Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills

Effective communication is one of the most important life skills we can learn—yet one we don’t usually put a lot of effort into. Whether you want to have better conversations in your social life or get your ideas across better at work, here are some essential tips for learning to to communicate more effectively.

What is Body Language?

Body Language

You tell your partner you’re open to discussion but your arms are crossed; say you’re listening but haven’t looked up from your phone yet. Our non-verbal and non-written cues often reveal more than we think they do. Whether it’s how you make eye contact or how you hold yourself during a video interview, don’t forget that you’re constantly communicating even when you’re not saying a word. One strange way to tap into your body for better communication? Think about your toes. Or adopt a power pose if you need to boost your confidence before a big talk. Or learn how to read other people’s body language so you can respond appropriately.

Body language is a huge part of how we communicate with other people. However, most of us only have an intuitive knowledge of non-verbal communication at best. Fortunately, if reading body language doesn't come naturally to you, or if you'd simply like to get better at it, there's a huge body of work that details what the body is really saying.


Read Body Language Through the Comfort/Discomfort Lens

For a lot of people, diving into the world of body language elicits the same reaction: "At last, I'll learn how to be a human lie detector!" It's hard to blame anyone for the impulse. However, contrary to what Cal Lightman would like us to believe, you can't tell exactly how a person is feeling just because their lip twitched or they crossed their arms. What you can do is gauge how much a person is comfortable. This comfort/discomfort spectrum is far more important than trying to identify a specific expression or guessing a particular thought in someone's head.

As Joe Navarro—a former FBI interrogator and expert in body language analysis and research—explains in his book What Every BODY is Saying:

While he describes this dynamic in the context of lie-detection, it's the lens through which all body language can be interpreted. If you're at a party and everyone's enjoying themselves, a person in a chair, with their arms folded, and head down will stand out. They might seem uncomfortable and you might wonder if something is out of the ordinary. In response to this, you might ask if anything is wrong. That very same set of actions observed in someone in a hospital waiting room would be much less abnormal. Even if the person has nothing to worry about, hospitals can make people uncomfortable or nervous. Asking this person what's wrong could easily result in the very obvious reaction: "I'm in a hospital."

 Observing how comfortable a person is in a particular context can give you clues as to how they feel. If you're on a first date and your partner seems comfortable, they're probably into you! If you're conducting a job interview and the applicant seems comfortable and confident during the process, but gets fidgety and nervous when you ask if they've stolen from previous employers, it might be something to inquire about further. Body language is not an exact science, but gauging comfort levels can give you clues about what's really going on in the minds of people around you


The Basic Body Cues to Watch For

Most of our body parts are quietly communicating how we feel andwhat we want, whether we realize it or not. The following are some cues you canwatch for to get an idea of how a person is feeling, but keep in mind thecomfort/discomfort paradigm. No one behavior tells the whole story.


Head and Face

The first thing to understand about trying to read facialexpressions is that they are not always the most honest. We'll get to whichbody part is the most honest later, but we are trained from a very young agethat certain facial expressions and actions are appropriate for certainoccasions, whether we feel them or not. However, there are still some cues youcan glean from facial expressions.

One of the easiest to learn about (though still one of the hardest to accurately identify) is the "fake smile". As the Paul Ekman International blog (named for the pioneer in facial expression analysis Paul Ekman) explains, fake smiles—the kind we make because we're supposed to—are most often done with just the mouth. We know to raise the corners of our mouths to smile. A lot fewer of us are aware of how much our eyes are involved in a proper smile. In a real smile, our eyebrows, eyelids, and sometimes even our whole head turn upwards, along with the corners of our mouths. This test from the BBC can let you try your hand at telling the real smiles from the fake ones.

Pursed lips are another way to tell when someone is driftingover to the discomfort side of the spectrum. This is a favorite expression analysts like to pointout whenevera politician is giving some form of confession. In cases like Anthony Weinerand Eliot Spitzer's confession speeches, both can be seen tightening theirlips, pursing them to the point they nearly disappear.

These are just a couple of easy to identify facial gestures thatcan tell you a bit about what a person's feeling, but there are so many differentvariations that the face itself has its own coding system to gauge them all. And, aswe've established, the face isn't always the most honest part of the body,which is why it's important to give equal (or more) attention to the rest ofthe body.


