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How to improve your communication skills

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Improving communication skills helps us become effective communicators. Ineffective communication causes misunderstandings, conflicts and strongly influences the quality of our relationships. Effective communication includes not only the exchange of information but understanding the emotions attached to the information. Becoming an effective communicator consists of four skills:

1. Listening: Listening includes not only understanding the words being used but also understanding how the speaker is feeling about what is being communicated. It is critical that the speaker feels that he or she is being heard and understood. Understand the speaker by asking clarifying questions and displaying verbal and nonverbal cues that you sincerely understand and want to understand what is being spoken. Listening entails focusing and paying close attention to the speaker. Other tips include not interrupting or redirecting the conversation to a topic of your concern. For example, if you said, “If you think your son is doing well in science, let me tell you about my daughter’s excellence in mathematics.” This reflects redirecting the conversation and as such not effectively listening. Be careful not to appear judgmental of what the speaker is saying as it will quickly end an effective and sincere interaction. Listening means that you are truly and sincerely listening to the speaker not simply waiting for your turn to talk.

2. Nonverbal messages: Nonverbal messages include eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions and any other body language you display to the speaker. Nonverbal messages are as important if not more important than the spoken word. Open body language enhances effective communication. Open body language includes uncrossed arms, maintaining eye contact and sitting on the edge of your seat instead of slouching back in the seat. It is important to be aware of cultural differences in body language. For example, those in the Middle East are comfortable being almost face to face while talking. Americans have a different sense of personal space during conversations. Other tips include ensuring that your words and body language are congruent. For example, saying no while shaking your head yes. The speaker will not be comfortable and may feel that you are being dishonest.

3. Managing stress: Chronic stress dampens effective communication. Stress can affect your ability to think clearly and behave appropriately. We have all been there. Saying something we regret later and attributing doing so on being stressed. I have discussed in other articles that applying stress management techniques on a regular basis helps us manage our stressors. Meditation, exercise, visualization and progressive muscle relaxation are some examples. Find what works for you and give it a try. During conversation if a stressful situation arises try using the following tips and avoid regretting your interaction. First, recognize that you are stressed as we all have symptoms indicating stress such as muscle tightness, stomach churning or a significant change in breathing. Take a few deep breaths, ask for a time out or inject some humor into the conversation if appropriate. As a last ditch effort simple agree to disagree.

4. Emotional awareness: Being aware of how you are feeling, particularly during conversations, is vital in effectively communicating. It will be difficult at best to effectively communicate if you are not in tune to your emotions overall and in the moment. If you find that you are squabbling with others during most of your interactions you most likely are not emotionally aware of yourself let alone being able to assess a speaker’s emotional state. Try to specifically identify emotions problematic to you such as fear, anger or sadness. Once identified learn to manage them and when they arise during conversations you are more apt not to respond to them negatively during your conversation. Seek professional assistance if needed. That’s how important emotional awareness is to effective communication.

There you have it! Work on active listening, understanding nonverbal messages, managing stress and developing emotional awareness. You will improve your communication skills and become an effective communicator. Don’t hesitate to meet with a licensed mental health professional to assist you in becoming an effective communicator. Such professionals can help you with all four of the skills discussed in this article.

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