Improving Communication Skills in Your Work and Personal Relationships
We say one thing, the other person hears something else, and misunderstandings, frustration, and
conflicts ensue.It sounds so simple: say what you mean. But all too often, what we try to communicate
gets lost in translation despite our best intentions.
Fortunately, you can learn how to communicate more clearly and effectively. Whether you’re trying to
improve communication with your spouse, kids, boss, or coworkers, you can improve the communication
skills that enable you to effectively connect with others, build trust and respect, and feel heard and
What is effective communication?
More than just the words you use, effective communication combines a set of skills including nonverbal
communication, engaged listening, managing stress in the moment, the ability to communicate assertively,
and the capacity to recognize and understand your own emotions and those of the person you’re
Communication is about more than just exchanging information. It’s about understanding the emotion and
intentions behind the information. Effective communication is also a two-way street. It’s not only how
you convey a message so that it is received and understood by someone in exactly the way you intended,
it’s also how you listen to gain the full meaning of what’s being said and to make the other person
feel heard and understood.
Effective communication is the glue that helps you deepen your connections to others and improve
teamwork, decision making, and problem solving. It enables you to communicate even negative or difficult
messages without creating conflict or destroying trust.
While effective communication is a learned skill, it is more effective when it’s spontaneous rather
than formulaic. A speech that is read, for example, rarely has the same impact as a speech that’s
delivered (or appears to be delivered) spontaneously. Of course, it takes time and effort to develop
these skills and become an effective communicator. The more effort and practice you put in, the more
instinctive and spontaneous your communication skills will become.
Barriers to effective interpersonal communication
Stress and out-of-control emotion. When you’re stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, you’re more likely
to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy
knee-jerk patterns of behavior. Take a moment to calm down before continuing a conversation.
Lack of focus. You can’t communicate effectively when you’re multitasking. If you’re planning what
you’re going to say next, daydreaming, checking text messages, or thinking about something else,
you’re almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. You need to stay focused on the
Negative body language. If you disagree with or dislike what’s being said, you may use negative body
language to rebuff the other person’s message, such as crossing your arms, avoiding eye contact, or
tapping your feet. You don’t have to agree, or even like what’s being said, but to communicate
effectively without making the other person defensive, it’s important to avoid sending negative
Inconsistent body language. Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said, not contradict
it. If you say one thing, but your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you
’re being dishonest. For example, you can’t say “yes” while shaking your head no.
Improving communication skills #1: Become an engaged listener
People often focus on what they should say, but effective communication is less about talking and more
about listening. Listening well means not just understanding the words or the information being
communicated, but also understanding the emotions the speaker is trying to communicate.
There’s a big difference between engaged listening and simply hearing. When you really listen—when you
’re engaged with what’s being said—you’ll hear the subtle intonations in someone’s voice that tell
you how that person is feeling and the emotions they’re trying to communicate. When you’re an engaged
listener, not only will you better understand the other person, you’ll also make that person feel heard
and understood, which can help build a stronger, deeper connection between you.
By communicating in this way, you’ll also experience a process that lowers stress and supports physical
and emotional well-being. If the person you’re talking to is calm, for example, listening in an engaged
way will help to calm you, too. Similarly, if the person is agitated, you can help calm them by
listening in an attentive way and making the person feel understood.
How do you become an engaged listener?
If your goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening in an engaged way will
often come naturally. If it doesn’t, try the following tips. The more you practice them, the more
satisfying and rewarding your interactions with others will become.
Focus fully on the speaker, his or her body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. Tone of
voice conveys emotion, so if you’re thinking about other things, checking text messages or doodling,
you’re almost certain to miss the nonverbal cues and the emotional content behind the words being
spoken. And if the person talking is similarly distracted, you’ll be able to quickly pick up on it. If
you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try repeating their words over in your head—it’ll
reinforce their message and help you stay focused.
Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns, by saying something like, “
If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.” Listening is not the same as waiting
for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re
going to say next. Often, the speaker can read your facial expressions and know that your mind’s
Show your interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your
posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes”
or “uh huh.”
Favor your right ear. The left side of the brain contains the primary processing centers for both speech
comprehension and emotions. Since the left side of the brain is connected to the right side of the body,
favoring your right ear can help you better detect the emotional nuances of what someone is saying. Try
keeping your posture straight, your chin down, and tilting your right ear towards the speaker—this will
make it easier to pick up on the higher frequencies of human speech that contain the emotional content
of what’s being said.
Try to set aside judgment. In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don’t have to like
them or agree with their ideas, values, or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and
withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand a person. The most difficult communication,
when successfully executed, can lead to the most unlikely and profound connection with someone.
Provide feedback. If there seems to be a disconnect, reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What
I’m hearing is,” or “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back. Don’t simply repeat
what the speaker has said verbatim, though—you’ll sound insincere or unintelligent. Instead, express
what the speaker’s words mean to you. Ask questions to clarify certain points: “What do you mean when
you say…” or “Is this what you mean?”
Hear the emotion behind the words by exercising your middle ear muscles
By increasing the muscle tone of the tiny middle ear muscles (the smallest in the body), you’ll be able
to detect the higher frequencies of human speech that impart emotion and be better able to understand
what others are really saying. As well as by focusing fully on what someone is saying, you can exercise
these tiny muscles by singing, playing a wind instrument, and listening to certain types of music
(high-frequency Mozart violin concertos and symphonies, for example, rather than low-frequency rock or
Improving communication skills #2: Pay attention to nonverbal signals
When we communicate things that we care about, we do so mainly using nonverbal signals. Nonverbal
communication, or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact,
posture, the tone of your voice, and even your muscle tension and breathing. The way you look, listen,
move, and react to another person tells them more about how you’re feeling than words alone ever can.
