2 Simple Skills to Supercharge Your Communication

Think back to the last time you had a really fantastic conversation with someone. Chances are you felt engaged and left that interaction genuinely uplifted. But what made it so great? Were you the great communicator, or was it your companion? How different would your life be if you could communicate at that level all the time?

Let’s take a closer look at how to do just that.

To be a great communicator, we don’t need to master the art of public speaking. We don’t need a superb vocabulary. In fact, we don’t even need to be particularly articulate.

Being a good communicator comes down to mastering two underrated but very powerful skills – learning to listen and conveying empathy.

We’ll examine those two skills separately…

Listening

Listening is not just hearing. The average person talks at a rate of about 125-175 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute. This means our capacity to listen is nearly four times greater than our capacity to speak. Or, in the words of the ancients, “we should listen twice as much we speak. That’s why we have two ears and only one mouth”.

While around 85 per cent of our knowledge is gleaned from listening, the International Listening Association suggests that we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful 75 percent of the time. We can usually only recall half of what a person has told us immediately after hearing it. After time passes, it is reduced to 20 percent.

We can all listen, so why don’t we do it effectively?

When we converse with another person, we tend to think that we are having a dialogue – one to another. But in reality, we are often having two parallel monologues in opposite directions. Most people don’t listen with the intention of understanding the other person; we usually listen with the intent to reply. Our minds are always rushing ahead to our response. 

This is partly because we think of listening as a passive activity and talking as an active activity. We find prolonged listening hard to maintain. When we should be listening to understand the other person, it is likely that we are:

  • Already speaking before the other person has finished
  • Preparing our argument, story or response in our minds
  • Trying to read the other person’s mind
  • Not clearing our minds beforehand, so that our own thoughts overwhelm or distort what is being said
  • Daydreaming
  • Filtering what we hear through our own picture of our world
  • Reading our own experience into the other person’s life. We hear it often… “I know exactly what you mean. When I did that…”, “That reminds me of when I…” or “Let me tell you what happened when I did that…”
  • Comparing ourselves to the speaker (“Who is smarter? Who’s had it rougher?”)
  • Busily drafting our advice long before the talker has finished telling his or her woes
  • Considering every conversation an intellectual debate with the goal of putting down the opponent
  • Believing we are always right, so there is no need to listen
  • Wondering what to have for dinner, or reminding ourselves to do something
  • Placating the other person by automatically agreeing with everything they say (“You’re right… Of course… I agree…”)
  • Quickly changing the topic or laughing it off if the topic gets serious
  • Becoming overwhelmed with emotion so that our ability to listen is seriously impaired
  • Judging a statement to be “crazy” or “boring” or “stupid” before it is completed
  • Becoming distracted or bored because our listening style doesn’t match the speaker. 

Sound familiar?

One of the first things any successful communicator learns is truly to listen to what other people are saying.

In fact, in our roles as success coaches, we spend much more time listening than we do speaking. We often find that, if we simply listen with care and compassion, our clients discover solutions to their own problems. The opportunity to talk things over is all many people need to see the issue in its proper perspective.

Why else should we listen? When people notice how well we listen to them, they usually reciprocate and try to understand us better. Relationships improve. Friendships develop and deepen. Interacting with other people becomes rewarding.

What’s more, we receive more accurate information. When we’re listening carefully, we’ll find people are inclined to give us the whole story. And we can discover not only what people are saying, but also why they are saying it. We learn more about what is really going on “between the lines”.

It’s important to remember that people cannot always serve their spoken messages to us in neat, organised packages. We need to learn to extract the main ideas from among the other points. To do this, we must be listening actively or we miss things. Try to listen for key “themes”. Watch body language and facial expressions. Think about the meaning behind words. Facts, data and examples are sometimes added only to support the main topic, which might be non-factual (for instance, how others feel about a controversial issue).

In Heart Work: Emotional Intelligence – Improving Personal and Organisational Effectiveness, Claus Moller identifies five levels of listening.

