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Communication Skills

Conversation is a skill and an art. Conversation is not a random exchange of words; we can use structures and techniques which permit better transmission of ideas and feelings. We can practice these skills whenever we talk. If we need a low-pressure environment for experimenting with these skills, we can test them in "small talk" with strangers -- or we might videotape ourselves as we converse with friends (or in a mock conversation when we are alone).

Techniques for conversation.  

  1. Be confident. As we learn the skills, and discover that they are effective, our confidence increases in conversations. We also find that many people are eager to talk to us; they enjoy meeting someone new and finding common interests. We, too, experience more of this pleasure as our conversations become easier, more successful, and more fun.
  2. Be relaxed. If we act comfortable, our conversation partner is likely to be more expressive and warm. We create this openness by acting patient (giving the person time to speak, and not interrupting unless we need an explanation), by paying attention (not looking at our watch or other people), speaking in a deeper tone and slower pace, and by using friendly body language (a calm facial expression, a smile, and composure in our movements and posture). To relax, we suspend "performance anxiety"; this conversation is to be enjoyed, not to prove anything -- and as an art form, it flourishes when we conduct it primarily from the playful right hemisphere of the brain rather than the analytical left.
  3. Be accepting. Our partner needs to feel "safe," knowing that his or her words and mannerisms aren't being scrutinized or criticized. The speaker wants to talk to someone who acknowledges, understands, and respects the validity of the feelings, but he or she might not be seeking either sympathy or approval; sometimes a person merely wants someone to listen with attentiveness and warmth, so our opinion might not even be wanted.
  4. Try to enter the other person's world. We generally live in our own worlds; we view events differently, we think differently, and we have slightly different meanings for words. To understand someone else's words, we need to grasp a larger sense of the person. To an extent that we are able, we set aside our preconceptions, our stereotypes, our psychological models, and our desire to "hear what we want to hear." We try to understand the general viewpoint from which this person is speaking; we might find glimpses of the speaker's past, and childhood, and subculture, and experiences, and conclusions about life. When we do this, we gain empathy, better comprehension, a more intimate dialogue, and a fascinating voyage into the new territory of another person's way of perceiving, thinking, and feeling.
  5. Make the conversation personal. We might develop certain structures and formulas to use in conversation, but we need to allow flexibility and spontaneity because we are speaking to a unique individual in a one-of-a-kind tete-a-tete. Personalize a conversation by revealing feelings, perspectives, and personal information about yourself -- but only to an extent which is appropriate with this individual, in this situation, and at this stage of the conversation (i.e., not too soon). You are presenting yourself, not textbook ideas or flippant cliches. Another way to make a conversation personal is to say your friend's name often: "Mary, I know what you mean."
  6. Make the conversation fun for the other person. Even when a conversation is primarily for the exchange of information, we can add flourishes which make it entertaining: colorful details, humor, and an animation of our expressions and gestures. And when listening, we can show our interest and appreciation by responding through comments, gestures, and facial expressions.
  7. Express your opinions. Opinions personalize and enliven a conversation. They must be expressed appropriately; some topics (such as religion and politics) tend to incite discomfort and arguments. An opinion needs to be presented gently as a personal thought, and not as a belligerent stance; this approach allows the other person to give a contrary perspective without any apprehension that a quarrel will ensue. To indicate that our opinion is an invitation to communicate (and not to argue dogma), we can start with the words, "In my opinion ..." or "It seems to me that ..."
  8. Keep the conversation going. A conversation retains momentum if we listen carefully to the speaker's words and respond sincerely with our remarks and body language (such as gestures and facial expressions) to demonstrate that we are being entertained and informed. We can encourage the speaker with comments such as these: "I have always wanted to know more about that subject" or "What happened then?" or "What did you feel about that?" When we are the speaker, we can take responsibility for adding some engaging details even if our listener does not ask for them. And if we know that a person or group likes to talk about a specific subject, we can enhance our ability to converse in that situation by reading about the topic (and then getting more knowledge from the conversations themselves).
  9. Use open-ended questions. We advance the conversation by asking "open-ended questions" which require details and personal involvement (for example, "What kind of person is she?"); "closed-ended questions" are those which could be answered with "yes" or "no" or another brief, factual answer which might leave us with little to build upon (for example, "What kind of work does she do?"). When we are asked a closed-ended question, we can add further information so the conversation does not stall out with a one-word response, such as "yes": "Yes, I enjoy my new apartment, especially the neighbors. ..." (In this example, we go on to describe the neighbors.)
  10. Accept the silences. Sometimes we run out of things to say, and we encounter the dreaded "silence." If we are fearfully anticipating those pauses, we are not listening to the person (and not picking up on the cues upon which we continue the conversation). An occasional lull can be useful; it lets us relax, and digest what has been said, and then perhaps veer to a new topic. Silence also allows democracy; if one person has been dominating the conversation, a pause lets the other person speak. To be comfortable with the inevitable silences is to be comfortable with ourselves and our partner. If we become self-conscious during these moments (or at any time other during the conversation), we lose contact with our feelings and thoughts and with the person and our surroundings -- and those are the sources of conversation topics which would bring a natural end to the silence.
  11. Be an "active listener." In "active listening," we give feedback to assure that we comprehend the speaker; it is particularly useful when we aren't sure of the meaning, or of deeper implications, or of any emotions which were implied but not expressed (in the words or body language). As an active listener, we paraphrase the speaker's words, adding our interpretation; this allows the speaker to correct any misunderstanding, and it confirms that we are listening and thinking. Our response can begin with the words, "If I understand you, you're saying that ...," or "Are you telling me that ...?" or "What do you mean when you say that ...?"
  12. Be able to give and receive compliments. If we know how to give and receive compliments, we enhance our friendship (and we enhance the probability that we will receive more compliments). Some people become embarrassed and self-conscious when receiving a compliment, so they might prefer one which is followed by a question; for example, we can say, "That is a beautiful blouse. Did you buy it recently?" When a question is added, the attention does not dwell on the person, possibly making him or her self-conscious and uncomfortable. When we are complimented, we can similarly direct the conversation away from ourselves: "My grandmother bought this blouse for me yesterday. Did I tell you that she is in town for a visit?" When complimented, useful responses include, "Thank you; it was nice of you to notice," or simply, "Thank you." Our compliments are more believable and effective if we smile, and if we are spontaneous (i.e., the compliments are neither expected nor too frequent), non-comparative (so the blouse isn't beautiful only in contrast to someone else's blouse), and sincere (so we aren't using "flattery" which lacks feeling and is probably being stated merely for its effect). Be specific: say the person's name, and say exactly what you like (e.g., "Janet, the color of that blouse goes well with your hair color.")

