How to Communicate Effectively in 11 Steps

How can you communicate effectively? What are the steps to resolving conflict amicably? 

You master how to communicate effectively when you learn to be a good listener and approach each conversation with curiosity, rather than going into every conversation certain that you are right. 

Effective communication is also crucial to conflict resolution. You resolve conflicts by creating an environment where both parties can openly communicate their needs and feelings, before proposing a solution that makes everyone happy.

Read on to master how to communicate effectively.

Common Barriers to Effective Communication

The main purpose of any conversation should be mutual understanding. This doesn’t mean mutual agreement. Effective communication is about working to understand each other’s stories better, so you can make better collective decisions about what to do next.

If your purposes are focused on learning and solving together, you will be able to communicate effectively. 

When we have crucial conversations, we often handle them badly. We behave our worst at the most critical moments. We yell, withdraw, or say things we later regret. According to Kerry Patterson in Crucial Conversations, this happens because: 

  • Nature works against us. When under stress, whether physically or emotionally, we’re genetically programmed to respond with fight or flight. We get an adrenaline surge and blood is diverted from the brain to muscles so that our thinking ability suffers.
  • We get caught off guard. Crucial conversations often catch us by surprise — someone blurts out something and we have little time to think. We have a knee-jerk reaction and later end up wondering, what was I thinking?
  • We lack the right skills. We don’t know where to start in terms of responding to or initiating a crucial conversation, so we just plunge in. You can sometimes practice for crucial conversations, but you have to know what to practice — and even with practice you can still screw up.
  • We act in self-defeating ways. We act in ways that keep us from getting what we want. We’re our own worst enemies. For example, when one partner is neglecting the other, the injured partner may respond with sarcasm and sniping — which causes the offending party to spend even less time with the injured party.

Relationships, careers, organizations, and communities are built on the ability to communicate effectively about high-stakes, difficult topics. Therefore, mishandled conversations have a huge impact. In fact, they’re at the root of a majority of persistent problems in organizations, teams, and relationships.

The Benefits of Effective Communication

Learning how to communicate effectively can:

Boost Your Career

When you learn how to communicate effectively, you’ll be influential and effective at getting things done, and you’ll build strong relationships.

For example, you’ll be able to stand up to the boss without committing career suicide, or debate controversial issues without going overboard and creating enemies. You don’t have to choose between honesty and your career. You can get people at all levels to listen without getting angry or defensive.

Improve Your Organization

Having leaders and employees who skillfully handle crucial conversations can improve an organization’s performance, while poorly handled conversations and interactions can undercut it.

The research of the author in Crucial Conversations shows that companies whose employees are skilled at crucial conversations:

  • Respond faster to financial downturns. 
  • Are less likely to be injured due to unsafe conditions.
  • Increase the productivity of virtual (remote) work teams.
  • Influence misbehaving or incompetent colleagues to do better.

Most leaders think that organizational productivity and performance are driven by policies, processes, or systems. When there are problems they adjust these things, but it often doesn’t work because the problem is behavior, not systems.

Solving behavior problems requires crucial conversation skills.

On the negative side, when organizations have performance problems such as snowballing costs, late delivery times, and poor morale, the biggest reason is employees’ unwillingness or inability to communicate effectively (have crucial conversations) at key moments.

For example, employees see others take shortcuts or make mistakes, and don’t say anything, which impacts safety, turnover, and productivity. Also projects can fail when employees stay silent about problems — for instance, when goals are unrealistic, team members perform badly, or leadership stumbles. 

Improve Your Relationships

Failed crucial conversations can cause relationships to fail.

When people break up they often blame it on differences of opinion on important issues. But while everyone argues about important issues, clearly not every relationship ends in turmoil — it’s how you argue that matters.

From the authors’ research observing couples, they found that people handle difficult conversations in one of three ways:

  • They resort to threats and name-calling.
  • They retreat into angry silence.
  • They speak honestly and effectively.

The researchers found that helping couples hold crucial conversations more effectively reduced their chances for unhappiness or breakup by more than half. 

Improve Your Health

The ability to master effective communication contributes to a healthier and longer life.

On the other hand, not knowing how to communicate effectively can exacerbate health problems:

  • Immune system weakness: A study showed that couples who argued more had weaker immune systems than those who resolved difficult conversations well (a weak immune system results in poor health). 
  • Life-threatening diseases: In a study of people with life-threatening cancer, researchers taught a group of them effective communication. Five years later, this group had a higher survival rate than the group that didn’t get the training. Improvement in the ability to talk with others corresponded to a two-thirds decrease in the death rate. 
  • Repressing negative emotions: The negative feelings we hold in and the emotional pain from unhealthy conversations slowly erode our health. It can lead to both minor and major health problems. 

How to Communicate Effectively

Here are 11 tips to help you make your interactions more helpful and positive:

1) Understand Others First

This is important when trying to have an effective interaction with someone: First work on understanding the other person’s perspective, and only then help her to understand your perspective. This approach requires empathic listening, where you’re listening with the intent to truly understand the other person’s perspectives and concerns. According to Stephen in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is only then that you can determine the right kind of mutually beneficial solution that works for everyone. 