Most people, he says, operate only in the first four levels:

  1. Ignoring – not really listening at all. We often find ourselves in this level when we realise that we haven’t heard anything our partner or colleague has said. We then have to back-peddle and try to glean a hint of what was said, or sheepishly admit that we weren’t listening at all.
  2. Pretend we are listening.  We behave like the ‘party listener’, when we are politely talking to a person, but all the while scanning the room for another business or social contact opportunity.
  3. Selective listening. Filtered by our own paradigms and blind spots, we hear what we want to hear and take messages that reaffirm our current beliefs.
  4. Attentive Listening. Offering undivided attention (and taking on board what the person is saying), but concentrating on the words rather than listening to the underlying messages that may be conveyed non-verbally.
  5. Empathetic listening – listening to understand. Empathetic listening means that we are truly seeking to understand the other person’s motives, wishes and situation. It is as much about listening to the non-verbal communication as to the words. It allows us to get inside the other person’s frame of reference.

Of course, it’s not easy to listen actively all the time. Our concentration only lasts approximately 20 minutes, and we typically retain only 50 per cent of what is said to us for just a few minutes (recall two months later is around 20 per cent). 

All of us get distracted at times. But a good listener gets back on track and asks questions when things aren’t clear. 

A good listener guards against the prejudices, closed-minded opinions, defences and fears of being wrong, which prevent us from hearing what is said.

Good listeners check what they hear against their knowledge of the situation and human nature. Consider asking: “How is the talker feeling and thinking about himself?” or “How does she see the world?” 

So, how can you improve your listening skills?  The answer is not rocket science – just some good common sense and a great deal of discipline.  Here’s what you need to do:

  • Know why you are listening. If you don’t know why you are listening, you won’t gain as much from communicating as you would if you have a definite purpose in mind.
  • Listen with your whole body. Active listening involves you physically and mentally. Read the sender’s body movements, and exchange non-verbal feedback. Look directly at the sender, express interest with your face, eyes and hands.
  • Give feedback; respond to the person. The best listening also involves talking, as you respond verbally to what you hear. If you agree, say so, don’t leave the other person guessing. Seek further information by asking questions like: “what happened next?” or “what do you think your options are?”
  • Show empathy. Make it clear that you understand the other person’s point of view, even if you do not agree with it. Active listening requires sensitive judgement about when people want to talk and when they don’t. Use one ear to listen to meaning and the other to listen to feelings (like reading between the lines). Remember, words often mask real feelings.

Active listening is an essential skill when relating to others. Most of us spend 70 per cent of every day communicating, but only 45 per cent of that time listening. Truly listening is more than hearing the speaker’s words – it is understanding and accepting the other person’s message and his or her situation and feelings. The Sioux Indians have an expression for this. They call it “walking a mile in another person’s moccasins”. This is more commonly known as empathy –  the other key to communicating well.

Empathy

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as, “understanding so intimate that feelings, thoughts and motives of one person are readily comprehended by the other.”  In other words, empathy means listening so intently and identifying so closely that you experience the other person’s situation, thoughts and emotions. It’s the ability to sense how others are feeling without them saying so.

Empathy means being aware of, understanding and accepting the feelings and needs of others. The empathetic person has a sensitive and accurate understanding of (without having to agree with) how another person may be feeling, while maintaining a certain separateness and distance from them. Empathy allows us to understand what has contributed to or triggered those feelings. The empathetic person will also communicate with others in an accepting and understanding manner.

‘Tuning in’ to people adds to our ability to understand them and their messages. It helps us to:

  • Understand what another person is really trying to say
  • Forecast when and why misunderstandings arise
  • Avoid using a communication style that might cause disagreement
  • Develop cooperation and agreement
  • Reduce our prejudice, irritation or negative assumptions about others
  • Work out in advance what will attract a receiver’s interest
  • Foster more meaningful, helpful, closer friendships.

Empathy is a fundamental social competence vital to work and social life. Empathetic individuals understand when it is time to say more, or when it is time to pull back. They can read signals well and therefore their timing is usually accurate. People who lack empathy, on the other hand, may not read these signals and inappropriately jump in, often resulting in disharmony and aggravation.

