The Surprising Secret Behind Effective Communication

amy teesdale blog photoArticle contributed by guest author Aimee Teesdale


One day I was in a busy café and overheard two friends chatting at the table next to me. The first woman was trying to explain the difficulties she was having with her husband, while the other was doing her best to listen and offer her some support.

The longer I listened though, the more intrigued I became. The first woman, clearly overcome with emotion about the whole situation, seemed unable to find the words to express herself, mumbling things like, “I just …he’s so …I can’t explain it honestly. It’s like …” but before she could spit it out, her friend rushed in and claimed matter-of-factly, “Oh yes I know exactly how you feel. That’s exactly how it was with me. It sounds like he’s being manipulative, that’s what it sounds like. I totally understand. He’s being manipulative, right?”

The response from the first woman made it obvious: that’s not at all what she meant to say. So she tried again: “No…not really, it’s hard to explain actually. I just…oh never mind. He’s just so stressed at the moment that…”

But before she had a chance to try and express herself, the second woman butted in again with a ready interpretation, saying confidently, “yes that’s always the way it is with woman in abusive relationships, trust me I know, you’re feeling like you can’t ask for help right now, but that’s just because he’s manipulated you…”

And on and on it went. The second woman was so sure she had heard her friend, and was so sure that she had correctly understood the situation, that she failed to notice her friend growing increasingly irritated with the whole conversation. I listened closely, and after a few minutes, the first woman lost her temper and said loudly, “You’re talking to me like I’m some kind of battered wife – you aren’t listening!”

The second woman looked stunned. I believe that up until that point, she actually saw herself as a supportive friend bravely helping someone out of an abusive relationship.

Communication is a funny thing. It’s a lot like driving – nobody ever thinks they’re bad at it!

But part of the trouble of being a poor communicator is that you may not even realise when you’ve done it poorly. When most people hear “communication”, in fact, their minds jump to thinking of the best way that they can get their message across, and not the best way to receive the other person’s message.

How often have you found yourself waiting for somebody to finish talking so you can finally get to saying what you want to? You might not be as skillful a communicator as you think!

The first job of competent communication with others is to listen.

Not just to hear what you want and prepare your response. Not just to nod and smile and wait your turn. Not to simply assume what you’ve been told. But truly listen.

The woman I overheard in the café simply made assumptions about what her friend was telling her. She assumed what the message was (“please give me advice about my abusive husband!”) instead of simply listening to what her friend was actually saying, and jumped to conclusions, finishing her sentences for her. The irony is that this woman probably believed herself to be a very good communicator!

I had a client once who, in a session, said he wanted to become better at listening – because in actual fact, he didn’t listen to people at all. So he set himself some goals to enhance this skill, and funnily enough, the next time we spoke, not only had he become a better listener, but people were actually listening to him more too. By taking the time to hear other people, they responded better, and he was starting to become more able to influence the people around him. All by closing his mouth.

Listening wouldn’t be such a valuable skill if it was easy, however, and that’s why even the most switched on and empathetic among us need the practice. So here are a few listening techniques that I have found incredibly helpful in my practice as a life coach, and which my clients have in turn found helpful in their own lives.

  • Listen actively. Listening doesn’t just mean you shut up for a while and give the other person a turn! It means sincerely trying to understand the other person’s perspective on the issue.
  • Before you jump into a response to what they’ve said, take your time to make sure you’ve actually received the right message. Ask questions or paraphrase what they’ve said to check that you really understand.
  • Pause frequently after questions to let people express themselves fully. Don’t rush. Communicate respect for them and what they have to say by letting them finish each thought.
  • Maintain dignity and composure, especially where strong emotions threaten to overwhelm the conversation. Try to remember the goal of your communication, and don’t get distracted with trying to prove yourself right.
  • Deliver your message as clearly and simply as possible. Just because you’re good with words, it doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator! There’s no need to show off, just make your point known.
  • Adjust your message according to the person who’s receiving it. If they don’t seem to understand, switch things up until they do. Speak to your audience by considering what would make the most sense from their point of view.
  • Don’t speak unless you have something to say. Think carefully before you start saying something, and make sure you have a clear goal in reaching out, rather than just wanting to fill up empty space or hear your own voice.
  • Look for commonalities between you – be friendly and collaborative, and remember to express appreciation for their point of view, even if it’s different to yours.
  • Know when to disengage. Sometimes, no further progress is possible, and hacking away at the same issue only makes it worse. Rather remove yourself from conversations that have become unproductive and try again later.

Becoming a better communicator is actually quite simple. The women in the café were talking easily enough, but they weren’t communicating. The second woman might have gotten quite a different reaction if she had sat back and merely waited for her friend to explain in her own words how she herself saw the problem.

Think for a moment about the last conversation you had. Do you think you did everything you could to truly hear what the other person was saying?

Recommended reading:
Brilliant Communication Skills: What the Best Communicators Know, Do and Say (Brilliant Business)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

What You Don’t Know About Listening (Could Fill a Book): Leadership Edition

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