Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

Communication skills are often referred to as ‘soft skills’, which implies that they are easy to put into practice. But I argue that the ability to communicate well is in fact highly technical.

Here, I will expose the hidden elements of the art of communicating to help you understand and improve your own style, and your relationships.

Our personal experience and biases can inform the way we communicate with certain people

Unhelpful processes

There are a number of unhelpful mental processes at play. For a start, our personal experience and biases can inform the way we communicate with certain people.

We rely on our schemamental structures based on our previous experience – to process and organise new data. For example, if I was bullied at school by a girl named Sarah, I would have to work hard not to prejudge any Sarah I meet as an adult. My unconscious bias will have pre-determined that she is unkind and cannot be trusted.

These assumptions are based on limited and skewed data. What if this Sarah is someone I could get on well with? I’d never know. Holding these beliefs will prevent me from being honest and open with her, I’ll mistrust what she tells me and there’s little hope for a healthy working relationship.

You’re more likely to worry in advance about a conversation with someone you feel unsettled with

Wrong assumptions

Have you noticed that you feel more confident in some settings and less so in others?

You’re more likely to worry in advance about a conversation with someone you feel unsettled with. Your mind will slip into fortune-telling mode where it predicts the outcome of that conversation, offering a negative outcome (‘You’ll stumble over your words and they’ll think you are stupid’). It never predicts a positive one (‘They’ll find you charismatic and offer you a promotion!’).

Being preoccupied with assuming the worst deepens your discomfort, increases your anxiety and makes it more likely that you’ll stumble over your words.

The mind-reader

One way that our minds obstruct clear communication is by mind-reading: the tendency to assume you know what the other person is thinking and feeling. Mind-reading is particularly troublesome because it is often the cause of unnecessary anxiety.

Imagine you are delivering a presentation and all but one person in the room is listening attentively. This distracted person is tapping away at their mobile phone. Because your mind is wired to seek out threat, it is drawn to this one person; you begin to worry that your talk is boring and assume everyone will judge you negatively.

At the end of your presentation the distracted person is the first to get up. But instead of stomping impatiently out of the room, they approach you to tell you how riveting your talk was and how glad they were to have made so many notes.

Even when you are deeply interested in what someone has to say, there’s a high chance that your mind is wandering

Are you listening?

We are naturally good at listening. Think back to when you heard a noise in the middle of the night and thought there might an intruder in your home; you became a world-class listener in that moment!

Even when you are deeply interested in what someone has to say, you may believe you are fully engaged, yet there’s a high chance that your mind is wandering off elsewhere.

During conversation, have you ever found yourself thinking about your next question, or wondering what you could say to impress this person? Again, your mind has ventured off and you’ve just missed the crucial part of the story: now you don’t know whether you should laugh or commiserate.

Be natural

Management trainers have taught active listening skills for decades to get us to control ourselves better. Active listening refers to a collection of non-verbal signals such as nodding, smiling, using eye contact and making reassuring ‘hmm’ noises. It’s claimed that by using these skills you demonstrate that you are indeed listening.

But I would question these claims. Firstly, there’s a high risk of inauthenticity; if it isn’t done naturally, people will pick up on your forced smile and people-pleaser nodding, and instead of building rapport you destroy any chance of authentic connection.

Secondly, there is a high risk that you place your attention on to you. At the point of trying to remember to smile, wondering whether you should nod again, or planning your next reassuring ‘hmm’, you are only attending to your own experience, and once again likely to miss what is being said.

New approach

Discard some of those unhelpful mental processes by trying these methods instead:

  • Consciously decide to override the negative assumptions and judgments we bring to new conversations. Relate to others with interest, compassion and curiosity.
  • Catch yourself making assumptions about someone else’s behaviour, reaction or comment, and ask questions to understand them better.
  • Ask specific questions to find out as many details as you can to help the other person communicate their point clearly.
  • Instead of thinking about what to say next, refocus your attention back onto the speaker.
  • Adopt patience. When you have the urge to open your mouth to interrupt or speak, try remaining quiet and take a breath. Be still, place your hands in your lap and wait for the other person to pause or signal your turn.
  • Listening is an attitude not a skill. Instead of trying to use active listening skills, try to genuinely tune into the other person, what they say and how they are saying it.

Remember, listening well is more impressive than speaking to impress; it makes the other person feel heard and valued.

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