As I observe conflict in my life and the lives of others, I find it all comes down to one thing― communication. No matter how precisely we communicate something, there will likely be someone who doesn’t get it. I used to get frustrated when people didn’t understand the point I was trying to convey. Then I realized it’s mostly on me.
We all have unique personalities and communication styles. I tend to be pretty straightforward and often concise. This can come off as being rude or short. I’m no stranger to being called blunt. I try to not come off this way, but it still happens from time to time.
Someone shared an article with me recently, and I responded in a way that I thought was big picture and insightful. The other person then tried to explain themselves. When I responded that there was no need, they mentioned that I seemed defensive. Yikes! That’s not what I meant at all. I clearly need to work on my communication skills too.
Communication is one of the most important skills we can learn. From work, to family life, to interacting in public, it’s a huge part of our daily lives. And with the recent introduction of email, texting, and social media, it’s become more complicated than ever. So for your benefit (and mine), I’ve compiled some expert tips from Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk.
In her TED Talk, 10 ways to have a better conversation, Headlee shared the following tips to be a better communicator:
- Don’t Multitask – Be Present!
- Don’t Pontificate – Set aside your own opinion and assume you have something to learn.
- Use Open-Ended Questions – Start questions with who, what, when, where, why, how.
- Go With the Flow – Let go of thoughts and ideas that aren’t part of the conversation.
- If You Don’t Know, Say That You Don’t – When it comes to your expertise, err on the side of caution.
- Don’t Equate Your Experience with Theirs – All experiences are individual.
- Try Not to Repeat Yourself – It’s boring and condescending.
- Stay Out of the Weeds – Forget the details.
- Listen – This is the most important skill you can develop.
- Be Brief – Short enough to be interesting, but long enough to cover the subject.
All ten tips boil down to the one concept. Be interested in other people. Keep your mouth shut, keep your mind open, and be prepared to be amazed.
You don’t need to do all of these. If you pick one and master it, you’ll begin to enjoy better conversations almost immediately. For more detail on each tip, watch her full TED Talk below.
While this talk is fantastic, what really inspired me was Headlee’s recent interview on, The Art of Charm. I highly recommend setting aside some time to listen. Until then, here my top takeaways from the conversation.
We’ve all heard tricks to communicate better. You’ve likely been taught to look people in the eye, mirror their body language, or repeat what they say. According to Headlee, this is terrible advice. These rules distract us from focusing on the most important part of the conversation, what the other person is saying.
Studies show that most of the time we’re not listening to what the other person is saying. We might spend the first ten or fifteen seconds listening. Then the rest of the time is spent thinking about our response.
Why should we care about listening?
Listening is good for us: neurologically, physically, and emotionally. It’s especially good when we disagree with someone. When we listen, we improve our inclination to learn. In order to do this, we need to stop assuming that we know what the other person is going to say.
When it comes to assumptions, we tend to have an “illusion of intimacy.” We assume that we know our closest friends and family members better than we do. This means that it’s not uncommon for the conversations we have with the people we know best to be the most inaccurate. More inaccurate than the conversations we have with strangers.
We confront a different obstacle when dealing with strangers―bias. When we see people who look a certain way, we make assumptions about that person. Assumptions that are more than likely incorrect. Many of us assume that we need to change their mind. But Headlee insists that “the attempt to change somebody’s mind is the death of good conversation.”
Trying to change someone’s mind never works because you’re changing the power dynamic. You’re putting yourself at a higher level than the person you’re engaging with. At that point, we’ve lost the opportunity to see them as someone who has had life experiences that we can learn from.
The best way to move past bias is by increasing empathy. Reading novels, singing in a choir, and volunteering can all increase empathy. The number one way to increase empathy is by listening to someone else’s perspective and life experiences.
Of course, we’re not going to agree with everyone we meet. Here are some tips to have more productive disagreements.
- Stop trying to change people’s minds and prove them wrong.
- Find the courage to quit avoiding topics that you think will end in an argument.
- Join conversations with the intent to learn from the other person.
- Show respect – not every opinion deserves respect, but every human being does.
- Ask questions.
- End well – say, “thank you, it’s not easy to share these opinions, and I appreciate it.”
Finally, always put your phone away!
New research shows that just the presence of a phone made people more likely to say that the other person was unempathetic, untrustworthy, and unfriendly. Trust me, the world won’t implode if you turn your device off for thirty minutes.
You owe it to yourself to improve your communication skills. It’s not always easy. But I assure you, the people most important to you will recognize and appreciate your effort.