Mindful Strategies to Improve Your Communication Skills

You just finished a conversation with a coworker. Everything seemed peachy.

But two days later, the work they share is nothing like you had agreed upon. It seemed like you understood each other at the time, but in retrospect, you were not on the same page!

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw

Situations like this happen all the time. If you want to avoid them in the future and improve your communication skills, keep reading. This article outlines four major barriers to effective communication, and equips you with tips to improve your communication in 6 common scenarios.

Effective Communication is not Easy

Life is filled with constant communication. Emails, meetings, tweets, and phone calls dominate the American work day.

Given it’s omnipresence in our lives, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that good communication is not easy. It’s a multi-step process that happens in split-second bursts of sharing and receiving.

First, you have to translate your understanding of something into a shareable format. Then, you have to share that with someone else. And finally, that person has to interpret your message into their own understanding.

 

Every step of the way is an opportunity for miscommunication.

You could mischaracterize your own understanding. The context could distract from your message. Or your audience may not derive the same meaning from the words you use.

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Common Barriers to Effective Communication

Doing something well is as much about avoiding mistakes as it is about excelling at the activity. And there are a host of challenges that lead to consistent communication mistakes.

By understanding these challenges, you’ll be prepared to navigate them in your own life.

1) Imprecise language clouds understanding

Words mean different things to different people. There’s a difference between a dictionary definition, your interpretation of a word/phrase, and someone else’s interpretation.

What to do about this: Avoid ambiguous words as much as possible.

Some words feel like they mean a lot, but lack specificity. Depending on the audience, they can be interpreted in countless ways.

A few examples:

  • Interesting
  • Success
  • Engagement

These words might get you part of the way to your point, but they tend to fall short. Instead of using the above, be more specific with your language. Characterize the truth of your present scenario.

Precise word choice requires more reflection and processing on your end. But increases your chances of fostering collective understanding.

2) Your audience lacks information

It could be specialized knowledge based on your background. It could be based on your level in the organization. Whatever the reason, everyone knows a different amount about every topic.

If you aren’t conscious of this fact, it can impede understanding.

What to do about this: Before entering an important conversation, take a few minutes to identify potential knowledge gaps in your audience. It’s better to err on the side of re-hashing important details than assuming everyone knows what you’re talking about.

I see this come up frequently with industry terms and abbreviations. Take the time to define abbreviations and technical terms when they come up in conversation (especially when working with clients or new team members.)

3) Your audience has a different world view

Everyone has a different background and a unique set of values. Contrasting worldviews can bring any conversation to a screeching halt.

What to do about this: When addressing  big-picture topics, stay grounded in the truth by sharing stories from your personal experience to support your points. Refrain from projecting your experience onto others.

Since this challenge surfaces frequently in conversations about politics and race, it’s an important skill to build to navigate typically difficult conversations.

4) Garbage words detract from the conversation

Some words never add to the conversation. They usually inhibit understanding by adding noise to your signal.

What to do about this: Stop using words that don’t add value.

Here are a couple examples of words to stop using, and why they aren’t good to use:

  • Obviously: It’s condescending and assumptive.
  • Try: It’s vague. Are you going to do it? Commit one way or the other.

6 Opportunities to Improve Your Communication Skills in Everyday Life

With those common pitfalls in mind, you’re on the right track to communicating more effectively. But a conceptual understanding only goes so far.

Every week provides a host of opportunities to practice mindful communication. Try a few out and let me know how it goes!

When giving critical feedback…

Align on the goal/direction of the work and feedback session.

Be specific with criticism. Support the what with the why.

e.g. “I don’t think the typeface you used meets our objective for this project. (the what)
It feels heavy and intense. That is at conflict with the whimsical nature of this brand’s personality.
(the why)”

When discussing next steps…

Get clear on who is doing what. Assign work to individuals. Set expectations for when work will be completed.

If needed, plan a time to reconvene and continue the conversation.

When telling others that you care…

Be specific to convey the message you want to convey.

“I love you” is a powerful phrase. But it’s also lacks nuance.

If you get more precise with your language, it forces you to think clearly about what you really feel. Articulating how you care in a specific way builds self understanding and fosters a more meaningful connection with the person you care about. Plus, it’s a fun creative exercise. 🙂

Example 1: Thank you for supporting me with your friendship. The way you listen makes me feel valued.

Example 2: I care about you deeply. All I want to do is fill your life with energy.

When listening…

Don’t assume that you’ve received a message correctly. Take the extra step to clarify what you heard.

Three ways to do this:

  • Summarize what you heard: “What I heard you say is _____. Is that accurate?”
  • Ask for clarification: “What did you mean when you said ____.”
  • Ask for elaboration: “Say more about that…”

When sharing praise…

Make your communication more impactful by getting specific. General statements feel less genuine than pointed thoughts.

For example, instead of saying “Really great work on that last project!”

You could dive into the details: “Awesome work on that project! I admire your persistence, which was on full display during the workshop with Deanna. You listened carefully to understand her perspective and ultimately create a design that aligned with her goals. The work you produced is represents the essence of their brand in a way they haven’t previously expressed it. Bravo!”

When writing an email…

After drafting your email, take 5 seconds to pause. Take a deep breath.

Then, put yourself in the shoes of the recipient of your email, and read it through. If you were the recipient, how would this email make you feel?

If necessary, make modifications.

Practice Mindful Communication

Mindful communication is a proactive strategy to doing better work and improving your personal relationships.

Every conversation is an opportunity to practice clarifying your thoughts with specific language, cultivating empathy for your audience, and eliminating unnecessary words.

Take the opportunities you’re given this week. Let me know how it goes!

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PS: What words do you avoid using? I’d love to add to my list of unspecific language and “garbage” words.

Other reading:

  1. Jessica Semaan’s piece expands on the idea of “love” as an ambiguous word. She gives great examples on how to be more specific.
  2. Hubspot compiled a nice list of “crutch words” to stop using.