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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

How to talk to people

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Talking is an opportunity to release and express our feelings. If you think about holding in emotions as a little like a pressure cooker, if it gets to a point where the emotions bubble over, it can really cause quite the “explosion”…as such having someone to share your feelings with (even if it is with yourself in a journal, or spiritually) will “drip feed” out some of those feelings before they become too overwhelming.

Talking with someone who you know is listening, or is able to help solve our problems (should we want that…and sometimes, we just want to be heard NOT “solved!” – generates oxytocin, the bonding hormone, it makes us feel loved and validated…and even better, it can be one of the greatest demonstrations of trust that we show to others – I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable with you.

Of course, however, it is important that the person who has been confided in does not “contain” more anxiety than s/he is able and rather than seeing the confidence as a responsibility, it may be helpful to frame it as being there to signpost or to hold someone’s hand (even silently) as they reach out to professionals.

Talking is also a chance to express ourselves clearly without assumption. Children who have not yet learned the words to express their emotions fully may sometimes struggle and turn to physical responses to let out their frustrations. By talking we have the opportunity to clarify what we mean – and this is far more effective than an “emoji” or text where things can easily be misunderstood without the benefit of intonation, body language or facial expression to provide context.

If talking is so good for us, why don't we do it more?

Sometimes we don’t know where to start…and if that’s the case…it’s ok to say that.

But also, sometimes we may have shared and someone has told our secrets, or made fun of us, or perhaps tried to solve our problem when we just want to be listened to.

It may be worth knowing that from a number of both professionals and those who have undergone talking therapy, many have said “talking sometimes comes later”…it is can be very “alien” to people (and cultures) to sit one-on-one and be told to talk about something you haven’t really processed within 50 minutes…it can sometimes take that 50 minutes (often more) for someone to even pluck up the courage to reach out!

Also because there is a culture in the UK of the “stiff upper lip”, by the time we reach out for help we may be so far into the point of crisis that it seems too overwhelming to even start…add to that the fact that it’s only got this far because talking is clearly somethings we are NOT comfortable with, and that can make it very difficult for people to express themselves.

Another thing that is natural is when loved ones are speaking to us, we want to make them feel better. For example, a sister may say “I’m so fat and ugly” – and our immediate response – from a place of love (and especially if that’s not objectively true) is “no you’re not, you’re beautiful”…but actually that doesn’t validate their right to feel “fat and ugly”. A more helpful response is to say “I’m so sad you feel that way, why is that?” – that way you open the dialogue.

And people can also be very bad at listening.

There are 3 key mistakes we make when listening - try to avoid those:

i) Rehearsing what you are going to say rather than listening. In this case, try to listen and see if you can then springboard off where the other person stops rather than bringing it back round if you thought of your response early on in the story!!

ii) Evaluating - listening only to critique the speaker. This can include fault-finding which is listening in order to catch the speaker out. Ask yourself why you are needing to be critical and what that might be doing to the relationship. If you are only spending time with that person to wind them up, is it really the best use of your energies!?

iii) Derailing - making it about you - either by "topping" their experience with your own, or making a big deal about if YOU were in that situation, or a "what about me" approach. Again, this might need some soul searching to think about why you need that validation in someone else's experience, as well as why you are reluctant to let others have their moment

Instead try to practice ACTIVE LISTENING. This is where you interact with what is being said by asking open questions, writing things down, or paraphrasing back to the speaker what they said, just to make sure you have received the information accurately. If asking questions ask open questions to learn more - those which begin with "Who", "What", "Why", "Where", "When" or "How". These elicit more detail than close questions which often only need a one word answer eg:

OPEN: How are you?

CLOSED: Are you well?

And be aware that there are 4 levels of listening too:

There are 4 levels of listening - Hearing (where we are thinking about something else - very little goes in); Listening (where we can probably repeat a few words by may not understand the true meaning of what was conveyed; Active listening (where we interact with the information - and thus can take in much more); Deep listening (almost like listening between the lines and we may get a very full sense of what is happening in doing so...this level is usually reserved for professionals such as coaches or teachers or the medical and legal professions.)

How can we get comfortable with talking more...even small talk

Small talk is often the hardest, and many people don't like it. In fact, I often get told "I just love the deeper conversations" do I, but I really only want to have those with a few people!!

So when it comes to the more fleeting interactions:

1. Some very basic tips here can include:

a) Offer to help out – eg with events or other places where you may meet people as part of the organising team, as well as enjoy the event. It is sometimes a lot easier to converse when you have a clear job to do.

b) Join a car pool or take advantage of any events organised by work eg. Fitness classes, Art classes and even training. This gives you the opportunity to meet people who might share an interest or be at the same level as you - as such, you already have something in common.

c) Family and hobbies can also make good topics of conversation - where again you might find common ground, as well as what was on TV last night.

d) Accept invitations – even if you’re not sure if you’re going to enjoy the event, and see it as an opportunity to practice chatting.

2. For a deeper/more personal conversation:

And if you are wanting or needing to talk about something personal it can help to say - “I don’t know where to start” or even explain what you are hoping for eg “I just need you to listen rather than advise” as this can ensure the conversation starts on the same page.

Sometimes people find it easier to write things down – and while talking face-to-face will enable better understanding, if writing is going to be easiest – at least get it out there. It’s can also be helpful to have a written outline of the things you want to say even if you are speaking face to face, because that way the conversation will remain on track…emotions can have a tendency to pull us off course.

3. Remember, practice in a safe space without anything too personal – because talking is a “Performance skill” – and it gets easier with rehearsal

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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