Techniques for disagreements and arguments.  

  1. It's all right to argue. Conflict is a part of life. Ideally, it could be settled without arguing. But when we feel strong emotions, and an intense need to express ourselves and to change a situation, arguments might occur. In that case, we do better to reveal our feelings -- regardless of the volume and heat -- than to deny the problem and allow it to worsen; sometimes the harshest argument is the most honest and productive. Arguments are indications that we care; the passion of the argument is equal to the passion of the relationship. Disagreements can result in understanding and a decrease of tension. If we follow the guidelines given here, our conflicts can be settled more fruitfully and congenially.
  2. "Winning" isn't the goal. When one person "wins" an argument, we usually have accomplished nothing to resolve the issue, and we have alienated the other person (who probably is not convinced that he or she is "wrong" anyway). In a constructive disagreement, we clarify the problem and discuss ideas which would lead to a solution -- perhaps an understanding or a change of behavior. And, if we play by the rules of disagreements, we achieve another goal: a friendlier and more successful relationship with the person.
  3. Timing is important. When you become aware of a problem, mention it soon, so that your feelings can be expressed directly (rather than in the exaggerated form they might assume if allowed to fester). Speak to the person when you two can be alone; if other people are listening, the main concern might be to "save face" rather than to discuss the matter. Select a time when the person is likely to be receptive -- not when he or she is obviously engaged by other problems. Find an occasion when you can both set aside some time for the talk; don't start to discuss a complex issue three minutes before the lunch whistle. And then, at the end of the dialogue, you might want to allow time for both parties to think further about the subject before deciding on an action (but don't let this delay become a procrastination).
  4. Express your grievance directly. As clearly and objectively as possible, tell the person your thoughts on the subject, and how you feel about it. Use past examples which exemplify the problem. To avoid creating a personal attack (which would probably cause a defensive reaction), talk about the behavior, not the person or motives; say, "These reports need to be sent every day," not, "You have been negligent in sending the reports because you are always in a hurry to go to happy hour." Offer suggestions for a possible resolution, and describe the favorable consequences which could occur if an accord is found. When our view is an opinion, we can state it as such, and not as a fact; this leaves room for the person to state his or her opinion (and it also permits you to retain more dignity if your "fact" is proven to be incorrect).
  5. Let the other person speak. Listen carefully, without becoming defensive or angry, and without interrupting (except for clarification). Ask for an explanation of any point or emotion which you don't understand; beware of taking anything for granted or assuming implications about the statements or motives. Even if the opinion seems unreasonable, show respect for the fact that everyone is entitled to an opinion of any type. And consider the possibility that the person merely wants to be heard and understood, or wants to "blow off steam"; in those situations, we need only to listen and say that we empathize (even if we don't understand).
  6. Be respectful. When we "fight dirty" in an argument, we diminish the possibility of a resolution, we damage the relationship, and we create the possibility of further conflict and retaliation. Refrain from insults, accusations, sarcasm, threats, or attacks on the person's intelligence or judgment; if we talk about the problem and behavior as objectively as possible, the person will be less inclined to become defensive or emotionally distraught. Appreciate the person's cooperation in talking about the matter.
  7. Stay on the subject. A productive argument has a well-defined subject; we don't mention other issues, and we don't entangle other people. In defining the conflict, we need to find its real reason; for example, are we angry because the person was late for dinner, or is the anger actually resulting from our feeling that he or she doesn't pay enough attention to us?
  8. Look for points of agreement. We build a resolution step-by-step by finding elements upon which we agree; perhaps the only agreement is that we both want to settle the issue. We might even start with a compliment: "These three things are very good, but this other one is not what I requested."
  9. Try to learn from the disagreement. In an argument, if we calmly sort the data from the emotional debris, we might gain useful input. And if we present our views as opinions and suggestions (rather than facts which have been presented aggressively), we allow the person to consider our perspectives without feeling that that would be an admission of surrender. Despite the histrionics, the argument has been an exchange of information which might be valuable to both parties.


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