It takes two...to communicate effectively
Updated: Jul 25
In a world that is ever more connected online, we may well be disconnecting in real life. Yet a simple conversation is one of the easiest ways to build a much needed rapport giving our emotional health a boost - albeit fleetingly - in a difficult world...and even if you don't want to get into something, there are ways of keeping the interaction positive overall.
1. Decide if you want to converse
It's ok if you'd rather not - you do not have to give more time to others than you choose. Try the following to politely continue:
- Active positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, why/what/how did you do that…?
...or close a conversation:
- Passive positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, thanks for sharing.
Try to avoid an active destructive response such as "That's a really stupid question, why did you ask that?" (unless you are calling someone out in which case "what did you mean by that?" can be a helpful non-confrontational approach that gets people a bit more self aware.) And a passive destructive one eg a shrug can also be damaging if your aim is to build rapport.
One of the saddest pieces of research in my PhD was learning that it was unpleasant interactions that contributed to the feelings of burnout in frontline and customer facing professionals. While a depersonalisation of the job eg: for a driver seeing the passenger simply as “Pick Up number 4” was proposed as one way of preventing emotional exhaustion, client-facing professionals disagreed. The reason why many entered the profession was as much about the opportunity to interact as being able to do the job!
2. Learn to listen
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.)
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?
CLOSE: Are you well?
In response to recognising how difficult feelings of isolation can be on our wellbeing, and how a positive interaction can brighten one's day, Taxi firm Free Now and The CALMzone have partnered up to improve the quality of our interactions though simply elevating our conversation skills with their "cab conversation guide", notably through the use of open questions, and we can all benefit!
3. "Oh sorry, did the middle of my sentence interrupt the start of yours!?"
This is my favourite quote on a mug I bought to remind myself not to get so enthusiastic that I "but in" to other people's points before they finish. One thing I notice in my training sessions is that if someone asks me a question and they "tail off" before they finish it - I'm usually proved right when I ask "Do you live with someone who talks a lot at home?" Not only is this actually a little rude - your excitement and theirs is likely to still remain when they have finished speaking, but if someone gets used to being interrupted, they can sometimes learn not to finish their sentences! (Which may not be a problem for you, but might be for them when they are given a platform to speak!)
4. If you didn't hear something correctly - ASK
I too struggle with mis-pronunciation of names, and I'm ashamed of it...but I WILL ask more than 3 times if I have to, and then I write it down phonetically so I remember. Getting someone's name right is respectful.
Similarly if you have misheard a question - ask for it to be repeated, and if you are still unsure ask "have I got this right"...and paraphrase what you think you heard.
Conversation is much more effective if you are not labouring under a misapprehension.
5. Sometimes it's OK to have nothing to say
Because I struggle with silence I will often have to say "I don't think there is anything I can say to that" (or similar) if I have no response, and words to this effect such as "I have no words" also go some way to telling the speaker you have heard them and you are processing it. But sometimes, silence is a lovely way to hold a moment of connection.
I am reminded of one of the best (and daring) moments in a film I have seen in long time "Same Kind of Different as Me" between Djimon Hounsou and Renee Zellweger which was
one scene that was approximately 1 minute of pure silence at a significant moment in the life of one of the characters. Even now, reflecting, I am still moved by that sheer power and connection - not just between the characters, but even myself as the viewer.
Whether we’ve preferred a respectable social distance, or are straining at the mask to invade space with hands and face, social interaction is good for our health - so make the best of each one!
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 coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt