Improving communication skills #2: Pay attention to nonverbal signals
When we communicate things that we care about, we do so mainly using nonverbal signals. Nonverbal communication, or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, the tone of your voice, and even your muscle tension and breathing. The way you look, listen, move, and react to another person tells them more about how you’re feeling than words alone ever can.
Developing the ability to understand and use nonverbal communication can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations, and build better relationships at home and work.
- You can enhance effective communication by using open body language—arms uncrossed, standing with an open stance or sitting on the edge of your seat, and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re talking to.
- You can also use body language to emphasize or enhance your verbal message—patting a friend on the back while complimenting him on his success, for example, or pounding your fists to underline your message.
Tips for improving how you read nonverbal communication
- Be aware of individual differences. People from different countries and cultures tend to use different nonverbal communication gestures, so it’s important to take age, culture, religion, gender, and emotional state into account when reading body language signals. An American teen, a grieving widow, and an Asian businessman, for example, are likely to use nonverbal signals differently.
- Look at nonverbal communication signals as a group. Don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you receive, from eye contact to tone of voice to body language. Anyone can slip up occasionally and let eye contact slip, for example, or briefly cross their arms without meaning to. Consider the signals as a whole to get a better “read” on a person.
Tips for improving how you deliver nonverbal communication
- Use nonverbal signals that match up with your words. Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said, not contradict it. If you say one thing, but your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you’re being dishonest. For example, you can’t say “yes” while shaking your head no.
- Adjust your nonverbal signals according to the context. The tone of your voice, for example, should be different when you’re addressing a child than when you’re addressing a group of adults. Similarly, take into account the emotional state and cultural background of the person you’re interacting with.
- Use body language to convey positive feelings even when you’re not actually experiencing them. If you’re nervous about a situation—a job interview, important presentation, or first date, for example—you can use positive body language to signal confidence, even though you’re not feeling it. Instead of tentatively entering a room with your head down, eyes averted, and sliding into a chair, try standing tall with your shoulders back, smiling and maintaining eye contact, and delivering a firm handshake. It will make you feel more self-confident and help to put the other person at ease.
Improving communication skills #3: Keep stress in check
To communicate effectively, you need to be aware of and in control of your emotions. And that means learning how to manage stress. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior.
How many times have you felt stressed during a disagreement with your spouse, kids, boss, friends, or coworkers and then said or done something you later regretted? If you can quickly relieve stress and return to a calm state, you’ll not only avoid such regrets, but in many cases you’ll also help to calm the other person as well. It’s only when you’re in a calm, relaxed state that you’ll be able to know whether the situation requires a response, or whether the other person’s signals indicate it would be better to remain silent.
Staying calm under pressure
In situations such as a job interview, business presentation, high-pressure meeting, or introduction to a loved one’s family, for example, it’s important to manage your emotions, think on your feet, and effectively communicate under pressure. These tips can help:
- Use stalling tactics to give yourself time to think. Have a question repeated, or ask for clarification of a statement before responding.
- Pause to collect your thoughts. Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing—pausing can make you seem more in control than rushing your response.
- Make one point and provide an example or supporting piece of information. If your response is too long or you waffle about a number of points, you risk losing the listener’s interest. Follow one point with an example and then gauge the listener’s reaction to tell if you should make a second point.
- Deliver your words clearly. In many cases, how you say something can be as important as what you say. Speak clearly, maintain an even tone, and make eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed and open.
- Wrap up with a summary and then stop. Summarize your response and then stop talking, even if it leaves a silence in the room. You don’t have to fill the silence by continuing to talk.
Quick stress relief for effective communication
When things start to get heated in the middle of a conversation, you need something quick and immediate to bring down the emotional intensity. By learning to quickly reduce stress in the moment, though, you can safely face any strong emotions you’re experiencing, regulate your feelings, and behave appropriately. When you know how to maintain a relaxed, energized state of awareness—even when something upsetting happens—you can remain emotionally available and engaged.
To deal with stress during communication:
- Recognize when you’re becoming stressed. Your body will let you know if you’re stressed as you communicate. Are your muscles or your stomach tight and/or sore? Are your hands clenched? Is your breath shallow? Are you “forgetting” to breathe?
- Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation or postpone it.
- Bring your senses to the rescue and quickly manage stress by taking a few deep breaths, clenching and relaxing muscles, or recalling a soothing, sensory-rich image, for example. The best way to rapidly and reliably relieve stress is through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing to you.
- Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to relieve stress when communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.
- Be willing to compromise. Sometimes, if you can both bend a little, you’ll be able to find a happy middle ground that reduces the stress levels for everyone concerned. If you realize that the other person cares much more about something than you do, compromise may be easier for you and a good investment in the future of the relationship.
- Agree to disagree, if necessary, and take time away from the situation so everyone can calm down. Take a quick break and move away from the situation. Go for a stroll outside if possible, or spend a few minutes meditating. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance can quickly reduce stress.
Improving communication skills #4: Assert yourself
Direct, assertive expression makes for clear communication and can help boost self-esteem and decision-making. Being assertive means expressing your thoughts, feelings, and needs in an open and honest way, while standing up for yourself and respecting others. It does NOT mean being hostile, aggressive, or demanding. Effective communication is always about understanding the other person, not about winning an argument or forcing your opinions on others.
To improve assertiveness:
- Value yourself and your opinions. They are as important as anyone else’s.
- Know your needs and wants. Learn to express them without infringing on the rights of others.
- Express negative thoughts in a positive way. It’s OK to be angry, but you must be respectful as well.
- Receive feedback positively. Accept compliments graciously, learn from your mistakes, ask for help when needed.
- Learn to say “no.” Know your limits and don’t let others take advantage of you. Look for alternatives so everyone feels good about the outcome.
Developing assertive communication techniques
- Empathetic assertion conveys sensitivity to the other person. First, recognize the other person’s situation or feelings, then state your needs or opinion. “I know you’ve been very busy at work, but I want you to make time for us as well.”
- Escalating assertion can be used when your first attempts are not successful. You become increasingly firm as time progresses, which may include outlining consequences if your needs are not met. For example, “If you don’t abide by the contract, I’ll be forced to pursue legal action.”
- Practice assertiveness in lower risk situations to start with to help build up your confidence. Or ask friends or family if you can practice assertiveness techniques on them first.