The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important skills you can develop.
You probably know that open communication can benefit your personal relationships, but strong communication techniques can serve you well in all aspects of life.
Good communicators might find it easier to:
- take on leadership roles
- get to know new people
- cross cultural barriers to increase awareness and understanding of different life experiences
- develop empathy and compassion for others
But communication, which includes both giving and receiving information, doesn’t come easily to everyone. “Communication is quite a complicated thing, actually,” says Emily Cook, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland.
When you think of communication, verbal conversation might come to mind first.
Communication goes beyond conversation, of course, but sharing ideas with others does require the ability to clearly convey what you’re thinking.
Get comfortable with your emotions
Your words become more sincere when you infuse them with feelings. Shared emotions can help you connect with others more easily, but you can’t share how you’re really feeling unless you’re in touch with your emotions.
Give conversations your full attention, letting your feelings come up as you listen. Pushing feelings back or hiding them can make you seem less invested in the conversation, even insincere.
Try expressing how the conversation makes you feel instead — though it’s wise to practice a little restraint if it brings up particularly intense emotions.
Speak clearly, without rushing
It’s pretty common to speak quickly when you’re nervous or feel a little unsure of yourself. If you speak too quickly, though, listeners might find your words hard to follow.
Take a few deep breaths before you start speaking, or throughout the conversation if you hear your words start to tumble out.
It might seem awkward at first, but focusing on the sound and shape of each word in your mouth can also help you slow down and really focus on what you’re saying.
Choose your words carefully
Your diction, meaning words and phrases you choose, can have an impact on your overall message. Think about how you talk to your best friend, your mother, and your boss. Do you use the same words and phrases or vary them somewhat?
It’s important to be yourself, but it also helps to consider your audience when trying to communicate more effectively. For example, swearing in front of your child’s teacher or a conservative family member might give a different impression than you want to convey.
It never hurts to learn new words and increase your vocabulary, but don’t feel pressured to smarten up your conversation by dropping big words. Speaking naturally generally conveys the most sincerity.
Differing opinions don’t have to ruin a friendship, relationship, or even casual conversation. You might have a lot in common with many of the people you talk to, but you might have plenty of differences, too.
It’s perfectly normal to disagree sometimes.
Just take care to:
- acknowledge their perspective
- share your perspective politely
- avoid contempt and judgment
- keep an open mind
A good conversation should go both ways. You want to open up and share things about yourself, but you’ll also want to ask insightful questions and listen to their answers.
Aim for questions that require a more complex response than one or two words.
On your end, show engagement and interest by giving detailed responses when someone asks you a question. Try to find a balance between fully answering the question and going on and on.
While spoken words might carry a lot of weight, your body language can also convey a lot.
“When it comes to communication, how you say something matters just as much as what you say,” Cook says.
These tips can help you stay mindful of what you’re saying without words.
Make eye contact
Meeting someone’s gaze in a conversation can show your interest in what they have to say. It also conveys a sense of openness and honesty. Looking someone in the eye suggests you don’t have anything to hide.
Keep your expression relaxed
If you feel a little nervous during a conversation, your facial muscles might tense up, which could make you seem irritated or stressed.
There’s no need to force a smile since that can seem insincere. Instead, try taking a deep breath and focus on relaxing your expression. Letting your lips part slightly can help to loosen up tense muscles.
Avoid crossing legs and arms
It might feel natural to sit with your legs crossed or fold your arms across your chest when standing. But doing this in a conversation can sometimes give an impression of being closed off or disinterested in new ideas.
Consider keeping your arms at your sides if you tend to cross your legs when sitting, or relax your leg posture when crossing your arms.
Try to avoid fidgeting
Fidgeting can include:
- toying with keys, phone, pen, etc.
- foot tapping
- nail biting
These behaviors can suggest boredom and nervousness in addition to being a bit distracting.
If fidgeting helps you think more clearly, try to find a method that’s less obvious. For example, try keeping a small fidget toy in your pocket or jiggling your leg (only if it’s under your desk).
Pay attention to their body language
The other person’s body language can offer clues about how the conversation is going.
