when she says she’s too tired to talk.) Developing empathy helps you better understand even the unspoken parts of your communication with others, and helps you respond more effectively.
- Listen, Really Listen
Finally, going hand-in-hand with most of the points above, the best thing you can do to improve your communication skills is to learn to really listen—to pay attention and let the other person talk without interrupting. It’s hard work, we know, but “A good conversation is a bunch of words elegantly connected with listening.” Then, even if your communication styles don’t match, at least you’re both working off the same page. And hopefully the other person will be attentively listening to you too.