Communication is hard! Without question, effective communication can solve a lot of problems, from international conflicts to workplace tension to strife within families and romantic relationships.
In fact, good communication is not just common sense like some say, but involves several learned skills. Every time we communicate, we are faced with the challenge of being good listeners, accurately articulating our own messages and interpreting what others say and mean. Those are lofty goals, and yet so few of us ever receive formal instruction in how to be good communicators.
In my courses at The University of Portland, we talk often about what it means to be a good communicator. Here are some of the qualities on our list:
– Having the ability to just listen. Too often in this crazy world, we are busy formulating our next thoughts or thinking about something else entirely, when we should be focused on the person speaking.
– Speaking decisively. The best communicators speak with clarity, get to the point and avoid long digressions from their main points. Whether speaking to a large group or a small one, a little preparation can go a long way. Think about your main points in advance, write them down, and stick to them if you have to make a presentation.
– Be person-centered, not me-centered. Effective communicators are willing to hear other points of view and can imagine things from someone else’s perspective. Their sensitivity and respect for other people opens up the lines of communication. This is often referred to as “dialogic communication,” or communicating in a way that makes others want to listen and listening in a way that makes others want to speak.
– Use “I feel” statements. This technique, often recommended by relationship experts, encourages people to own their feelings, rather than speaking in a way that blames others. The idea is if something is bothering you, communicate that with an “I feel” statement, such as, “When you watch TV when I am trying to talk to you, I feel like you don’t care about what I’m saying.”
– Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness. Assertiveness is a desired quality in communication because it means being honest, direct and candid about your feelings. The problem is assertive communication can quickly become aggressive communication, which can intimidate, appear bossy, arrogant and overbearing. Assertive communicators excel when they are respectful, willing to hear other perspectives and willing to collaborate.
– Maintain eye contact and avoid distractions. In an era with so many distractions, this may be one of the most common communication mistakes, but an easy one to correct. When communicating with others, make eye contact and avoid distractions like cell phones, televisions, and even household chores (at least when the communication is important or serious).
– Understand nonverbal signals. As if verbal communication weren’t difficult enough, nonverbal communication is a language in and of itself. Good communicators think about their eye contact, posture, gestures, and understand cultural differences in nonverbal communication.
– Writing. Ah, yes, what about the written word? It matters, too. Fortunately, everyone can improve their writing skills by brushing up on proper grammar, consulting writing handbooks, using spell check and finding a good editor to review the work before it is distributed to others.
Good communication is a lifelong pursuit. Everyone can learn the skills to make one of life’s fundamental activities a little better.
### Erika Weisensee lives in Milwaukie and teaches writing and communication courses at the University of Portland.