How Being a Better Communicator Will Make Your Life (and Relationships) Better
It's said that communication is key, but many people still underestimate the value of being able to effectively express themselves and hear out others.
When you get better at conversation, many times other aspects of your life also tend to improve. We were curious about the topic, so we reached out to Judy Apps, TEDx speaker and author of The Art of Communication and other titles, to fill us in on the importance of strong communication—and how to get there.
Sweety High: What are some of the ways our lives get better when we learn to become better communicators?
Judy Apps: It's surprising how often people who are happy and successful in life owe their good fortune to having learned to communicate well. "I just knew what to say at interview," or, "We started to go out after we got chatting," or, "It's amazing how things come your way when you know how to get on with people."
Do you ever watch other people happily chatting together and wonder what their secret is—whether they're better-looking, cooler, or more into the right fashion or music? Could it be that they're just good at communicating? It may look as if some people are just born for it, but the truth is that we can all become fantastic communicators—if we know how.
SH: Why aren't communication skills taught more formally?
JA: The thing is, most of us were never taught how to communicate well. We picked up our ways of relating to people from the way our parents or careers did it. To put it simply, if all we heard was commands like "Don't dirty that!" or "Stop crying!" we're more likely to have a domineering communication style. Or if we were always ignored or told to be quiet, we probably struggle to find the right words to say what we mean.
Good communication could be taught formally, but it would require teachers who understand how it works. It's not the same as learning how to debate or give a talk. It's about much more than just talking—you need to listen well, to tune into people and, above all, to empathize. Then people begin to trust you and become more genuine.
SH: Why is fear such a big blocker when it comes to good conversation, and how can we overcome it?
JA: You know that feeling of being with someone and just not knowing what to say? You both feel more and more awkward, and the more you worry, the less you have a clue about how to break the silence. Many of us want to avoid making idiots of ourselves by saying the wrong thing, so we wait for the other person to take the lead.
But it's low-risk to take the lead if you remember just two easy steps. One: ask a question. Two: Keep it super simple.
You don't need to be wonderfully clever or interesting or funny. Take the pressure off yourself. Just get something started by asking a simple everyday question, like "Is this your first day?" or "What time's the meeting?" or "Were you here last year?"
If they don't answer or just grunt, nothing lost. Just pat yourself on the back for having taken the initiative. If the other person answers, that's great, and you can say something back. Then before you know it, you're in the middle of a conversation.
SH: What can we do when we don't think we're being heard effectively?
JA: If people aren't listening to you, there are a few things you can try. First, look at them. If you gaze at the floor, your words tend to sink into the floor. Second, emphasize the important words. It's easy to do, slows you down and makes you clearer and much easier to listen to. Third, just go for it! Have the intention to be heard. You'd make sure you were heard if you needed to yell, "Fire!" wouldn't you?
Most important, breathe! Talking to people isn't much different from kicking a ball or jumping into a swimming pool— it's energetic. You need a decent breath before you launch into words. With a tiny rushed breath, you soon feel yourself running out of air and then start to garble your words. Then you tend to tighten up, making your voice pinched and constrained. Also give your breath character. Breathe in enthusiastically if you're enthusiastic, breathe in firmly if you have something definite to say and breathe in gently if you want to empathize.
SH: What can we do to help when someone else isn't being heard?
JA: There are a couple of options in that situation. First, you can tell the person speaking, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that." While you're saying it to the speaker, you'll be speaking on behalf of everyone. Or you can speak to everyone, and say, "I'm sorry, I just missed what Mike said. What was that, Mike?"
SH: Why is it important to understand the different categories of conversation?
JA: When you understand how conversation works, you can get closer to people. Some types of conversation are especially good for connecting well. Often conversations start naturally with talking about things: "What train did you catch?" or "What phone do you have?" That's great as a starter, but if you continue to talk about things you don't find out much about the other person.
Talking about activities makes the conversation more interesting and tells you a bit more about people, such as "What are you doing this weekend?" "What sports do you play?" You can get quite a good conversation going this way. But to get really close to people you need something more.
To get to the heart of the matter, it's useful to find out what's important to the other person, what matters to them, and why they think the way they do. This is where "Heart Talk" comes in, and there are two types of questions that are especially useful here. The first is about enjoyment and passion. "What do you like best about travel?" or "What do you really love doing when you've got time in the holidays?" The second is the beautiful word why—said with gentle interest, by the way, not in an accusing tone! "Why is gymnastics important to you?" or "Why do you help the younger kids with drama?"You'll find, if you ask such questions with empathy, people will tell you about themselves and start to trust you.
SH: How can we prepare ourselves for the difficult conversations we don't want to have?
JA: When there's a difficult conversation coming up, it's all too easy to think things like, "They're not going to like this. They're going to get angry. This is too scary. I really shouldn't say anything." Remind yourself that it's okay to have this conversation. You have every right to say what you want in a situation, just as others have the right to express what they want, too. Remind yourself that this is the only way to get a good result. If you ignore difficult conversations, issues build up and get much worse, and it's much better to have it out now.
Breathe to calm yourself. Slow breath in for four seconds, and a slow breath out for eight. Just say what happened or is happening, and how something was or is for you. For example, "When you went off and got a ride the other night without saying anything, when we usually walk home together, I felt quite hurt." Never accuse.
It's also important to empathize: "I know it must have been exciting to meet someone you really like, and I'd have probably felt the same." Never dig up dirt from the past or say, "You always do this," or "You never do that." Tell the other person what you'd like to happen. For example, "Can you just quickly say something next time? I'll understand, and at least I'll know."
If the other person gets angry or accuses you, just keep your cool, acknowledge what they've said and return to your own statement. Don't get drawn into confrontation. Follow these pointers, and you'll be amazed how even big issues become manageable and how relationships become easier and stronger.
SH: What other communication topics do you think are really crucial to understand?
JA: The biggest killer of good communication is inner talk before you even open your mouth. It's that little voice inside that tells you that the other person is one of the in-crowd and won't want to talk to you, or the voice that tells you you're unattractive, spotty, awkward, stupid or unacceptable in a million other ways. That voice is not your friend—and not even particularly truthful—so it's worth knocking it on the head by saying nice stuff to yourself instead.
Remind yourself often of your good qualities. You're kind. You're a good friend. You're enthusiastic. It's not about being perfect—no way. No one wants to communicate with perfection. We're all imperfect, and there's no one as attractive and easy to talk to as someone who's just themself, warts and all. Remind yourself constantly, "I'm okay. I really am. I'm a nice person. My heart's in the right place." Practice being kind to yourself. After all, if you don't like yourself, why should anyone else?
Remember, too, that it's the most fun to communicate with someone who is positive rather than negative. Your life might not feel too good all the time, but remind yourself of what's working in your life. Maybe even, each evening before bed, write down what has been good that day, so you go to sleep with happy thoughts. I'm not being unrealistic. Every day has good bits, even if it's only that piece of music you heard or someone smiling at something funny you said. If you do this every day for a while, you'll find that you become more upbeat and people enjoy your company more—and conversation gets easier and more fun.
For more on why communication is so important, click HERE to find out why you should stop expecting people to know why you're upset with them.