Good communication skills are central to good relationships. But communication is not simple. It’s a complex process of sending, receiving, and interpreting messages between different people who inevitable see the world different ways. But misunderstanding can lead to anger, frustration, and hurt feelings. It can create a vicious cycle of conflict and unhappiness in relationships. Surprisingly, the most essential skill in being a good communicator is mastering the art of listening. As Stephen Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
So how do we become better listeners? Being silent and paying attention to the other person are the keys. Many times we are so busy thinking about what we want to say, we barely hear the other person at all! Here are some “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for better communication:
* Jump in with advice or solutions, unless asked.
* Criticize or downplay feelings with statements like “You shouldn’t let it bother you” or “You’re too sensitive.”
* Give pat answers like, “Don’t worry about it” or “You’ll get over it”.
* Focus all your attention on the speaker. Turn off the TV, put the paper down, and look at the other person. Pay attention to the words, and also to nonverbal cues. What does their facial expression communicate? Does their tone of voice contradict what they say? Is their body relaxed or tense?
* Show that you’re listening by using neutral words like “Hmmm…, I see…, or uh huh”.
* Let the other person finish completely before expressing your thoughts.
* Practice “active listening” by restating or summarizing what you heard. For example, “That must have been frustrating for you” or “It sounds like you really tried but it just didn’t work out”.
* Keep communication going with questions. Ask a question, listen to the answer, then ask another question, based on what you heard. A simple example might be:
Me: “How was your day?”
You: “Exhausting, one problem after another.”
Me: “Sounds like tough day. What sort of problems came up?”
Being a good listener takes some effort. But it pays off in building trust and positive feelings in our relationships. And when a spouse, family member or friend feels listened to and accepted, they will usually offer understanding and caring in return. And this is the kind of “gentle cycle” we all want in our relationships.