Arms

Our arms are heavily employed in self-expression. Many individual gestures can be taught or trained in us over time (such as"don't point at people"), but there are two more helpful aspects ofarm and hand motion to observe: how much space they take up, and how high theyreach.

Gravity-defying gestures, in any part of the body, are generallyseen as positive. When we're happy, excited, or interested, we raise our headsor our chin, our arms go up, even our legs and feet start to point skyward orbounce if we're sitting. The arms are incredibly versatile at highlighting thisbehavior. As Navarro explains again:

Individual gestures of the hands may be helpful for communicatingconscious thoughts—like a coach speaking in a non-verbal code to a player onthe field—but when it comes to gauging the subconscious mood or comfort levelof a person, gravity is where it's at.


Torso

Our torso—comprised of our shoulders, chest, and belly—is pretty vital to our survival. That's where our organs live! As such, we're pretty well trained to protect this part of our body instinctively. Even in regular social settings, we protect our torso. More importantly, we allow access to our torso when we're comfortable: 

This behavior of either sharing or denying our ventral side to people can be most readily observed in a dating or romantic context. Early on in a relationship, a couple will frequently angle their torso more towards their partner than away. They'll turn towards them when they enter a room, or lean in when sitting next to each other.

Part of the reason we do this is because when we're comfortable, our limbic system lowers its defenses. We protect or deny access to our torso when we're around unpleasant things. Naturally, the converse is usually true.If we're readily leaving our chests and abdomen open, even voluntarily pointing them towards a person, it probably means we feel happy and safe with what'sgoing on.


Legs

If you had to guess which part of the body is the most honest, most people would guess that it's eyes or possibly the face as a whole. In reality, we're way off. The legs and feet, suggests Navarro, are where the real honesty lies. After all, we're trained throughout most of our life to smile for the camera, stop making faces, and to pretend to have a good time. However, millions of years of evolution have taught us that our legs need to be ready to escape.

One key way to detect the leg's intention is to notice where the feet and legs are pointing. Similar to the way we point our chests, our lower extremities tend to lean or point in the direction of where we'd like to go or what we're most interested in:

On the flip side, crossed legs—particularly while standing—are a relatively strong indicator that a person is interested in staying where the yare. This is tied pretty deeply into our survival instinct. While we may pretend to be having a good time, crossing the legs makes it more difficult to escape danger. Even if we might know that there's no immediate physical danger at a social gathering we want to leave, our brains still respond to the discomfort in the same way: by preparing to move away from here.


The Importance of a Baseline

More than any other individual piece of body language is the importance of establishing a baseline. Everyone has their own quirks, habits, and idiosyncrasies. A shy person may keep their arms lower and closer to their body and their head down more than a more outgoing person by default (which is part of the reason why an introvert can be misinterpreted as being upset or confrontational). Any one behavior by itself is not necessarily indicative of a mood change. However, as you get to know a person and how they behave in normal situations, abnormal behavior can give you a much greater indication of how they're feeling. Don't just watch for a foot bouncing or a head held high. Keep an eye out for when that behavior is out of the ordinary.

More importantly, though, use the cues available to you to gauge comfort levels and be aware of what the person is reacting to. Often, you don't need to perform a deep line of questioning to figure out what's really on a person's mind. If they grimace when a particular song comes on when they're otherwise happy, it's a pretty safe bet that the song was the cause.


What are the elements of Body Language

  • Head & Face
  • Eyes and Ears
  • Brain & Face
  • Arms
  • Hands
  • Torso
  • Hug
  • Kiss
  • Legs
  • Foot
  • Foot and Legs

Get Rid of Unnecessary Conversation Fillers

Important of Get Rid of Unnecessary Conversation Fillers

Um’s and ah’s do little to improve your speech or everyday conversations. Cut them out to be more persuasive and feel or appear more confident. One way is to start keeping track of when you say words like “um” or “like.” You could also try taking your hands out of your pockets or simply relaxing and pausing before you speak. Those silences seem more awkward to you than they do to others, trust us.

Dear Life hacker, 

I have a tendency to use a lot of filler words when I talk, like "um" and "like"...and I've recently realized how bad it sounds, especially during presentations at work. How can I train myself to eliminate these from my speech?

