Good communication is a skill set, not something you are born with. That’s good news! It means no matter who you are, or where you come from, you can learn to be good at interpersonal communication. In this section we’ll take a look at the basic skills of good interpersonal communication.
Reflective listening is THE basic skill in good communication. It’s super simple. Simple, however, does not mean easy. There are many things that are simple but not easy, like balancing the congressional budget. It seems simple enough – don’t spend more money than you have. It must be a lot harder than that though, since nobody can seem to do it. I digress.
The parts to reflective listening are: 1) Speaker, 2) Listener, 3) Reflection
Speaker: The tough job of the speaker is knowing what’s going on inside of you. You can’t share with another person what you are thinking and feeling if you don’t know. So, you have to take the time to reflect on what your path to action is so that you can share it with the listener. This tends to be harder than it sounds since we are so trained to look outward at the other person and not inward towards our own experience. It’s not about what they did but what you experienced. The use of “I” statements instead of “you” is generally a good indicator you are on the right track.
Sharing Your Path – As speaker you are going to be sharing your path to action with others, so that they can understand where it is you are coming from. That means you have to be aware of your path to action. This includes the FACTS (what you saw and heard), your STORY (your interpretation of what you saw and heard), and your FEELINGS (what you felt, based on your story). Try this formula: “When I heard/saw, I understood that to mean, which left me feeling...”
Listener: As listener, the tough job is staying focused on what the speaker is sharing. Inevitably, as the speaker begins to talk you are going to have numerous thoughts pop up: “That’s not how I remember it.” “That’s not what I said, and I know that’s not what I meant.” “Why do you think that?” etc. The temptation is to interrupt the speaker, especially if you believe they wouldn’t think or feel the way they do “if only they knew” what you know. Surely the most loving thing to do is to cut them off and tell them they are remembering things wrong, that they should remember it like you do, think and feel like you do, and everything will be great. That approach goes over like a lead balloon.
What you have to do as listener is shelf your thoughts and questions for the time being. You’ll have a chance to ask your questions and share your side later. Right now, your focus is on getting into the shoes of the other person. You are trying to understand their path to action and how they experienced the situation – which likely will be very different than you. That is OK. You are free to remember it differently, think about it differently, and feel different about it. You can even believe you would feel different if you were in their shoes. This part is not about YOU; it’s about understanding (not necessarily agreeing with) THEM.
Reflection: Did you ever play the game of telephone in grade school? You know the one where the teacher whispers a story into a student’s ear, who then whispers it to the next until it makes it way all the way around the class. The story never came out quite the same on the other end did it? That’s because what we think we thought we heard is not necessarily what the other person intended to say.
That’s why we need a feedback loop. Reflection is the listener’s opportunity to confirm with the speaker that what they heard is in fact what the speaker was trying to say. It’s a brief synopsis of what the speaker communicated, focused primarily on the emotions (since those are often what gets lost). You reflect the FACTS (“so when you heard and saw…”), and the STORY (“you understood that to mean…”), then the FEELINGS (“which left you feeling…”).
Often it is helpful, especially as you are first getting started practicing the speaker/listener approach, to use an object (such as a stuffed animal) to indicate who is supposed to be talking at any given point. The visual que can be helpful in knowing what role you are in at the moment (speaker or listener).
Body language plays an important role in communication. It either communicates respect and an earnest desire to hear and understand the other, or a disinterested disrespect. The basics of good body language in communication are:
- Stop everything else you are doing and give the other person your undivided attention. This means NO multi-tasking. Multi-tasking says “You and what you have to say is not important enough for me to give you my complete focus.” Not a good way to start things.
- Turn your body towards the person so you are facing them.
- Look them in the eyes.
- Smile—this communicates “I like you” and ensures your face isn’t in a state of RBF (Resting “Bad” Face) and communicating something negative unintentionally, setting a poor tone for the conversation.
- Arms. Be aware of them – crossed arms can communicate apprehension and fiddling with stuff in your hands can communicate disinterest.
- Nod your head, naturally. It communicates you are listening and perhaps understanding (not necessarily agreeing).
- Barriers. Try not to have any objects between you and the other person. If at a table clear items to the side.
- Distance. This one can be tricky depending on the culture, but one to two arm lengths is a good rule of…arm. If you leaned forward and stretched out your hand and they did the same, would your hands touch? If not, you are probably too far away. If they can’t extend their arm toward you without touching you, you are probably too close.
With today’s technology it can be really tempting to have serious conversations by way of text or messaging – DON’T DO IT. It does not set things up for success. Refuse to have emotionally charged conversations by text or email.
Some say, “But writing it out helps me think through and organize my thoughts better.” Awesome. I highly encourage you use a pen and paper to write your thoughts in advance; it will help. Then have a conversation in-person, Facetime, or over phone call – in that order of preference. You can always follow-up the conversation with an email to confirm what was discussed in person.
Text and email are excellent forms of communication for sharing facts and information to accomplish a task, or pretty pictures of what you are about to eat with your friends. They are not well suited for emotionally charged subjects.