2) Replace Certainty With Curiosity

Instead of going into the conversation certain that you’re right, certain that the other person had bad intentions, or certain that the conversation is going to go well, Bruce Patton in Difficult Conversations recommends that you focus instead on being curious about the situation. What is the other person’s side of the story? How do they interpret the events that occurred? How do they view your contributions? What, in their minds, would improve the situation? The more curious you can be about their perspective, the less accusatory you’ll be about what’s happened, and the more room they’ll have to participate with you and help you find a workable solution.

3) Don’t Assume Intentions

Other people’s actions make us feel certain ways depending on our past experiences and personal emotional baggage. When we get hurt or upset, our first impulse is usually to assume the other person meant for us to feel this way. This is rarely the case. Just because someone hurt your feelings (impact) doesn’t mean that’s what they were trying to do (intention). We’re always quick to assume that other people have bad intentions, though we give ourselves a lot of leeway when we hurt someone because we know that wasn’t our intention. 

Assuming someone meant to hurt you will color how you view them and will hinder you from communicating effectively. Most of us assume bad intentions = bad people, and we’re far less likely to be curious about, understanding of, or accepting of the other person’s perspective if we view them as a bad person, rather than a good person who’s made mistakes.

4) Be a Good Listener

Listening is an incredibly important skill in any conversation. One of the most common complaints the authors of Difficult Conversations hear about conversations is that the other person isn’t listening. This really means we need to get better at listening if we expect others to truly listen to us

Humans long to be heard and understood. Have you noticed how often people will repeat themselves or double-down on an argument in a conversation? This is a surefire sign that they don’t feel heard, and they don’t feel like the other person is trying to empathize with their perspective. Making sure your conversation partner feels heard, understood, and accepted first will make it easier for that person to hear your point of view.

If we’re having trouble listening to someone, it usually means we’re wrapped up in our own inner voice. Our inner voice, or inner dialogue, is running all the time — but during a difficult conversation, our inner voice is usually yelling about the 3 meta-conversations. Once you understand those 3 conversations and have worked through your own contributions, feelings, and identity, your inner voice will quiet down and you can be a better listener.

3 things you can do to be a good listener:

  1. Ask questions with the goal of learning instead of trying to prove a point.
  2. Paraphrase their responses to show that you’re listening and trying to understand them.
  3. Acknowledge their feelings, which might require you to listen for what’s going unsaid in the conversation.

5) Make Your Feelings Clear

Subtext is indirect communication — through jokes, offhand comments, or other behavior. For instance, if you’re upset at your spouse for sharing in cleaning duties, indirect expression includes statements like “the house really could use a clean-up.” “Do you really need to watch football every weekend?” What you really mean is, “I feel like we’re not equal partners in the household, and you don’t respect me.” 

To communicate effectively, avoid embedding your meaning in subtext. You might think this will soften the impact on the other person and make it less risky for you to share. But this comes across as passive-aggressive and makes it more difficult for us to be understood. In the example above, the first two statements are far different from the real meaning, and lead to very different reactions.

Perhaps you wish you didn’t have to speak up or share or bring the subject up at all, that the other person could just read your mind and solve the issue for you. But this is a fantasy. The realistic goal is to know each other better, acknowledging that it will never be perfect.

Here are some phrases for starting productively:

  • “For me, what this is really about is…”
  • “What I’m feeling is…”
  • “What’s important to me is…”

6) Avoid Leading Questions

Leading questions convey an opinion but demonstrate that you’re unwilling to share it directly. Performance reviews sometimes start this way: “how do you think you’ve been doing?” This will only activate the other person’s anxiety and immediately trigger their defensiveness, and they’ll probably imagine that what you have to say is far worse than what you actually think.

The best way to communicate effectively is to share your thoughts directly at the beginning, while also acknowledging that you want to know how the other person feels about the situation as well. 

7) Use the “And Stance” to Show the Whole Picture

Humans are complex. Too often, we try to simplify ourselves so that we can be easily understood by other people. However, this usually means our message is incomplete, and either we don’t share everything that’s on our mind out of fear of hurting the other person, or we only share the negative thoughts instead of including the positive ones that make the issue important to us.

(Shortform example: A parent might say to their child, “I don’t feel like you’ve been working hard enough in your college classes.” This is technically sharing their thoughts, but it leaves out a crucial part of the message: “I think you’re so bright and have so much potential, and I don’t feel like you’ve been working hard enough in your classes.” This represents a full, complex thought, and gives the child all of the information at the root of the issue.)

Sharing thoughts this way helps you represent your perspective clearly and accurately. 

8) Don’t Express Your Opinions as Facts

As we know by now, presenting our feelings as facts usually makes the other person feel attacked, defensive, or resentful. 