If we are to see things from another’s viewpoint, we need to put aside our own prejudices and preconceptions. The receiver may be of a different race, creed, educational background, from a different section of the country, or have a different speciality or rank within an organisation. Under these circumstances, the task of empathising with the other member of the communication link can be difficult. The task is further complicated if we believe that understanding another’s viewpoint may pose a threat to our own.

To better communicate, we must also try to see ourselves through the eyes of others in the communication link. By developing some empathy with the people to whom we will be directing our message, we might recognise the need to modify our message from time to time before sending it.

Individuals who successfully practice empathy have learned which strategies and tactics to use with various types of people, knowing that no two are alike. They can modify their approach to suit anyone. They are good at reading signals – clues about when the boss is not happy or clues to encourage others to ‘tell more’. This ability means that they can work, socialise and relate effectively with others, always seeking out the most advantageous route for success. 

Case Study 

A woman’s child is undergoing treatment for cancer. Visitors to the hospital come and go, bringing flowers and messages of goodwill. As they leave, many say to the woman, “don’t worry, your child will be just fine.”

Later, the woman confides in a friend that the optimism of her family and friends hurts her very deeply. “I know they mean well, but don’t they realise that the words ‘don’t worry’ dismiss all of my feelings? By saying ‘don’t worry’, they aren’t letting me talk about what scares me most – that he may not get better. Each time someone says it, I feel suffocated. I have to smile and pretend that everything is okay, which only makes me feel worse. Why can’t people drop the optimism for five minutes and just listen?”

When we respond to a friend’s outburst of anxiety or sorrow with, “You’ll feel better tomorrow” or “Don’t worry, time heals” we may be giving them the wrong message.

The well-meaning advice, “Just take a hot bath and you’ll perk up” could be interpreted to mean “You should have been able to figure out the solution for yourself” or “Other people seem to manage in these situations”.

If we can empathise with our struggling friend before speaking, inappropriate advice like that detailed above won’t even enter our minds and we’ll be better equipped to provide whatever it is they really need.

The opposite of empathy – in communication terms – is invalidation. This is what happens when we express a feeling or idea and the person we are speaking to contradicts or rejects it.

And when the emotion happens to be anxiety, sorrow or fear, the rejection can be very painful.

Interestingly, the pain of rejection can be even more profound when the other party bears no ill will towards us. Indeed, the person we have confided in may sincerely believe they are offering us encouragement. But they fail miserably because they lack empathy. It’s easy to see why empathy is a critically important communication skill.

So, how can you improve your empathy?

Like most things, empathy can be learned. But to do this, it must be understood and then practiced. Here are some ways you can start to develop your empathy skills:

  • Learn to look for signals. Read body language and listen to tone of voice. Learn to read between the lines when someone is talking. Try to detect incongruence between what people are saying (words) and how they are expressing themselves (body language).
  • Listen to understand – not with the intent to reply. Use all of your senses, not just your ears. After listening, ask questions of others to ensure that you understand exactly what they are saying.
  • Wait before you give advice. Avoid giving solutions before you fully understand the person’s situation, motives and expectations.
  • Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Step out of your shoes and try to consider the situation from the other person’s perspective. Before jumping in with your opinions, reflect on why this person may be feeling the way they do.
  • Show you care. Actively demonstrate concern for those around you. Watch how this affects them, how they react to your concern and how it makes you feel in return.
  • Become a student of empathy. Watch for how others demonstrate empathy and consider how you feel when others show empathy towards you.

Learning to be more empathetic requires a conscious decision to listen and learn from others. We intuitively know what empathy is, but we often fail to show it because we are too busy trying to ensure our views get heard. 

By consciously focusing on other people you’ll improve your ability to understand others, and in turn they will become more willing to understand you.

Your communication skills will improve in leaps and bounds if you simply make an effort to consistently practice the two great keys to communication – listening and empathy!

Remember, people will most likely forget what you say, but they will never forget how you make them feel.