Do they keep checking their watch or looking around the room? They may be hinting that they want to end the conversation. On the other hand, leaning into the conversation or nodding along suggests interest.
Also, note whether they mirror your gestures or posture. This unconscious behavior happens when you’re connecting emotionally with someone, so it often means the conversation is going well.
Communication doesn’t just involve saying your piece. In order to truly connect and share ideas with someone, you also have to listen — and listen well.
These tips can help you develop active listening skills.
Acknowledge and affirm
Ever have a conversation where the other person just said “uh huh” without really seeming to absorb what you were saying?
Validating what the other person says lets them know that you’re really listening. Nodding and making noises of affirmation is fine, but it also helps to interject during natural pauses with things like, “That sounds really frustrating” or “I get that.”
Ask questions when necessary
You may have learned never to interrupt while someone’s talking. That’s generally a good rule to follow. But sometimes, a misunderstanding or lack of clarity can make a conversation harder to follow.
If you feel confused or uncertain, it’s generally OK to politely interrupt. Say something like, “Sorry, I just want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly.” Then restate what they said as you understood it.
Read the room
Paying attention to the tone of a conversation can provide insight on the moods of the other people involved.
If people seem tense and a little uncomfortable, but not unhappy, a joke or lighthearted comment could help lighten the atmosphere. But if someone speaks more somberly or with reservation, a joke might not go over well. Listening carefully can keep you from a conversational misstep.
Give the speaker your attention
Keep your body turned toward the speaker if possible, and make eye contact, at least some of the time, to show your interest in the conversation.
Even the strongest communicators stumble from time to time. That’s to be expected. But avoiding these key behaviors can help you steer clear of most major missteps.
If the person you’re talking to tries to change the subject, or directly says they don’t want to talk about something, it’s often wise to follow their lead.
With a loved one, you may need to revisit the subject later on. Giving them space for the moment provides the opportunity to sort through difficult feelings and return to the topic at a time that works for you both.
It’s especially important to pay attention to body language when talking about a difficult subject. If someone looks away, physically pulls back, or responds with terse replies, you may want to let the matter drop.
Talking just to talk
Conversations ebb and flow, and sometimes, things fall silent. This is more than OK, as it gives both speaker and listener a chance to reflect on what’s been said and collect their thoughts.
Don’t give in to the urge to fill a quiet moment with empty chatter.
“Withdrawal/avoidance is one problematic pattern that can disrupt clear, productive conversation,” Cook explains.
This often happens when you begin to feel upset or stressed about a difficult conversation. Maybe you dislike conflict, and you don’t want to face your partner when they’re angry.
Checking out of a conversation doesn’t help anyone, though. Instead, let them know you need a break and suggest talking things over when you’re both calmer.
Practicing positive communication on both ends can help you reach each other more successfully.
Reacting in anger
Everyone gets angry sometimes, but responding when you’re in that headspace can quickly derail things.
Take a break from the conversation if you need to. Sometimes, working through anger on your own is enough. In a day or two, the issue may not even matter much anymore. If it still bothers you, you might find it easier to work out a solution after cooling off.
If you can’t take a break, try to find other ways to release your anger.
Even if you know the person you’re talking to messed up, a direct accusation may not be the best way to handle the situation.
Try to use “I” statements instead. This involves focusing on how you feel, rather than accusing the other person of something.
Here’s a basic template:
- “I feel (emotion) when (specific thing happens) because (outcome of specific thing happening). I’d like to try (alternative solution).”
It can also help to ask for clarification before you disagree with someone. For a less confrontational way of pointing out someone’s error, try this:
- “When you say ‘X,’ do you mean (restate what they said)? I always understood it as (your explanation).”
Anytime you’re around others, you’re communicating on some level, even if you don’t realize it. You may not always speak with words, but your expressions and gestures still say a lot.
This near-constant communication might seem overwhelming if you don’t feel like a natural conversationalist. While there’s no single technique to guarantee a perfect conversation, practice can help you develop your skills and communicate with confidence and sincerity.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.