Sincerely, Smoother Speech

Dear Smoother, This problem is more common than you may think, and the fact that you've realized it—and want to fix it—is great. It's cliché, but the first step is admitting you have a problem!

In general, we use filler words like "um" and "like" because we're thinking. Maybe we're searching for the right word, or we need to stop and formulate our next sentence. Often we use them to indicate that we're going to talk, whether or not we have something to say at that very moment. Your specific reasons may be different from someone else's, but here are a few general tips that should help you minimize all that filler.


First: Relax

Let's start by saying: don't fret over this too much. The more stressed you get by it, the more anxious and nervous you're going to sound, which is really what we're trying to get away from in the first place. It's okay to let a few filler words slip out. After all, it's a natural part of speaking. No one's going to think less of you if you say "um" once in awhile. The goal is to avoid saying it every three words. Take your hands out of your pockets, un tense your shoulders, and let yourself relax a bit.


Pause

If you're having a conversation or debate with someone and you jump in as soon as possible, you're probably going to use more filler words. Instead, pause to think out your next statement before you speak. You may need to become a bit more comfortable with silence, but it can help reduce those filler words. The Harvard Extension Blog says it like this: pause, think, answer.

Pauses don't always help, though. The Art of Manliness notes a study that found pauses didn't improve an audience's perception of a speaker. We wouldn't say this is a hard and fast rule—after all, the study only looked at a caller on a radio show, not an in-person conversation—but it seems logical. Constantly worrying about your "ums" and "likes" when you talk will only stress you out. All in all, we'd say go ahead and replace those filler words with pauses if you can—but don't stress yourself out about it. The best pause you can make is the one before you start speaking.


Slow Down


This goes along with the last tip, but it bears mention: don't be afraid to slow down a bit. If you talk too fast, you're likely to get a little tongue-tied, especially if you haven't quite figured out what you're going to say next. If your mouth moves faster than your brain, you're going to use a lot more filler words. If you slow down, you'll not only cut out the filler, but you'll be much more understandable, which is crucial if you're giving a speech or presentation.


Listen to yourself

Next, set aside some time to listen to yourself talk and try to figure out where your filler words are most common. Some people recommend recording yourself, but it's hard to get an accurate view of your speech in such a controlled situation. Still, it may work for you. Others recommend putting a rubber band on your wrist and switching it every time you catch yourself saying "um." You could even have a friend listen to you and raise their hand every time they hear you stumble, which would help you catch on very quickly.

Keep Track of Your "Ums" and "Ahs" to Improve Your Everyday Speech Keep Track of Your "Ums" and "Ahs" to Improve Your Everyday Speech Keep Track of Your "Ums" and "Ahs&q 

Most of us fill our conversations with a lot of filler. Whether it's "um's,"…Read more Read more 

Of course, these are all situations in which you're constantly listening for those ums and stressing yourself out, so you wouldn't want to use them in normal conversation. It wouldn't hurt to set aside some time as "practice," though—for example, our own Thorin Klosowski noticed that he used filler words most often when ordering at restaurants, which is a perfect time to practice.




Listen to Yourself


Practice, Practice, Practice


In the end, the old saying holds true: the best way to get there is practice, practice, practice. Whether that means snapping yourself with the rubber band or just reminding yourself to slow down your speech more often, eventually it'll become less of a chore and more second nature.

If you're giving a presentation or speech, the same holds true: practice that speech as much as possible before you give it. Speeches actually have an advantage over regular conversation in that you can rehearse everything you're going to say: so use that practice time to learn your stuff backwards and forwards. The better you know your speech, the more confident you'll be and the less you'll stumble. Remember, even in a speech, the occasional um isn't the worst thing in the world—it's how people naturally speak.

In the end, don't let yourself get too frustrated over this. As we said many times, the more stressed you are about it, the worse you'll probably make it—so just make a conscious (but not obsessive) effort to cut it down, and you'll be surprised how far that will take you. Most people won't notice or care about a few filler words here and there, so as long as you get it down to an acceptable level, there's no reason to stress yourself out. Good luck!


Have a Script for Small Talk and Other Occasions

Sincere Talk

Small talk is an art that not many people have mastered. For the inevitable, awkward silences with people you hardly know, it helps to have a plan. The FORD (family, occupation, recreation dreams) method might help you come up with topics to discuss, and you can also turn small talk into conversation by sharing information that could help you and the other person find common ground. Hey, all that small talk could make you happier in the long run.