Some people will resist having in-person or phone conversations (for various reasons). Don’t give in. You choose to handle things in a healthy way, even if that leaves others feeling uncomfortable because they are accustomed to handling things in unhealthy ways. When someone starts to text about an emotionally charged subject, respond with, “I’ll give you a call about this shortly.” or “Let’s meet up to chat about this.” Same thing for email. Take the conversation from offline to face-to-face or voice-to-voice ASAP.
Another good rule to live by is: Write praise; speak correction. Avoid writing or typing out negative feedback but do be intentional about writing out positive praise. You want the resounding echo of your voice to be that of encouragement when re-read. This is different than writing your thoughts out ahead of time in order to process them to prepare for a conversation. We’re talking here about written things that you plan to give to others.
Choose a Helpful Time and Place
There may never be a perfect time, but some are better than others. Trying to engage a serious conversation when either of you are hungry, stressed out, tired, or focused on something else where you can’t give your undivided attention – is a bad idea. After 9 pm or before 7 am are typically not ideal times. Our mental fatigue does not put us or them in a position to have the best shot at a positive outcome.
As a rule, having a private place free of distractions is the ideal location for emotionally charged conversations. You might make an exception though if the other person has the bad habit of becoming loud and/or disrespectful when upset. In which case, it can sometimes be helpful to intentionally have the conversation in a more public setting. This both provides some social pressure for the person to maintain self-control and gives you the opportunity to leave the setting if they are unwilling to engage respectfully (coming separately is a good idea in this scenario).
If your style under stress is violence when you feel strong emotion, you feel a sense of urgency to get things hashed out right now. This is almost always a bad idea. You need to give yourself space to sort through your path to action.
Having done this, ASK permission to engage a conversation – “I would like to talk with you about what happened with…, is now a good time or when would be?” This respects the other person, who may or may not be ready to engage the conversation in a healthy way. They, like you, have a responsibility to manage themselves to ensure they show up well.
Consider also that while you may have been thinking about the conversation a lot and know exactly what you want to say, maybe they haven’t. They may need some time to put their thoughts together. Don’t be inconsiderate and controlling by trying to force the conversation in your timing.
Understand, then Understood
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. We all want to be understood and feel unhappy about not being understood. There’s an internal pressure or angst that compels us to try to have our side grasped by the other. The problem is the other person feels the same way. So much so that there’s a good chance it’s going to get in the way of them hearing your side.
You always have a better chance of being heard and understood if you first endeavor to have the other person feel heard and understood. Invite the other person to share their path to action first, with a genuine desire to understand where they are coming from.
Don’t Say “I Understand”
Saying “I understand” doesn’t communicate understanding. All it conveys is that you think you understand. Demonstrate that you truly understand by reflecting what you heard and asking for confirmation from the other person that what you believe you understand is indeed what they were trying to say. Try “I think I understand. Are you saying…?”
Failure to prepare is preparing for failure. The wise person takes time to reflect on their path to action and to try to put themselves in the other’s shoes, prior to engaging the conversation. Be clear with yourself on:
- What’s my goal in having this conversation?
- What will help me reach that goal/desire?
- What am I feeling? What did I see or hear? What’s the story that connects the two?
It is helpful to put pen and paper to it. Write down what you want to say. Identify what you are hoping to accomplish. What do you want for the relationship? Very often your first draft will contain a lot of emotional venting. Once you have that out, the second draft tends to have a more productive communication of your vulnerable emotions and what you want for the relationship.
“Success is found in a multitude of counselors.” God has placed people in your life with wisdom and perspective; don’t rob yourself of the benefit of it. Ask yourself, “Who could I get counsel from on this?” Chances are, someone you trust has faced similar circumstances who can share their experience in a way that could give insight into the situation.
It’s also helpful to have a sounding board outside of your own head to bounce things off of. Someone who has permission to give you tough feedback if they feel like maybe you’re being unreasonable or missing an important angle. It’s not helpful to look to individuals who are just going to bandwagon with you, validating your opinion no matter what.
Avoid Triangulation and Gossip
Triangulation and gossip are different than seeking wise counsel. If you have a concern with Patty, you need to have a conversation with Patty. You might talk with Margaret about the matter, but only for the earnest intent of helping you have a better conversation with Patty. Definitely not to try to get Margaret to talk to Patty. Venting to Margaret about Patty to get it off your chest so you don’t feel the emotional need to talk to Patty is not helpful either.
The Bible directs us to go to the person we have a concern or issue with (Matthew 18:15).
If you find yourself on the receiving end, someone coming to you, of triangulation or gossip, the best response I know of is “It sounds like you need to have a conversation with (The person who the issue is with).”
Prayer, of course, is a must for effective communication around emotionally charged subjects. We need the Lord’s help and His help is available if we only ask. King Jesus wants us to show up, and we want to represent Him well in how we navigate difficult conversations. We can count on His help when we ask. The Scriptures say He gives wisdom generously to those who humbly ask (James 1:5).
