Communication is Key: How to Communicate Effectively With Friends, Families, Partners, and Strangers
What Does Healthy Communication Look Like?
Plainly put, healthy communication is the effective exchange of thoughts and feelings between people. Seems pretty simple, right? Healthy communication is easier said than done. Oftentimes, our emotions get the better of us and a conversation quickly devolves into a polarizing argument. Knowing how to effectively and healthily communicate is key to improving and maintaining your relationships with partners, family, friends, and strangers. Understanding how to effectively communicate decreases the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and conflict and greatly increases the likelihood of understanding and mutual respect.
It is also important to remember that conflict or disagreement is normal and a huge part of communication; however, there is a healthy way to have and handle conflict.
4 Primary Principles of Communication
Understanding the primary principles of communication can help us to understand where we may be falling short in our communication with others and give us a basis for how we can and why we need to practice effective communication. These principles are universal whether you are communicating with your boss, a partner, a child, or a stranger and are true about all topics of conversation from political debate to planning dinner. Here are the 4 Primary Principles of Communication:
1. The message sent is not always the message received.
We tend to assume that when we say something and the person we are communicating with misunderstands, it is their fault. In reality, it is simply a fact of communication that the message sent is not always the message received. It is important to recognize that there is considerable room for misunderstanding between what the speaker intends to say, what he or she actually says, and what the listener hears. To account for the high possibility of error, it is important to allow feedback. Ask the other person what they heard and understood. And if it is not what you intended, don’t get upset. Instead, clarify your message and accept any questions or feedback. This may seem tedious, but it is one sure way to improve and provide clear and effective communication. The more you practice this, the easier and more fluid it will become.
2. It is impossible to not communicate.
It may seem obvious, but we are constantly communicating every second of the day. From verbal to nonverbal cues, our words, actions, facial expressions, and body language are constantly communicating a message to the world. Even “not communicating” or ignoring someone is actually communicating. It sends a very strong message when we decide to intentionally ignore someone. Being aware of this helps us to be more mindful of our words and actions.
3. Every message has both content and feeling.
Messages are made up of two distinct parts. Content is the message based purely on the words spoken. How one is Feeling is expressed through nonverbal cues such as body language, gestures, tone of voice, volume, and inflection. The interaction of these two elements can often cause confusion, especially when they contradict each other. For example, if a partner says, “I’m not mad at you” in a loud, angry voice accompanied by exaggerated hand gestures, the content and feeling are contradictory and it can be confusing to tell which is “the truth”.
4. Nonverbal cues are more believable than verbal cues.
Per the example above, we are more likely to perceive our partner as angry because nonverbal cues are more believable than verbal cues. This is why awareness of our nonverbal cues is very important in effective communication. To convey the intended correct message, our verbal and nonverbal cues must align.
3 Ways to Practice Effective Communication
1. Practice Active Listening
Active Listening consists of 3 simple steps. The first step is fairly obvious and seemingly simple: Listen. Put away all distractions, set the intention of listening attentively and solely to the speaker, and try to not let yourself immediately begin to interpret the message. The next step is to repeat back what you heard. Say, “I’m hearing that you are feeling ___” and “This is what I heard you say:___”. This step is merely a summary of what you heard. Again, try not to put your own interpretations into this step. This is the time when the speaker can ensure that their message was properly understood and can clarify any misunderstandings (The First Primary Principle of Communication!). Finally, after you have confirmed that you have properly understood the message, formulate your response. Remember not to make any huge assumptions and approach your response clearly and with understanding.
This may seem very clinical at first, but it takes time and practice to adopt this habit into your life. It is very important to remember to approach this with your only goal being to genuinely understand and listen. Don’t come in with some preformulated response. Genuinely listen to any clarification and don’t be afraid to ask open-ended, probing questions to get a better understanding. Practicing active listening will show the person you are communicating with that you genuinely care about having a real and productive conversation. Jennifer Smith – LMFT and CEO of Smith Psychotherapy Group – says, “We all want to feel seen and heard. When we practice active listening it’s like giving a gift to someone you really care about.”
2. Use “I Feel” Statements When in Conflict
“I Feel” Statements are a great way to avoid accusatory statements that often lead to misunderstanding, conflict, and a defensive response. Use “I Feel” Statements to express how you are feeling about a certain situation without putting the blame on someone else. Instead of saying “You never listen to me”, say something like “I feel frustrated when we are having a conversation and my points are misunderstood. I want us to both have a chance to have our points heard.” The key is to focus on and express your own feelings rather than blaming the other person with a “You Statement”. The simple structure of an “I Feel” statement is to state how you are feeling, address the cause of that feeling, and provide a solution. This can be difficult at first but can greatly decrease conflict and heightened emotions that lead to frustration, defensiveness, and miscommunication.
3. Establish Regular Emotional Check-Ins
Finding someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to express your emotions openly and unashamedly is very important in life and in emotional regulation in communication. This can be a partner, close friend, or mental health professional. Schedule a time to sit down and check in. When they ask, “How are you feeling?” don’t lie and simply say, “Fine”. Instead, be honest. Say, “I am feeling (frustrated, overwhelmed, misunderstood, happy, content, excited, etc.) because of ____.” This will help both you and your partner-in-communication understand your emotions and feelings that back your communication. It will also help to establish trust and safety in any kind of relationship: romantic or platonic.