• We need better communication skills

    June 28, 2017 | Blog | Jodi
  • One of the most common things I hear from couples seeking counseling is that they have problems communicating. I would wager that the problem isn’t that they don’t actually communicate. They likely say a lot of words to each other… it’s just that they probably don’t feel like they are being heard and understood. That’s really what people are looking for. We all want to feel heard and understood, like our “other” truly cares about what we are experiencing.

    As I was “getting organized” this morning at my office, I stumbled across a partial transcript I printed off the internet last year after hearing radio journalist Celeste Headlee give a TED talk about conversation skills. She introduced herself like this: “Now, I actually use the exact same skills as a professional interviewer that I do in regular life. So, I’m going to teach you how to interview people, and that’s actually going to help you learn how to be better conversationalists. Learn to have a conversation without wasting your time, without getting bored, and, please God, without offending anybody. We’ve all had really great conversations, ” says Headlee. “We’ve had them before. We know what it’s like. The kind of conversation where you walk away feeling engaged and inspired, or where you feel like you’ve made a real connection or you’ve been perfectly understood.”

    She went on to describe her 10 basic rules for being an engaging conversationalist. Not surprisingly, her rules are pretty similar to the rules I learned when training to become a counselor. Here they are, paraphrased but essentially unchanged.

    1) Don’t multitask. This doesn’t mean putting down other devices, it means focusing your attention on the person you are talking to. Try to ignore the laundry list of things buzzing through your mind – they will be there later.

    2) Don’t pontificate. It’s unfair, and frankly, annoying to state your own opinion without giving the other person a chance to respond. Honor and respect the differing perspective. You don’t have to agree with it, but you can listen anyhow. No one enjoys being lectured.

    3) Use open-ended questions. These are somewhat vague and impossible to answer with “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking, “Did that scare you?” ask, “What was that like for you?”

    4) Go with the flow. Most people have a tendency to spend most of a conversation thinking about the next thing they are going to say or ask. And in doing that, they completely miss most of what the other person is saying. Great stuff will pop into your head, but if you want to be a great conversationalist, let go. Stay focused on what the other is saying to you.

    5) If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. “I don’t know” or “I don’t know, but I can find out” are respectable responses. Making stuff up and being caught out later speaks to your character and causes others to mistrust you.

    6) Don’t equate your experience to theirs. When you catch yourself saying, “I know how you feel,” and then proceeding to tell a story about yourself, you’ve lost them. Because a) you don’t know how they feel. You know how you felt in your situation. You can’t know how they feel unless you ask them to tell you how they feel. So ask them how they are experiencing their situation. And b) you’ve now made their conversation about you. They will notice that and feel shut down.

    7) Try not to repeat yourself. Make your point. Then let it go. Saying the same thing over and over again is really boring, and pretty disrespectful. You are essentially telling the other person that you don’t trust their ability to listen, comprehend, and remember.

    8) Stay out of the weeds. Don’t split hairs. Don’t get hung up on the minor details of the story. This happens so often in my couples’ sessions – one partner is telling me something pretty important that happened, and the other person interrupts to point out that that’s not exactly what was said. Or it didn’t happen in the driveway, it happened on the front porch, or driving to Grandma’s house. My question is (in my head), “Why is it important that you clarify that point? Will it really make a difference in my understanding of the problem?” And 99% of the time, it just doesn’t matter.

    9) Listen. Someone told me a long time ago, “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk.” I love talking as much as the next person, but to really connect, to really engage another person in meaningful conversation… Listen.

    10) Be brief. You might lose your audience with too much detail. Enough said.

    As Stephen Covey said (according to Headlee), “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

    Intentionality. Another concept drilled into my head during counselor training. What is the value-added of what you are about to say? Is it to get yourself into the spotlight? Or would you really like to connect with the other person? Is this going to help us connect?

    For relationships to thrive, the partners need to feel that connection. “We need to learn to communicate better,” is usually code for, “We really want to figure out how to be heard and understood. I want to know that I mean something to my partner.” The best way to “get” your partner to change is to “be the change” you want to see in the other.