Expressing your opinions as facts can be more subtle than you think. “Spanking children is just plain wrong” is an opinion masquerading as a fact. If you say this in conversation with your friend about the way she treats her kids, you’ve given her no choice but to get defensive. “I don’t believe it’s right to spank children” presents it as a personal opinion instead.

Be especially wary of using these words: “inappropriate,” “should,” or “professional.” These all carry judgment that is entirely based on someone’s personal opinion. If you have to use them, make sure you preface your statement with “my view is that…” but it’s best to avoid these words entirely.

9) Share What Lead You to Your Perspective

You are the expert on yourself: you have information that no one else has access to, and past experiences that shape your perspective. These are important to share, because they contextualize your opinion. 

For example, if you were spanked as a child and feel frightened every time your friend does it, it’ll go a longer way to change her opinion about the issue if you share that information: “I don’t believe it’s right to spank children. I got spanked as a child and I always felt so afraid. I still get frightened when you do it, even though it isn’t happening to me.”

10) Don’t Say “Always” and “Never” 

In the throes of a difficult conversation, we often exaggerate: your husband makes a negative comment about your outfit, and you jump right to, “You always criticize my clothing. You never say anything nice.” These words are good at communicating frustration, but have major pitfalls.

They’re rarely accurate, and turn the conversation into one about frequency instead of the heart of the matter. They also usually make the other person get defensive immediately. “That’s not true! I don’t always criticize, and I do say nice things! Just last week I told you I like your new dress.”

They also make it harder for the other person to consider changing their behavior. These words suggest that change is impossible, and can make the other person feel defeated before they’re even given a chance to change.

To communicate effectively, it’s better to go into the conversation assuming that the other person doesn’t know how their actions are impacting you, and assuming that they’re a good person who will want to change their behavior once they become aware of how it’s impacting you. Share what you have to say in an inviting and encouraging way that gives the other person new ways of behavior to consider.

11) Assume They Want to Understand You

In a difficult conversation, both people need help understanding the other person. 

We already know that paraphrasing what someone else is saying helps demonstrate that we understand them and acknowledge what they have to say. But you can use it the other way. You can ask them to paraphrase your feelings to check that they’re understanding you and that you’re being clear

  • Most of us use phrases like “Does that make sense?” or “Would you agree?” to confirm that someone else is understanding. But these questions corner people into agreeing with you, and make it harder for them to share confusions or disagreements.

Also, remember that people take in information differently. Some people want to understand the big picture first; others want the details first. Some people learn fast, some take more time. The more you understand the other person, the more you can help them understand you better.

To that end, you can also ask the other person how they see it and why they see it that way. If it seems like the other person is confused or resistant to your story, put the ball in their court to see what you can understand from their answer.

How to Handle Conflicts 

Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication introduced NVC as a useful method for conflict resolution and mediation. When the people on both sides of a conflict establish a mutually respectful connection, they’ll understand that their own needs and the other person’s needs are equally important. Therefore, the goal of conflict resolution in NVC is not compromise. In a compromise, neither party’s needs are fully met, and those remaining unmet needs will only cause further problems down the road. 

The Five Steps of NVC Conflict Resolution

The NVC conflict resolution process has five steps. (It should be noted that the first two steps are reversible.)

Step 1: Express your own needs. 

  • Be careful to differentiate between needs and strategies. Needs are the fundamental physical and psychological resources that sustain life, like water, food, meaning, and support. Strategies are the specific actions we take to meet those needs. 
  • The fundamental difference is that need statements don’t refer to any person doing any particular action. For example, the statement “I need you to leave me alone for a minute” is a strategy, not a statement of need, because it references someone doing something. A true statement of need would be, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to rest for a minute.” It’s sometimes difficult to tell needs and strategies apart because we’re not used to openly and vulnerably sharing our needs. 

Step 2: Identify the other person’s needs (this step can also be done first).

  • If the person you’re communicating with isn’t practicing NVC, they might express their needs in more indirect ways. Silence, rejection, and judgmental comments are all veiled statements of need. By recognizing these and translating them, you can keep the conversation flowing nonviolently even if the person you’re talking to isn’t using NVC.

Step 3: Verify that both of you accurately understand each other’s needs by repeating the other person’s needs back to them and asking them to do the same for you. 

Step 4: Provide empathy by focusing on their unmet needs. 

Step 5: Propose strategies that meet everyone’s needs. 

  • Propose solutions using present language by requesting what you need in this moment in order to move forward. This gives the other person the chance to either agree or refuse right in the moment. For example, ask, “Would you be willing to tell me if I can borrow your car tomorrow?” instead of “Can I borrow your car tomorrow?”

Conclusion

Effective communication is crucial to succeeding in your career and relationships. Good communication skills also lead to a healthier and longer life. 

The knowledge you have gained from this article will help you master how to communicate effectively. Now, it’s up to you to use the tips outlined above to enhance your conversations at home and in the workplace.

How to Communicate Effectively in 11 Steps

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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