Living the Dream

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How to improve your communication skills: Speaking October 5, 2007

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Interested in improving your communication skills? Most people can stand to improve in this department. The great thing about improving these skills is that they’re applicable to any relationship- friends, romantic partners, parents, kids, coworkers. Have you ever gotten caught up in the heat of the moment, and lashed out at your friend, partner, parent, or child? Maybe things even escalated into a full-blown fight. Afterwards, everyone probably felt bad… You can avoid this trap by following the guidelines for effective communication below.

The example situation that will be referenced throughout the post: You and a close friend had made plans to have dinner together last Friday. She called you an hour before you had planned to meet and cancelled because she wanted to go to a concert with a new guy she’s seeing.

  1. State your views subjectively – as your own feelings and thoughts, not as absolute truths. Use “I” statements to avoid your listener feeling as if they’re being verbally attacked (“I’m angry with you because we didn’t get to hang out last Friday like we had planned to do” vs. “It pisses me off that you flaked on me”).
  2. Speak for yourself. State what you think and feel, NOT what you think your listener thinks and feels (“I’m feeling hurt that we didn’t get to spend time together, and angry that you called me an hour before we were supposed to meet” instead of “Clearly, I’m not a priority to you”).
  3. Express your emotions and feelings, not just your ideas (“I’m feeling hurt that we didn’t get to hang out” instead of “We didn’t get to hang out”).
  4. When talking about your listener, state your feelings about her/him, not just about a certain event or situation (“I’m angry with you” instead of “I’m angry that we didn’t get to hang out”).
  5. When expressing negative emotions or concerns, also include positive feelings you have about the person or situation. (“I was really excited to see you because you’re one of my closest friends, and I got very disappointed when you called to cancel” instead of “I’m feeling angry, hurt, and disappointed”)
  6. Make your statements as specific as possible. Identify a single situation or topic that’s bothering you and prompting you to share (Your friend flaked on you last Friday when you had dinner plans , instead of Your friend flakes on you all the time). Avoid making global attributions about your listener (“You called me an hour before we were supposed to meet last Friday” instead of “You always flake on me”). Also be specific in terms of your emotions and thoughts. (“I’m feeling angry and hurt” instead of “I’m feeling bad”).
  7. Speak in “paragraphs”. Express a main idea with some elaboration and allow your listener to respond. Speaking for a long time without a break makes it difficult for your listener to listen.
  8. Use appropriate tact and timing, so that your listener can hear what you’re saying without becoming defensive. Monitor the tone of your voice so that you can have a constructive problem-solving conversation instead of one in which you and your listener tear each other down. Select a time to bring up the topic in advance, when both you and your listener have a block of time and will be able to attend fully to the conversation. Right before work, bed, or other plans is not a good time.

All content from:

Baucom, D. H., Epstein, N., LaTaillade, J. J. (2002). Cognitive-Behavioral Couple Therapy. In Gurman & Jacobson (eds.). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. The Guilford Press: New York.

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