I spend a lot of time talking to people about how to develop better and more effective communication skills in and out of the classroom. I've talked with high school kids as well as corporate managers, friends as well as business colleagues, family members as well as strangers. After all this time, I've noticed something interesting…and disturbing.
Let’s face it, most people’s idea of improving their own communication skills involves learning how to get others to listen and follow directions better and more often. Don’t agree with me? Do any of these questions sound familiar?
“How do I get the board to adopt my proposal?”
“How do I get my boss to listen to my ideas?”
“How do I get my mom to stop nagging me?”
Are you seeing a trend here? No? Here are some more examples.
“How do I get my husband to give me more compliments?”
“How do I get my girlfriend to leave me alone during the game?”
“How do I get others to understand me better?”
See a trend yet? If not, we have a lot of work to do. Here are a few more examples.
“How do I deal with this jerk at work?”
“How do I deal with this jerk at home?”
“How do I convince my teenager to do her chores?”
Figured it out yet? Let me help you. And pay attention because my message will be a subtle one.
GET OVER YOURSELF. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.
There. I said it. You see, here’s the true problem. Most people aren't really interested in improving their own communication skills. I mean, they think they want to improve their communication skills, but what they really want is compliance. It’s true you see a lot of “I” statements above that give the perception of "self-improvement," but keep reading. There’s a whole lot of focus on creating change in the other person and not on the self. Many people make this mistake. They think they want to improve their own communication skills, but they really just want to find a way to get what they want. If this is your mindset, then congratulations, you are already a member of the jackass school of communication.
Please don’t get me wrong, we all need effective communication skills in order to be more successful in our business and personal relationships, but it’s not all about how we can speak better, use more power poses, dress better for success, or make stronger eye contact. It’s really about how often we can shut our mouths and how well we listen.
Huh? Not the answer you were looking for? Looking for the quick, 5-step program to communication success? That’s the lame blog you’ll find on your next Google search. You want to get the real deal? Keep reading here.
You see, listening is the primary key to being a good communicator. And it’s the most underrated communication skill we have. It's the one communication act we perform every single day more than any other communication act, yet we still manage to ignore its importance. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how to impress others through their outward communication, they've forgotten how important the skill of listening really is. I blame social media. But let's move on.
Here’s my advice. Quit worrying about the outward communication stuff for now. We know speaking clearly and getting your point across concisely is important, but if you want to get to the core of being a good communicator, you have to stop focusing on yourself and your needs and start focusing on others and their needs. How does one accomplish this? Well, allow me…
1. You have to want to listen. None of this will work if you don’t truly want to listen to the other person. I can hear the naysayers already. “But what if I really really really don’t care about what that person has to say?” Well, my question to you is, why in the hell are you in a conversation with this person to begin with? Why don't you want to listen? What's the problem? Are you afraid of what they might say? Do you think your opinion is the only one that counts? Have you "heard it all before?" You want to be a better communicator? No, I'm asking you. Do you want to be a better communicator? Start here. Start by understanding that you don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t know anything really…other than what others tell you. So start wanting to listen. Appreciate the fact that others' perceptions will help you improve your own understanding of the world around you. If you don’t want to listen, then you don’t really want to be a better communicator.
2. Focus on listening. No really, put down the damn smart phone and quit checking it every 5 seconds while someone is talking to you. Turn off the freaking TV and quit surfing the net while you’re talking to someone over the phone. Trust me; you’re not going to miss much, except for what that person in front of you is telling you. You are engaged in a conversation with another human being. You say you want to be a better communicator so prove it now. We are bombarded with distractions every second of the day. Being a good listener requires you to give that person your full attention, not just a part of it.
3. Determine what type of listening you should be using. Now this is where the real fun begins. Most communication scholars will break down the different types of listening into multiple styles. We've got empathic listening, critical listening, pseudo listening, comprehensive listening, appreciative listening, discriminative listening, etc. etc. etc. I want to keep it simple, so we’ll just break it down into two types for now – critical and empathic. The first type is when you are evaluating what the person is saying and drawing a conclusion about the topic. The latter is when you are listening to help support the relationship and to provide emotional support. They are two completely different ways to listen and yes, you can listen wrong. We've all employed both listening styles, but chances are we've used them incorrectly and at the wrong time. For example, I know it's hard to believe, but not everybody actually wants you to solve their problems. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty presumptuous of you to think that you would have the answer anyway. If someone’s griping about a problem, just listen. Let them vent. Haven’t you ever just wanted to vent? Tell them you can see why they’re upset (even if you can’t understand it). But what if you think they really do want your help in solving their problem?
4. Continue to listen and keep your mouth shut. Remember, this isn't about you, it’s about them. If they eventually ask you for your opinion, tread carefully. Instead of jumping right in and offering the solution, ask them what they think they should do about it first. Prompt them with questions, not answers. Don’t think of yourself as the person who has the answer. Think of yourself as the person who can help them discover the answer for themselves. When you learn to communicate with others, instead of at others, you will begin to be viewed by others as a good communicator. And then, only then, will you be able to wield that influence you're so desperate to have.
So the next time you start saying you want to improve your communication skills, ask yourself why. And then, shut your pie hole and listen.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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