Dear Life hacker, 

I hate small talk. I never know how in-depth I should go into a conversation and I'm just not that into talking about the weather. With the long weekend coming up and lots of social obligations, I'm wondering, how can I turn all that small talk into an actual conversation?

Sincerely, Big Talk

Dear BT, Nobody really likes small talk and it's certainly one of the more boring tasks we all go through. While a lot of small talk is based only on the fact you're standing next to someone and have to say something, the real goal is to find a common ground to spark up a conversation. Let's look at a few things you can do to get that conversation rolling a little quicker.


Share Small Details Until One Idea Sticks

We've mentioned how sharing small details during small talk is a really good way to gauge interest in a subject and start up a real conversation. Instead of responding to a simple question like, "How's it going?" with "Good, you?" expand your reply with a details about your day. For instance, you might say, "Good, I spent the morning kayaking and I'm feeling great!"

When you share that little piece of your story you'll get one of two responses: a question about how it was or a disinterested, "Oh cool. "If they reciprocate your excitement you have an in and can continue the conversation. If they don't seem interested try revealing another detail until


Learn to Ask Relevant Questions

We're all hard-wired to share information about ourselves, but in order to get to a point where you're having a real conversation, it's important to show interest in another person first. As Psychology Today points out you can do this in any number of ways. Start by listening correctly:

Once you have a good idea of what's going on you can use that information to ask the right kinds of questions. Asking questions is a great way to turn small talk into a conversation naturally. Just make sure your question is relevant to the topic at hand and not a way to turn the conversation back to you


Arm Yourself with Relevant Topics


People love to talk about the news, and it's an easy way to stepup boring bits of small talk and turn it into a fun conversation. Walking inwith a few topic ideas in mind is a good way to direct a conversation. The Artof Manliness has a simple formula forcoming up with topics:

The idea is that if you can find a few bits of relevantinformation you can take an otherwise boring small talk conversation and directit toward something more interesting..

Respond to"What Do You Do (For a Living/For Fun)?" with Something You ActuallyDid

One of the most common conversation starters is "so, whatdo you do?" It's meant as a quick way to gauge the ways a person might beinteresting. Depending on your job this might be an easy response, but for manyof us it's a little more complicated.

In my own experience, I've found that most of my jobs requiremore than a one or two word answer because I've had very few jobs in my lifewhere the job title explains what I do. Instead of responding to "What doyou do for a living?" by saying I'm a writer for Lifehacker, I'll usuallyexpand it by adding a few notes about what I wrote about that week or talkabout an experience. Basically, instead of responding with where you work andyour official position, come up with a story that exemplifies what you do for aliving.

The same goes for the "What do you do for fun?"question. Don't just say, "Oh, I usually go hiking" (or whatever).Talk about a recent experience with your hobby, like, "This past weekend Iwent up the mountain and had a picnic with my sister. We saw a bear chasing amountain goat."

The basic idea running through all of these suggestions is tofind the hook in the small talk and pull it out so you're both on commonground. To find it you have to pay attention to subtle cues, listen to how theyreply, share a good amount of info about yourself, and learn to gauge whenthey're interested.


Tell a Story

What is story?

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Stories are powerful. They activate our brains, make presentations suck less, make us more persuasive, and can even help us ace interviews. Learn the secrets of becoming a phenomenal storyteller with these rules from Pixar or by simply using the word “but” more to structure your narrative. Everyone’s got at least one great story in them.

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, spent a lot of his free time playing cards. He greatly enjoyed eating a snack while still keeping one hand free for the cards. So he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to finally eat and play cards at the same time. Eating his newly invented "sandwich," the name for two slices of bread with meat in between, became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world.

What's interesting about this is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information-based form.

For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. Recently a good friend of mine gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, and I wanted to learn more.

 Here is the science around storytelling and how we can use it to make better decisions every day


Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories


We all enjoy a good story, whether it's a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It's in fact quite simple. If we listen to a power point presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca's area and Wernicke's area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that's it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it's about motion, our motor cortex gets active:

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

 Anything you've experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you've activated that way, active too:


Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling—how to make use of it

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Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate ourbrains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why isthat? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other,have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, ifbroken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, nomatter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or ourspouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action andconversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] "personal storiesand gossip make up 65% of our conversations."

