The Essentials of Effective Communication
Amanda Kirk, MS
Years ago, I remember seeing a conversation fail in such an overt way it was both mesmerizing and comical. I watched as two co-workers carried on what could loosely be defined as a conversation. They were talking back and forth to each other, but about two completely different topics. I don’t recall what they said now, but it went something like this:
“I am so ready for summer; I’m done with the cold!”
“We went to Kroger last night and they were running a big sale on meat.”
“As soon as the weather started getting warmer last month, I was already pulling out my beach stuff. We’re going next week!”
“I’m planning on freezing some of the meat we got. But I’ll make a big batch of chili this week. Maybe a meatloaf.”
“Last year, I stayed on the beach from sun up till sun down the whole time we were there.”
“I have a really good recipe for meatloaf that I got from a magazine years ago.”
Both were so committed to their own topic, neither was willing to pause their own to listen to the other. Rather than having two mutually fulfilling conversations, they settled for two one-sided sentence exchanges. It was fascinating, a little sad, but also, an extreme version of… familiar.
We often replicate a version of this in communication with our spouses, kids, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances. Even though it may not be this stark, we often merely exchange sentences rather than taking the time to take in, then respond to what the other person is saying. This slows us down in order to, at minimum, make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing!
I doubt this is new or groundbreaking information – but I am convinced effective communication is among the most powerful, yet misunderstood tools to move us forward personally, relationally, and societally.
Consider with me these 3 components of effective communication. Would you add or edit anything on this short list?
1. Define the topic.
First, before anyone declares their thoughts, opinions, and convictions, we must get clear on what it is we are actually talking about. I find this is one of the most overlooked parts of communication on every level.
Sometimes, the lack of clarity on the topic at hand is caused by a simple misunderstanding (“Oh, we’re planning for tomorrow? I’m sorry, I thought we were talking about today!”). Often, it’s caused by a lack of awareness or consideration of another’s point of view (“Okay, here’s the situation as I see it, now let’s deal with it.”) Particularly in matters of disagreement, the causes are regularly defensiveness, blame-shifting, and adding on other – usually unrelated – complaints. (“Well, if YOU would stop ______, we wouldn’t have this issue! Oh, and another thing….!”)
One way to ensure the topic of conversation is clearly defined – simply ask the question, “Okay, what are we talking about here?” Everybody gets to add their understanding of the topic at hand before moving forward. And we agree to stay on topic. If other issues come up, table them until later so the conversation does not get baited and unhinged by distractions.
2. Speak to be understood.
Not to overstate the obvious, but another important element of effective communication is, of course, speaking.
There are a couple of challenges to this piece – one, some of us find it difficult to state our opinion or need in a straightforward way – not passive-aggressively or in a confusing or unclear way.
Perhaps we aren’t sure what we think or need. Maybe we get bogged down with too many details, lack confidence, feel embarrassed, or afraid of what the response will be. Or, we may expect the other person to just intuitively know – “if he really loved me, he would know this” or “it’s just common sense, how does she not get it?!” But remember, we cannot hold another person responsible for what we have not clearly shared.
A second challenge, once we’ve worked through those barriers to clearly state our position, is to try to communicate in a way that helps the other person understand (whether they agree or not).
How can our tone and body language express that we are open to having this conversation? Are we willing to accept and answer questions from another person who is still trying to understand our perspective without being defensive or dismissive?
Because again, the goal is to speak to be understood, not just to speak for the sake of speaking.
3. Listen to understand.
Finally, we listen to understand. Often, we use the time the other person is speaking to decide what we’ll say next rather than really ingesting their words. But if our communication is going to be truly effective, It. Is. Essential, that we actually understand each other before we make any next steps toward solving a problem, deciding a path to take, agreeing to disagree, or so on.
We learn to clearly understand each other by listening so well that we can repeat back to them what they said, capturing the heart of their message. Where we don’t quite get it or need more clarity, we ask questions, then listen well to their responses. We listen to understand – so that we can say their position back to them in such a way that they can respond – “yes, that is exactly how I feel about this situation”.
One of the reasons this is such a hard step is because when we slow ourselves down to truly understand, to ask questions and repeat the other person’s words back to them, it feels a lot like we are agreeing with them. And many times, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do!
But we must remind ourselves – understanding another person is NOT the same thing as agreeing with them. It increases our empathy, compassion, and knowledge, certainly, but it does not require agreement.
So what say you about these 3 components of effective communication: defining the topic, speaking to be understood, and listening to understand? Let me be clear – these are not linear steps, in other words, do step one first, then two, finally three. All three of them are weaved in and out of every part of a conversation. We continually make sure we are staying on topic, listening well, and speaking clearly.
Whether the purpose of a conversation is to connect, persuade, teach, or entertain, these foundational principles can be game-changers. I’ve seen them turn stalemate conversations into moments of connection, clarity, and understanding.
I wonder how they could impact your own ability to communicate?