Communicating and Relating

How do I build effective communication skills? 

Many people find that communicating with others can be challenging at times. In fact, enough books on communication and relationships have been published to fill a library. Being prepared can help you communicate with others thoughtfully and effectively. When it comes to relating with fellow humans, there are a number of skills you can utilize and factors to consider: 

Be engaged 

Hearing what your partner, friend, acquaintance or loved one has said isn’t the same as being an engaged communicator. When you’re engaged, you can also sense how the other person is feeling and understand the emotions they’re trying to convey. Here are some tips on how to improve your engaged communication skills: 

  • Give your full attention to the speaker. Reduce any distractions and set aside time to be engaged in conversation. 
  • Give the speaker your feedback, such as paraphrasing what you heard the other person say. 
  • Keep your judgements in check; you may not agree with all that the other person is saying. Withholding judgement will open the door to understanding the other person. 

Consider non-verbal cues 

People communicate all kinds of messages through posture, facial expressions, and other aspects of body language. For example, non-verbal language cues can be indicative of a person’s preferences and boundaries when it comes to touch and space that vary depending on the context (e.g., interacting with strangers, acquaintances, friends, and loved ones). Some ways you can increase your awareness of non-verbal cues include: 

  • Being aware that everyone’s background is unique and that not everybody uses non-verbal cues in the same way. 
  • Not focusing on a single non-verbal cue but rather taking into consideration all of the non-verbal cues that come from your partner, friend, or loved one. 
  • Use non-verbal cues that match your words and according to the context of the conversation. 

Manage Stress 

Sometimes, certain conversations can be stressful, such as an argument with your partner or a job interview. Keeping stress levels in check is key, as it will help you relax and communicate clearly. Here are some ways to approach stressful convos: 

  • Take a moment to collect your thoughts and think about what you want to say before speaking. 
  • Give yourself time to think! Ask a question or for clarification before responding if you’re unsure what to say. 
  • Clearly articulate your thoughts in an even-toned manner. 
  • Summarize what you said and leave it at that. It’s not your responsibility to fill the silence in the room. 
  • Recognize when your stress level begins to increase. Pausing to take a few deep breaths, finding the humor in your conversation, or consider whether it makes sense to postpone the conversation to another time can help manage stress in the moment. 

Be Mindful of Power Dynamics 

When communicating with others, the different dynamics involved and the power you hold in the space you’re in can influence the way the interaction flows. Power is access to the ability to control or impact other people. You also can’t talk about power without discussing systems of privilege and oppression. Systems of oppression are upheld by society and are rooted in discrimination and prejudice. Privileges are the advantages afforded as an unearned benefit of being part of a group with social power. Since power can vary depending on context, it's good to: 

  • Recognize that power is always present and connected to social identity, appearing in such forms as (but not limited to) race, socio-economic status, education, gender, age, and position (e.g., student, professor, friend, parent, child, staff member, supervisor, etc.)  
  • Think critically about your own identities and how their relevance may vary in different contexts or social situations (such as in classroom settings compared to at home with family) or how their salience may evolve over time. 
  • Increase awareness of your own power in certain spaces. Consider how that might be reflected in your communication style, such as your language and behavior.  
  • Reflect on the power dynamics between you and those with which you intend to communicate. 
  • Call attention to different sources of power and how they’re showing up in the space. 

Be Aware of Barriers to Effective Communication 

Some barriers that can prevent you and your partner, friend, loved one, etc. effectively communicate may include: 

  • Focusing too much on your own responses or agenda rather than taking in what the other person is saying.  
  • Judging and critiquing what the other person says. 
  • Allowing emotions to take control of the conversation. 
  • Generalizing and not taking into considerations the complexities of the situation 
  • Jumping to conclusions. 
  • Intimidating the other person. 
  • Not being an active participant or dominating the conversation. 
  • Not considering how privilege and power dynamics may influence what is being discussed and how the conversation takes place. 

If you’re interested in building communication skills, consider seeking out workshops or coaching to help you: 

  • Identify and practice effective communication strategies. 
  • Develop techniques to clearly and confidently express your opinions, values, and emotions. 
  • Identify and practice how to handle difficult or stressful communication situations. 

Last reviewed/updated: August 23, 2021

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