How to Improve Your Communication Skills
Whether you're looking to improve communication at work or strengthen a relationship at home, here are some of the best ways to improve your communication.
November 23, 2020
Knowing how to communicate effectively is one of the most important life skills you can learn, but unfortunately, most of us don't ever receive formal lessons on the topic. Being a good communicator is essential to all aspects of our professional, personal, and romantic lives, so it's important to take the time to evaluate how you communicate, identify areas for improvement, and then strive to apply these lessons in your daily life. If you're looking for easy ways to get better at communicating, we've compiled a list of tips and resources to help you learn about body language, improve your listening skills, and understand what types of questions you should ask in order to become an effective communicator.
Identify Areas for Improvement
The first step of the process is to take a moment and self-reflect. What do you need to improve upon? Where do you feel like you're not the best communicator? Is it at home, with your family? At work, with your coworkers or boss? Do you struggle to communicate with your partner? Even if you might feel as though you’re talking all the time, are those conversations effective? Write down a list of possible areas for improvement, and brainstorm ways that you can address your issues or strengthen your communication skills.
Need some help on that front? We recommend How to Build Meaningful Relationships Through Conversation by Carol Ann Lloyd, an easy guide to learning how to improve communication skills through the types of talking we do every single day. Through 10 mini-lectures, Lloyd talks about the ways that we can all improve our listening and communication skills to make our conversations more R.E.A.L. (Relevant, Effective, Affirming, and Legitimate). Even if you think you're a fairly good communicator, this listen will help open your eyes to the ways we can all become better.
Learn to Listen
Almost anyone will tell you that in order to be an effective communicator, you have to know how to listen. Listening is so much more than simply hearing what someone else has to say. It's absorbing their words, their meanings, and the emotions behind them. It's understanding someone else's point of view. Listening requires you to hear what someone is saying, evaluate their body language and unspoken cues, and understand what they are trying to communicate to you.
If you need help learning how to listen more actively, especially in an age full of digital distractions, then we recommend You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. In this book, Murphy talks about how our rush to communicate sometimes hinders our ability to truly listen to one another, and how we might become better listeners by paying attention to what psychology, neuroscience, and sociology have to teach us. It's a humorous and fascinating guide that will help you understand how to truly hear what others have to say.
Study Nonverbal Communication and Cues
Communication isn't simply verbal or written words, thoughts, or ideas. What our body is doing while we talk says a lot. You can become a more effective communicator if you know how to read someone else's body language when they're speaking to you (this is part of active listening), and you'll also benefit from understanding what your body language says when you're speaking. Understanding body language may also help you understand timing, which is important to healthy conversations. If you want a crash course in body language, we recommend The Power of Body Language by Joe Navarro.
Navarro is a former FBI agent who studied body language as part of his work in counterintelligence. In this book, he shares how people's faces are least likely to show their true emotions, how body language works on a scientific level, and what various nonverbal cues really mean.
Get in Touch with Your Emotions
It's important to evaluate your emotions and think about others' emotions when you're communicating. If you're upset or sad or resigned, those feelings will have an impact on how you communicate. Similarly, if someone else is experiencing intense emotions, those will color how they speak and even what they say, and that may also affect how you respond. For example, you might not want to talk about a trivial subject when someone shares that a loved one has just died. It's also important to understand how to keep your emotions in check when you're having difficult conversations—not to suppress those feelings, but to make sure that they don't lead you to say something you might not mean.
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is a self-development classic about self-limiting beliefs and how to be a better person, but we think that some of the principles shared in this book are extremely useful for becoming a better communicator. Simply put, Ruiz’s four agreements—Be impeccable with your word; Don't take anything personally; Don’t make assumptions; and Always do your best—are great ideals to live by when you're processing emotions while communicating.
Know Your Audience and Ask Questions
Knowing your audience is an overlooked but essential aspect to communicating effectively. How you speak to your kids, your friends, your partner, and your boss will all differ, so it's important to understand (and listen to!) your audience and modulate your communication accordingly. This goes hand in hand with knowing how to ask questions. Asking questions is the easiest way to get others to open up to you, and it's also a good technique to confirm that you're understanding what someone else is saying. For example, a friend may confide in you that they're unhappy at work. Before jumping in with advice, ask them specifics about why they're unhappy and what precisely they might be feeling.
If you want to explore understanding others and how to connect with them through questions, we recommend Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, MD, a former US Surgeon General. In this powerful book, Dr. Murthy makes a case for loneliness as a public health crisis, contributing to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, violence, and social polarization. He reveals why no one is immune to feeling lonely: the desire to connect is innately human. He also discusses how we can connect with one another, especially in a busy world.
Ask for Honest Feedback
If you've been working hard at improving your communication skills, that’s a great first step. But it's still important to ask for feedback to see how others perceive your skills. This can be really scary, so try starting out with asking a trusted person—maybe a partner or close friend— for feedback. Ask them to be honest, but be prepared to take that feedback gracefully and gratefully and apply it to your journey, if applicable. If you're feeling empowered, ask people in the various areas of your life that you identified for self-improvement. If you want to improve your communication at work, you might ask your boss if you're communicating effectively, and if there's a better way to communicate with your team or direct reports. If you're struggling to communicate with a social group, ask how you might improve reaching out to them. This is an important step because you'll communicate that you are aware there is a disconnect, but that you want to take steps to improve the situation.
If the idea of asking for and receiving feedback terrifies you, then check out Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. Heen and Stone are the best-selling authors of another essential communication book, Difficult Conversations, so they know that feedback is important to human connection. In this book, they discuss how receiving feedback is tough because we want to grow as human beings, but we also have a deep need to be accepted as we are. This tension makes it difficult to ask for feedback, but the authors guide you through how to do just that, decide which feedback is worthwhile, and apply it to your life.
Tirzah Price is a writer and contributing editor at Book Riot.