14 steps towards a better you: improve your communication skills

In Too lazy to assign a category on August 8, 2008 at 7:44 pm

In order to build good relationships and reach goals, social skills are crucially important. When thinking about social skills, many people think about the ability to smooth talk. Socially skilled people are indeed capable of communicating their feelings and thoughts. They're capable of effectively communicating their ideas. People who aren't as proficient, often think they've got lousy social skills. However, there's more to having social skills than talking. Being able to say what you want, without hurting others, being able to actively listen, being able to read and use body language, … those things are just as important.

Say what you mean

In order to keep a conversation going, stand up for your needs, criticise or react to criticism, give or accept a compliment, you have to open your mouth. Many people find it difficult to tell other people what's bothering them. Often people rub other people the wrong way, and this gives way to fights. The other person feels attacked and gets defensive: "That's not true!", "Look who's talking!". Before you know it, you end up fighting.

In order to put what's bothering you on the table, you might try the XYZ formula. This is a way to phrase things. In situation (X), when you do (Y), I feel (Z). This way it's not as much criticism, as it's a complaint. For example: "When we are driving (X), and you change the radio station without asking (Y), I feel like I don't matter to you." This sounds very different from "Who made you king of the radio?"

Sometimes it's explained a little differently: name the behaviour (X) that's bothering you (don't play the man, play the ball), name the situation (Y) in which this behaviour occurred, and tell which feelings (Z) this behaviour caused. For example: "You being an hour late (X) for our appointment (Y), makes me feel you think our appointment isn't important, and that makes me sad (Z). This sounds very different from "You're always late!"

Once you've said what's bothering you, say how you'd like things to be. Don't demand anything, don't pose ultimatums, don't make threats. Just describe your wishes. For example: "I would like you to be on time next time. That we we can spend some time catching up before dinner."

It's best to be brief. No monologues. People usually can concentrate just 30 seconds at a time during a conversation. Keep your message short. Give the other person time to react. Phrase your message in a positive way. If you use too many negations and negative formulations, it seems like you're nagging and whining, and people don't like to listen to that.

Active listening

Listening is just as important as talking. Even if someone communicates their feelings very well, if the other person isn't listening, the message won't get across. Listening is important in order to have a pleasant conversation. It's very annoying if you get interrupted or someone can't wait to air their viewpoint. If you really get listened to, it's a pleasant experience. Listening to the other person not only means you're hearing what they're saying, but also trying to understand what they're trying to say. This is called active listening.


LEAPS stands for Listen, Empathise, Ask, Paraphrase, Summarise. When you listen, have an open mind, hear the words, interpret the meaning and act upon the words. Empathise, and don't confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is seeing through the eyes of the other person. Then ask, for clarification, in order to find facts, to seek opinion. Next paraphrase, express the message in different (your own) words, and finally summarise. Condense all that's been said and put it in a simple statement. Be brief and concise.  

A different version of LEAPS is Listen, Empathise, Apologise, Positive attitude, Solve. There are similar systems, like LEAP (Listen, Empathise, Agree, Partner), basically meaning listening for what the person finds motivating, empathising with them, finding common ground you can agree on, and partnering with them to address common goals. There's also a different version of LEAP (Listen, Empathise, Apologise, Problem-solve), or yet another (Listen, Empathise, Ask, Produce results). They all more or less boil down to the same thing.

Use body language

The use of body language is another social skill. With a smile, eye contact, an interested posture and enthusiastic charisma you'll get more done than with an uninspired attitude. The importance of body language often is underestimated. Research shows that 80 % of communication consists of body language. Try taking that into account.

If you are the one listening, don't cross your legs and arms, mirror your conversation partner. This way you show openness and enthusiasm, and you enlarge the chance people want to tell you their story. If you are the speaker, make sure your body language is in line with what you're saying. If you are communicating your anger, make sure your voice is powerful, and stand up straight, both feet on the ground. That way your message will come across a whole lot better than when you're speaking in a soft voice, avoiding eye contact, looking at the floor.

An audience is captivated by speakers using gestures to accentuate their message. Also make eye contact, whether you're listening or talking. Don't stare though. Don't look more than 4.5 seconds at the other person, or it becomes staring. If you're listening watch the speaker about 75% of the time, if you're speaking, watch the listener about 40% of the time.

Role play

Ask a friend, partner or family member to do the following exercise with you. Think of a topic you don't agree on, for example the question whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream, the question for whom to vote if today there were elections, or the statement a day-nursery is bad for children.

Put an egg-timer or stopwatch on one minute. During this one minute, you get  to say what you think about this topic, and why. The other person has to listen actively, and isn't allowed to interrupt. After this one minute, ask yourself the following questions:

  • what was it like having someone listen actively?
  • what did the other person do to give you the impression they were really listening to you?
  • what body language did you use?
  • did you use body language to emphasise your words?
  • how much eye contact did you have with each other?

Now reverse the roles. Listen actively to the other person during one minute. Afterwards, ask yourself the following questions:

  • how hard was it not to interrupt the other person?
  • did you use body language to encourage the other person?
  • how much eye contact did you have with each other?

Prevent a fight from happening

Next time you're in an argument that risks turning out into a fight, try to use the XYZ formula, and to stick to the LEAP(S) rules. Even though the other person might not do the same, your attitude might very well change the other person's reaction.

Afterwards, evaluate how you influenced the argument by using the XYZ formula, and sticking to the LEAP(S) rules.

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