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one ofour existing experiences. That's why metaphors work so well with us. Whilewe are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate tothat same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.

The following graphic probably describes it best:

In a great experiment, John Bargh at Yale found thefollowing:

We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically.Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship ofsomething we've previously experienced.

Let's dig into some hands on tips to make use of it:

Exchange givingsuggestions for telling stories

Do you know the feeling when a good friend tells you a story andthen two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was youridea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerfulways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to UriHasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in thebrain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

The next time you struggle with getting people on board withyour projects and ideas, simply tell them a story, where the outcome is thatdoing what you had in mind is the best thing to do. According to Princetonresearcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into otherpeople's minds.

Write morepersuasively—bring in stories from yourself or an expert

This is something that took me a long time to understand. If youstart out writing, it's only natural to think "I don't have a lot of experiencewith this, how can I make my post believable if I use personal stories?"The best way to get around this is by simply exchanging stories with those ofexperts. When this blog used to be a social media blog, I would ask forquotes from the top folks in the industry or simply find great passages theyhad written online. It's a great way to add credibility and at the sametime, tell a story.

The simple story ismore successful than the complicated one

When we think of stories, it is often easy to convince ourselvesthat they have to be complex and detailed to be interesting. The truth ishowever, that the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simplelanguage as well as low complexity is the best way to activate the brainregions that make us truly relate to the happenings of a story. This is asimilar reason why multitasking is so hard for us. Try for example to reducethe number of adjectives or complicated nouns in a presentation or articleand exchange them with more simple, yet heartfelt language.

Quick last fact: Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrasesthat used to make stories awesome. Scientists, in the midst of researching thetopic of storytelling have also discovered, that certain words and phrases have lost allstorytelling power:

This means, that the frontal cortex—the area of your brainresponsible to experience emotions—can't be activated with these phrases. It'ssomething that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story.



Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why isthat? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other,have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, nomatter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or ourspouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action andconversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] "personal storiesand gossip make up 65% of our conversations."

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one ofour existing experiences. That's why metaphors work so well with us. Whilewe are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate tothat same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.

The following graphic probably describes it best:

In a great experiment, John Bargh at Yale found thefollowing:

We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically.Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship ofsomething we've previously experienced.

Let's dig into some hands on tips to make use of it:

Exchange givingsuggestions for telling stories

Do you know the feeling when a good friend tells you a story andthen two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was youridea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerfulways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to UriHasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in thebrain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

The next time you struggle with getting people on board withyour projects and ideas, simply tell them a story, where the outcome is thatdoing what you had in mind is the best thing to do. According to Princetonresearcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into otherpeople's minds.

Write morepersuasively—bring in stories from yourself or an expert

This is something that took me a long time to understand. If youstart out writing, it's only natural to think "I don't have a lot of experiencewith this, how can I make my post believable if I use personal stories?"The best way to get around this is by simply exchanging stories with those ofexperts. When this blog used to be a social media blog, I would ask forquotes from the top folks in the industry or simply find great passages theyhad written online. It's a great way to add credibility and at the sametime, tell a story.

The simple story ismore successful than the complicated one

When we think of stories, it is often easy to convince ourselvesthat they have to be complex and detailed to be interesting. The truth ishowever, that the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simplelanguage as well as low complexity is the best way to activate the brainregions that make us truly relate to the happenings of a story. This is asimilar reason why multitasking is so hard for us. Try for example to reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in a presentation or article and exchange them with more simple, yet heartfelt language.

Quick last fact: Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrases that used to make stories awesome. Scientists, in the midst of researching the topic of storytelling have also discovered, that certain words and phrases have lost all story telling power:

This means, that the frontal cortex—the area of your brainresponsible to experience emotions—can't be activated with these phrases. It'ssomething that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story.


Ask Questions and Repeat the Other Person

Important


Let’s face it, we’ve all drifted off when someone else was talking or misheard the other person. Asking questions and repeating the other person’s last few words shows you’re interested in what they say, keeps you on your toes, and helps clarify points that could be misunderstood (e.g., “So to recap, you’re going to buy the tickets for Saturday?”).

