The first thing I noticed when I arrived in the U.S. was the accents. It was surreal…it felt like I was on a movie set! Three years later, I don’t notice them anymore, however, it has certainly made me more conscious of the way I speak and what I say. As I find my words becoming infected with an American accent, I am reminded of how important communication is. We talk to people every day – it is a vital part of our lives, and yet, I often find myself struggling to communicate effectively with people.
A conversation with a stranger is simple: learn their name, learn something about them, wish them well. Sometimes you might need something from them, such as assistance at a checkout or directions. It is conversations with acquaintances or even friends, however, that I find difficult. There are many possible reasons for this: we are all subject to the human desire to be accepted and we don’t want to be ridiculed by someone for a simple, snap judgment that is based on limited information. We want to be seen as ‘nice people’. Still, no matter what excuses we come up with to not have deep conversations with people—whether it be to maintain a good impression or to protect ourselves from judgment and rejection—it is still necessary to have these conversations. Human connection requires it. We require shared experiences that discourage us from focusing solely on ourselves and sharing shows us that no one really has it figured out, we’re all flawed and learning as we go.
Conversations are one of the few ways that we can really get to know another person. Through communication, we discover better ways to serve one another. That is why it’s so important that we learn how to communicate in a way that doesn’t shut people down. Here are some things I have learned and practice to help me engage in better conversations…after all, conversing is an art form that can be learned!
When we communicate, we pick up on more non-verbal cues than we realize. Something as simple as changing how we stand when we converse can have a huge impact. An open stance can help the other person feel more at ease. You can achieve this by keeping your arms relaxed by your side or on your lap and not having them cross your body.
Another way you can communicate is by mirroring the stance or position of the other person. If the other person is leaning to one side in their chair, do the same. If they cross their legs, do the same. If the other person has their arms crossing their body—a sign of defensiveness and protection—you can help put them at ease by first mirroring their body language and then gradually opening out into a relaxed, attentive listening position.
A third way of connecting with people is making eye contact. This shows assertiveness and confidence, but it needs to be used carefully as it can also be seen as aggressive if overused. Still, glancing into someone’s eyes can help stimulate connection between people. I appreciate how simple these physical techniques are because they allow you to reflect the other person’s state without taking it on as your own.
Listening is so important for good communication. The hard part about trying to listen to someone is that we only hear our own interpretation of what they said. A good way to communicate while listening is to clarify what they are saying through reflection. Sometimes it is as simple as repeating what they have said to make sure that you understand it. Psychologists are taught ‘active listening’ which has a similar premise – to be actively aware of the other person’s points.
A final thing that I have learned about conversations is that validating the human experience leads to a deeper connection. All people want to be heard, known and understood. And it’s up to us to provide that human warmth and connection, something that you can’t get from your favourite plant, pet rock, your cat or even man’s best friend. Validating someone doesn’t mean you have to have gone through the same experience. It doesn’t mean that you have to like, affirm or agree with their interpretation of their experience. It just means that you confirm that their experience is something that occurs within a human spectrum and that they are not alone.
I have found these help me focus on the important parts of communication and help put the other person at ease. After all, you only have power over one side of the discussion. We can approach nearly any subject, especially important topics, if we do so with kindness and warmth. To recap, these are the simple things you can do to help focus your attention on the other person and remain warm and open during a conversation:
• Maintain a relaxed body posture
• Mirror the body language of the other person
• Make good eye contact
• Seek regular clarification
• Reflect and repeat back what the other person has said to you.
• Remember that the other person longs to be heard
• Be warm and open rather than critical
• Confirmed that the other person’s experience is real and important to them.
We may make mistakes in every conversation that we have, but there’s good news: we have the rest of our lives to practice!! My goal has always been similar with every person I’ve met: get to know them and have an interaction in which they feel valued in some way. I encourage you to give some of these suggestions a go and see if you notice a difference in your conversations. Hopefully, with practice, we will all grow to be better communicators and find more ways to serve our neighbours!