One way to pray is what I call the “Magic Prayer,” which is a corny and odd name, but is nevertheless what I call it. It goes like this: “Lord, if this thing that is bothering me with (insert name here) bothers You as much as it bothers me, then smite them.” No, not really.
It goes like this, “Lord, if this thing that is bothering me with (insert name here) bothers you as much as it bothers me, bring conviction to their heart and lead them into your truth. BUT, if it doesn’t bother you as much as it bothers me, change my heart to be more like yours. Help me see it like you do and handle it in a way that brings you glory.”
I’ll tell you the second half is a lot harder to pray than the first. This prayer does two things: 1) It acknowledges that there is a Holy Spirit, who brings conviction and leads into truth, and I’m not Him. It demonstrates a trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to direct the heart of the other person and places God’s desires for them above what we would like to see in the situation. Secondly, 2) It humbly submits our heart before the Lord, acknowledging our fallibility and the very real possibility that our perspective on the situation may differ from God’s. If so, it’s our perspective that needs to change.
Overt vs Covert
God can read your mind. He could have chosen to share this attribute of Himself with us as part of His image in us. He didn’t. That means, if you want others to know what you desire, are thinking, or feeling – you are going to have to use your words.
If you want to understand what someone else is thinking, feeling, or desiring – you are going to have to ask them. I know this sounds rudimentary but think about how often you expect others to know what it is you want from them. How often do you feel like others expect you to know what they want from you in a given situation, though they haven’t actually said so?
Good communication requires you using your words to share your thoughts, feelings, and desires. Don’t buy into the lie/misbelief “If they really cared about me they would know or remember.” This only robs you and them of the joy of giving and receiving. It does not lose its meaning if you actually have to use your words instead of them reading your mind.
On the other side, if it seems like someone is trying to say something without actually saying it, just ask, “Are you trying to say…?” They may say no even if you think that is in fact what they are implying. It’s best to take what they say at face value, the words they actually say, rather than trying to read between the lines. Force people in relationship with you to use their words to communicate overtly (vs covertly) what it is they want, so everyone can have better communication, which leads to more enjoyable interactions.
Know When to Take a Break
Time outs are for grown-ups too. It is your responsibility to a) know when you need to take a break because you are not able to show up at your best, b) recognize when it does not appear to you that the other person is able to show up well and take a break.
There’s nothing wrong with stepping away from a conversation and designating a time to revisit it. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the other person doesn’t want to take a break. Don’t buy into the false sense of urgency that says, “We have to resolve this NOW!”
Understanding vs Agreement
Too often we confuse understanding with agreement. We can have this false belief that if someone really understood us, certainly they would agree with us. We can’t imagine how anyone could truly understand us and still think or feel differently about a matter. So when they don’t feel or think the same way, we feel the need to repeat ourselves to “help them understand.”
If you find yourself on the other side of one of these conversations, where the other person keeps repeating themselves, recognize they don’t feel understood. Use reflection to confirm whether or not you are in fact understanding what they are saying. Contrast your vantage point with theirs to see if it’s a matter of misunderstanding or a matter of disagreement.
Humbly Accept the Fallibility of Memory
Humbly accept that the human brain is capable of errors. If you have any doubt, check out eye witness testimony studies on YouTube. It’s amazing to watch. People will witness an event, also captured on video, then be taken into another room and asked to describe what happened. They will swear they saw one thing, but when the video is replayed, what they “saw” is actually not the facts. This happens because our brain automatically fills the gaps with its best guess about the pieces of information it missed.
The best we can do is honestly share, “This is what I remember,” accepting that our remembrance is not infallible. We “know” what we remember, not necessarily “what we saw,” or what actually happened. Our highest degree of confidence should be, “I am certain this is what I remember,” which may or may not be completely accurate to the facts. Humility requires we accept the fallibility of our memory.
Mature individuals are able to give themselves and others permission to feel and think differently. It’s OK if you have different ideas about how something should happen or if you remember a situation different than someone else. You don’t have to see it the same way. Neither do they.
Healthy, mature adults can be OK in relationship with people who are different than them. Unhealthy, undifferentiated individuals need agreement. They can’t be OK if the other person thinks, feels, or remembers differently about something that feels significant to them.
God created us each different; we are going to have differences. Trust the Holy Spirit’s ability to confront in people the things that need to change and empower them to change. You don’t have to change people. (Also, just a reminder, you can’t change people.)
Avoid Inflammatory Words/Phrases
There is more than one way to say things. Some are more inflammatory than others. Be intentional about choosing words that don’t cloud the matter or derail the dialogue. Speak tentatively instead of in absolutes, especially around points that there might not be agreement.
Avoid “That’s dumb, stupid, crazy, nuts, insane, ridiculous, unreasonable, illogical, irrational.”
Try instead, “That’s confusing to me, I don’t see it that way, I feel differently about it, I don’t understand why you think/feel that way.”
Try, “What I remember is…” instead of “What happened is…”
Consider, “It seems to me…” instead of “The facts are…”
Stick with, “You appear to me…” or “Are you…?” instead of “You are…” or “Why are you…?”