It also helps for small talk and to fill in awkward silences. Instead of trying to stir up conversation on mundane topics like the weather, ask the other person questions (e.g., “Got any plans for the summer?” or “What are you reading lately?”) and engage in their answers. It’s more important to be interested than to be interesting.

Small talk is pretty tough, both in practice and in principle. No one likes pointless conversation, but meeting new people is worthwhile, and networking is a valuable activity. So what do you do when you hate making small talk? According to Hannah Morgan, don't bother—ask questions instead. It's the fastest way to a real conversation.

We've shared several ways to make small talk easier, but the secret to better small talk is to talk less and ask more questions. After all, if the goal is to have real, meaningful conversations with people, skip talking about the weather and the scripted one-liners like "So, what do you do?" Here's what she suggests:

There's more utility here than you might think—sure, it might seem like common sense that the best way to actually converse with people is to find a common interest and talk about that, but as someone who's easily drained in large groups, I find that I'm happier listening to the stories that other people tell than I am talking about myself. Once the conversation really gets going, then I may jump in and engage, but you can learn a lot about someone just by being genuine and interested in what they have to say—and people will appreciate you for it.


Put Away the Distractions

Important of Communication


It’s pretty rude to use your phone while someone’s talking to you or you’re supposed to be hanging out with them. Maybe we can’t get rid of all our distractions or put away technology completely, but just taking the time to look up could vastly improve our communication with each other.

Despite our love for technology, we (and others) have talked ad nauseum about the social downsides of burying your face in a screen. But few arguments convey the idea as well as this five minute video.

At times it's a little cheesy, and it may feel like something you've heard time and time again from anti-tech relatives or your friends with a superiority complex. But if you actually give it a chance and watch the whole thing, it's pretty well done—dare I say even moving.

Of course, the video has its flaws too. It ignores the social upsides to a constantly connected world. Technology also allows us to keep in touch with our families and organize meet ups to make like-minded friends. But a lot of times, it's just our way to keep from being "bored" by standing around for two minutes. Why not look up and see what happens?


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Assuming That More Communication Is the Solution

Assuming That More Communication Is the Solution

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Surprise! You've probably heard before that good communication is the cornerstone of a happy relationship, and, while that might be true, communication alone won't necessarily create that happiness. Sometimes, too much talking could do there verse. Erica Curtis, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, says:

It helps to understand your partner's primary communication style. As I mentioned in a previous marriage post, one psychology theory is people have different "love languages," or ways they experience love best: through positive words, touch, quality time, etc. For example, you may be the type for whom actions speak louder than words; if your partner showers you with compliments but never helps with the household chores, that's a big disconnect. If you and your partner find yourselves always talking things out but still never getting over relationship hurdles, maybe concentrate on other, non-verbal ways to connect. 

This month, my husband and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. A dozen years is both a… 

Of course, talking often is productive and necessary—the happiest couples talk with each other at leas tfive hours a week—but as my fellow writer Thorin Klosowski details in this post about divorce, you have to make sure you're really speaking on the same wavelength and, if arguing, doing it productively


Expecting Your Partner to Read Your Mind

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Remember that time your significant other was supposed to do something you wanted but later you found out he or she had no clue? Yup, try as we might, humans aren't great at reading each other's minds. (We have a hard enough time understanding what we do communicate clearly to each other.)

 Melissa Dawn Lieberman offers excellent advice on the Mom


Giving in and Not Really Saying What You Want or Think

If one or both people are averse to conflict, chances are emotions will be buried in the name of pleasing the other person. As someone who's the epitome of conflict avoidance, I can assure you that while that keeps the peace for the short-term, it'll only gradually erode your own happiness and, in turn, the relationship

Harping on (Possibly Hopeless) Issues

The opposite is true as well for couples where both people are stubborn and refuse to compromise. In that case, it's more like a one-lane street with two cars playing chicken with each other. One example of this is what Psychology Today calls the "Woodpecker Syndrome": one person fixates on their feelings and keeps going on and on about it while the other partner withdraws defensively:

Psychology Today's advice? If you're the woodpecker, just stop talking. Rest, regroup, and try a different approach. Maybe on this specific matter you might not ever get your way—or maybe later you'll get through, but not by pecking.


