How can you be a good communicator? It seems like lately there’s more noise than ever — from social media, from celebrities, and even from each other. We’re overwhelmed with information, and we lack the skills to find out what the underlying message is. Sometimes there’s so much noise we miss the things that are most important. We talk at each other without listening, reflecting, and communicating.
I became interested in becoming a better communicator when one of my closest friends came very close to committing suicide. There were signs along the way that I missed, and looking back, I can’t believe my eyes were so closed. I never wanted to watch someone go through that experience again.
I took her for granted. I didn’t listen. I couldn’t communicate effectively with her.
So, I took action.
I took a course called Peer Support, and it taught me the skills I needed to be a better communicator. Communication seems like one of those skills everyone knows how to do, but in reality, almost nobody does well. It helps in everything from my day job to building friendships, to staying in touch with my family.
Here’s what I learned.
1. Actively listen to your friends.
I’ve written about this before but as it’s one of the most important things you can do to build a strong relationship and help your friends with their problems, it’s worth saying again. Don’t just passively absorb what people are saying. If they’re important to you, make sure you’re engaging with both what they say and — crucially — what they really mean.
Actively listening builds on three basic tenants:
- Absorb without interrupting. This means you don’t stop them when they speak, you engage mentally with what they’re saying without interrupting. A pause in their conversation is not an invitation for you to talk.
- Reflect back without diverting. Don’t use their story as a springboard to launch into your own: you’re here to listen. Say things like, “It sounds like you’re saying X,” not “That reminds me of a time that I did X.” You’re here for them, not you.
- Clarify without judging. Ask open questions, rather than questions with answers built into them. For example, ask, “How did that make you feel?” rather than, “Did that make you feel bad?” This gives a judgment-free conversation.
Listening actively, rather than simply passively hearing, formed the basis of all peer support lessons to come, and I firmly believe it is one of the most valuable life lessons for anyone.
2. To support others, you must support yourself.
You know when you’re flying in a plane, and they do the safety speech where if you’re with a child, you have to secure your own mask first before you help them with theirs?
That seems callous and cruel, but it’s logical. If the child passes out due to lack of oxygen, you can quickly secure their mask. But if you pass out because you fixed their mask first, they’ll be able to breathe but they won’t be able to help you.
It’s like that with boundaries. To be in the position of being able to support others, you have to be able to support yourself. That can take any manner of form.
For example, when my friend was suicidal, I stayed in her apartment all the time. I was convinced she needed me there, and that was the best thing I could do to help. I was available 24/7, and I always had my phone on loud in case she called.
What happened was I was exhausted, sleep-deprived, confused and at my absolute limit. When she spoke, I couldn’t listen because I was already maxed out.
You’re not being a bad friend when you say you’re available for certain hours only, or not to drop everything when someone calls for you. You’re not being a bad friend if you clearly lay out the boundaries for when you will be available to help and listed.
To help them, help yourself first. And if you know it’s beyond your capacity, talk to them about professional help. Good communication is all about knowing what’s within your reach, and what isn’t.
3. Being assertive is more effective than being passive-aggressive.
Here’s what I took away from this lesson: petty people are passive aggressive. Problem-solvers are assertive.
Here’s a real-life situation: I baked a loaf of bread and left it out on the counter of my shared apartment. When I got back after an afternoon out, I saw my roommate had let her guests eat the whole thing.
I’m ashamed to say I dealt with this passive-aggressively. I said, “Wow, OK, I guess I didn’t need the whole loaf of bread… it would have been nice to have some for myself, but it’s fine.”
What happened here? My friend didn’t get the chance to explain, I end up feeling wronged, and there’s no real communication. We don’t listen to each other; it’s just noise between us.
The better and more assertive way that I should have dealt with this would have been if I said something along the lines of, “When I saw that you let your guests eat my bread, I felt like you’d taken advantage of me. I worked hard on the bread and was looking forward to sharing it with you. I’m happy to share some — next time could you please make sure you ask me?
Full disclosure: I was super petty about this and it solved absolutely nothing. My friend felt like I’d overreacted, I felt like a total victim, and it happened again.
The ingredients to a successful assertive problem-solving statement are:
- State your feelings about a specific event. Don’t say “You always do X.” This specificity helps communicate a direct cause-effect of their actions.
- Explain your feelings. Try to give a rationale behind why you feel that way, to help them understand.
- Offer a solution for next time. It will probably happen again, whatever it is. Put the groundwork in place to solve this, long-term.
- If this isn’t the first time, to put in a reward/consequence. In my example, it could be, “If you let me know ahead of time, I can bake more/pick more up at the store. But if it keeps happening I don’t want to share my baked goods with you at all.”
I’ll be straight with you: communication isn’t easy. The foundational skills that constitute communication require constant practice, like any other skill, to keep sharp. Sometimes I lapse and allow myself to fall into pettiness instead of assertiveness. Sometimes I take what other people say and apply my own situation to it, instead of helping them with theirs. We slip up, and that’s OK. Learning to recognize that is part of the process.
But these skills are vital to communicating. True communication is the basis for having happy, healthy relationships with the people around you. I really believe it should be taught to everyone, at every level of school or career. It facilitates building relationships, whether professional, romantic, or platonic.
Communication is an art form, applied correctly, and I think it’s languishing. But it’s easy to start being a better communicator today. Listen actively, draw boundaries where you need to, and step up to be assertive.