Not Considering Things from the Other Person's Point of View

Sometimes it's just a matter of being clearer, more upfront, or knowing the best way to communicate with your partner that's at the core of better communication. Equally important, though, is making the effort to understand things from your partner's perspective—something we might not always remember to do. Empathy is the most important skill you can practice,personally and professionally. You don't always have to agree with the other person, but at least you'll both be on the same relationship page.


Be Brief Yet Specific

7 Cs


There’s actually a BRIEF acronym—Background, Reason, Information, End, Follow-up—to help you keep your emails short without leaving anything out. It’s a good policy for both written and verbal communication (I’ve always felt that my job as a writer was to clearly get the point across and then get off the page as soon as possible. Just two more items on this list!) Clear and concise are two of the 7 Cs of communication, along with concrete, correct, coherent, complete, and courteous.

Your day is most likely filled with constant communication. Weblog Mind Tools offers a communication checklist to help ensure that your emails, phone calls, and meetings are always productive.

According to the 7 Cs, your communication should always be:

1. Clear: Make the goal of your message clear to your recipient. Ask yourself what the purpose of your communication is.

2. Concise: Your message should also be brief and to the point. Why communicate your message in six sentences when you can do it in three?

3. Concrete: Ensure your message has important details and facts, but that nothing deters the focus of your message.

4. Correct: Make sure what you're writing or saying is accurate. Bad information doesn't help anybody. Also make sure that your message is typo free.

5. Coherent: Does your message make sense? Check to see that all of your points are relevant and that everything is consistent with the tone and flow or your text.

6. Complete: Your message is complete when all relevant information is included in an understandable manner and there is a clear "call to action". Does your audience know what you want them to do?

7. Courteous: Ensure that your communication is friendly, open, and honest, regardless of what the message is about. Be empathetic and avoid passive-aggressive tones.

 Think about the 7 Cs every time you need to communicate something and you'll always know you're delivering the clearest message possible. If you want some more information on the 7 Cs or would like to see some examples of each one, check the link below


Up Your Empathy

What is Empathy


Communication is a two-way street. If you practice taking the opposing viewpoint, you can reduce the difficulty and anxiety that sometimes arises when trying to truly communicate with others. (For example, knowing what your significant other really means when she says she’s too tired to talk.) Developing empathy helps you better understand even the unspoken parts of your communication with others, and helps you respond more effectively.

TL;DR: Empathy is the most important skill you can practice. It will lead to greater success personally and professionally and will allow you to become happier the more you practice.

I've never considered myself a real programmer. I know at this point it's probably silly to say, but I started my scholastic and professional life as a musician, and I've never quite recovered from the impostor syndrome that comes with making such a shift. One of the faux-self-deprecations I use to describe myself is: "I'm a people person who just happens to express this tendency through programming and technology projects."

This seems a bit ironic, because I'm also a very strong introvert. I recharge when I'm alone or in very small groups of people (no more than two including myself is ideal) and I exhaust myself in crowds or in constant discussion. But, on reflection, this all fits together perfectly. The reason crowds of people exhaust me is that I am constantly trying to read and understand the feelings and motivations of those around me. If I could just go through life talking and not listening, hearing but not processing, alone time and time in groups wouldn't be so different for me. But I can't, and I obviously don't think I should.

Coming back to the impostor-syndrome-induced self-identification as a "people person" rather than a programmer, I guess when I say that I'm probably right. I spend much more time and much more effort learning how to understand the people around me than I do code, systems, architectures, and technologies. I'm not an expert or even remarkable at it, but I work on it consciously and consistently. The it I'm describing here is called "empathy":

As exhausting as it is for me, this is the primary reason for the success and good fortune I've enjoyed in my life.


Why Practice Empathy?


Why Practice Empathy?

Why should you explicitly work to enhance your ability to empathize with others?

  • You will be more likely to treat the people you care about the way they wish you would treat them.

  • You will better understand the needs of people around you.

  • You will more clearly understand the perception you create in others with your words and actions.

  • You will understand the unspoken parts of your communication with others.

  • You will better understand the needs of your customers at work.

  • You will have less trouble dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work.

  • You will be able to more accurately predict the actions and reactions of people you interact with.

  • You will learn how to motivate the people around you.

  • You will more effectively convince others of your point of view.

  • You will experience the world in higher resolution as you perceive through not only your perspective but the perspectives of those around you.

  • You will find it easier to deal with the negativity of others if you can better understand their motivations and fears. Lately when I find myself personally struggling with someone, I remind myself to empathize and I immediately calm myself and accept the situation for what it is.

You will be a better leader, a better follower, and most important, a better friend.


How to Practice?


Here are a few ideas on how to develop your empathy.

Listen

Listen intently when people speak to you. Conversations, especially regarding heated topics, often form a rhythm of back and forth speaking, with each party starting a point just before the conversation partner has ended his or her point. I'm sure you will recognize this pattern in yourself if you think about it. Before whoever is speaking has finished, you have already formulated your response, and you can't wait to spit it out.

Next time you find yourself in a conversation like this, slow down. Force yourself to listen to the words you're hearing. Consider the speaker's motivation behind saying what he or she is saying. Consider the life and work experience that has led to his or her current world-view.

Dear Life hacker, 

I'm a terrible listener. I want to do better, but I have trouble paying…

Respond visually and with sound ("ah", "oh", "ya?") but allow at least a second to pass before responding verbally. Ask follow up questions to better understand what the speaker intended or how they feel before you respond with your own opinions. Hopefully you'll need more time before you speak, because you've been too focused on the speaker to start preparing your response.

Watch and Wonder

Put down your cell phone. Instead of checking Twitter or reading articles while you wait for the train or are stuck in a traffic jam, look at the people around you and imagine who they might be, what they might be thinking and feeling, and where they are trying to go right now. Are they frustrated? Happy? Singing? Looking at their phones? Do they live here or are they from out of town? Have they had a nice day? Try to actually wonder and care.

Know Your Enemies

Maybe "enemies" is an exaggeration here, but think about a tense, preferably ongoing dispute you have with someone. Maybe it's a co-worker in a competing faction for how you should do some critical part of your work. Maybe it's a family member you're constantly warring with for some reason. Whoever it is, you're used to them being wrong and you being right. You tend to even jump to disagreeing with them regardless of what they are arguing for, because you are on opposite sides of the war.

Now imagine the entire situation from that person's point of view. The person is probably not evil or an idiot. They might not even be wrong about whatever it is you disagree about. In my own life, the problem is usually more of a fundamental philosophical difference than about the specific conflicts that occur.

How does this person feel about how you respond to them when you disagree? What fears cause the other person to be tense and hard to reason with? How do you exacerbate those fears rather than calm them? What valid arguments could this person make against your views and your handling of the situation? What good intentions does this person hold? What are the positive motivations behind what you perceive as a negative outcome? Do you agree with the motivations? If so, are they more important than the specific conflict?

If you're like me, just going through this exercise (maybe a couple of times with the same subject) can greatly reduce your frustration and anxiety over some of the most stressful inter-personal situations. It may sound obvious, but doing it is very different from understanding how it could work.

Choose the Other Side

While talking with Kelly about practicing empathy, she had a great idea. It's hard to side with your own "enemy" as I suggested above. It requires a forced third person perspective, which takes a lot of discipline when you're thinking about your own stress and emotions.

So to make it easier, try it as an actual third person. We all have friends and loved ones that complain to us about how they have been treated by other people. It's human nature to complain and it's the duty of a loved one to listen sympathetically. The assumption is that the listener is on the side of the complainer. A supportive friend or loved one almost always is, instinctually.

Try practicing (internally) taking the opposing view point. Don't go with your default reaction immediately. Start on the other side and work your way back. This reminds me of a cool technique Dave Thomas blogged about several years (almost 11 years ago, wow!) ago called debating with knives. It's an exercise which forces you onto both sides of a debate to help open your mind to the realities of the topic under discussion.

This is probably all obvious, but I doubt many people really practice empathy. I hope you will give it a try, even for a short while, and I hope it improves your life and the lives of those around you even if just a little.


Listen, Really Listen

How to listen?


Finally, going hand-in-hand with most of the points above, the best thing you can do to improve your communication skills is to learn to really listen—to pay attention and let the other person talk without interrupting. It’s hard work, we know, but “A good conversation is a bunch of words elegantly connected with listening.” Then, even if your communication styles don’t match, at least you’re both working off the same page. And hopefully the other person will be attentively listening to you too.