Developing the ability to understand and use nonverbal communication can help you connect with others,
express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations, and build better relationships at home
You can enhance effective communication by using open body language—arms uncrossed, standing with an
open stance or sitting on the edge of your seat, and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re
You can also use body language to emphasize or enhance your verbal message—patting a friend on the back
while complimenting him on his success, for example, or pounding your fists to underline your message.
Tips for improving how you read nonverbal communication
Look at nonverbal communication signals as a group. Don’t read too much into a single gesture or
nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you receive, from eye contact to tone of voice to
body language. Anyone can slip up occasionally and let eye contact slip, for example, or briefly cross
their arms without meaning to. Consider the signals as a whole to get a better “read” on a person.
Be aware of individual differences. People from different countries and cultures tend to use different
nonverbal communication gestures, so it’s important to take age, culture, religion, gender, and
emotional state into account when reading body language signals. An American teen, a grieving widow, and
an Asian businessman, for example, are likely to use nonverbal signals differently.
Tips for improving how you deliver nonverbal communication
Use nonverbal signals that match up with your words. The tone of your voice, for example, should be
different when you’re addressing a child than when you’re addressing a group of adults. Similarly,
take into account the emotional state and cultural background of the person you’re interacting
with.Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said, not contradict it. If you say one
thing, but your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you’re being
dishonest. For example, you can’t say “yes” while shaking your head no.
Adjust your nonverbal signals according to the context.
Use body language to convey positive feelings even when you’re not actually experiencing them. If
you’re nervous about a situation—a job interview, important presentation, or first date, for example—
you can use positive body language to signal confidence, even though you’re not feeling it. Instead of
tentatively entering a room with your head down, eyes averted, and sliding into a chair, try standing
tall with your shoulders back, smiling and maintaining eye contact, and delivering a firm handshake. It
will make you feel more self-confident and help to put the other person at ease.
Improving communication skills #3: Keep stress in check
To communicate effectively, you need to be aware of and in control of your emotions. And that means
learning how to manage stress. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to misread other people, send
confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior.
How many times have you felt stressed during a disagreement with your spouse, kids, boss, friends, or
coworkers and then said or done something you later regretted? If you can quickly relieve stress and
return to a calm state, you’ll not only avoid such regrets, but in many cases you’ll also help to calm
the other person as well. It’s only when you’re in a calm, relaxed state that you’ll be able to know
whether the situation requires a response, or whether the other person’s signals indicate it would be
better to remain silent.
Staying calm under pressure
In situations such as a job interview, business presentation, high-pressure meeting, or introduction to
a loved one’s family, for example, it’s important to manage your emotions, think on your feet, and
effectively communicate under pressure. These tips can help:
Make one point and provide an example or supporting piece of information. If your response is too long
or you waffle about a number of points, you risk losing the listener’s interest. Follow one point with
an example and then gauge the listener’s reaction to tell if you should make a second point.
Deliver your words clearly. In many cases, how you say something can be as important as what you say.
Speak clearly, maintain an even tone, and make eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed and open.
Use stalling tactics to give yourself time to think. Have a question repeated, or ask for clarification
of a statement before responding.
Pause to collect your thoughts. Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing—pausing can make you seem more
in control than rushing your response.
Wrap up with a summary and then stop. Summarize your response and then stop talking, even if it leaves a
silence in the room. You don’t have to fill the silence by continuing to talk.
Quick stress relief for effective communication
When things start to get heated in the middle of a conversation, you need something quick and immediate
to bring down the emotional intensity. By learning to quickly reduce stress in the moment, though, you
can safely face any strong emotions you’re experiencing, regulate your feelings, and behave
appropriately. When you know how to maintain a relaxed, energized state of awareness—even when
something upsetting happens—you can remain emotionally available and engaged.
To deal with stress during communication:
Recognize when you’re becoming stressed. Your body will let you know if you’re stressed as you
communicate. Are your muscles or your stomach tight and/or sore? Are your hands clenched? Is your breath
shallow? Are you “forgetting” to breathe?
Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation or postpone it.
Bring your senses to the rescue and quickly manage stress by taking a few deep breaths, clenching and
relaxing muscles, or recalling a soothing, sensory-rich image, for example.
Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to relieve stress when
communicating. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the
mood by sharing a joke or amusing story.
The best way to rapidly and reliably relieve stress is through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste,
and smell. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are
soothing to you.
Be willing to compromise. Sometimes, if you can both bend a little, you’ll be able to find a happy
middle ground that reduces the stress levels for everyone concerned. If you realize that the other
person cares much more about something than you do, compromise may be easier for you and a good
investment in the future of the relationship.
Agree to disagree, if necessary, and take time away from the situation so everyone can calm down. Take a
quick break and move away from the situation. Go for a stroll outside if possible, or spend a few
minutes meditating. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance can quickly reduce
Improving communication skills #4: Assert yourself
Direct, assertive expression makes for clear communication and can help boost self-esteem and decision-
making. Being assertive means expressing your thoughts, feelings, and needs in an open and honest way,
while standing up for yourself and respecting others. It does NOT mean being hostile, aggressive, or
demanding. Effective communication is always about understanding the other person, not about winning an
argument or forcing your opinions on others.
To improve assertiveness:
Value yourself and your opinions. They are as important as anyone else’s.
Know your needs and wants. Learn to express them without infringing on the rights of others.
Empathetic assertion conveys sensitivity to the other person. First, recognize the other person’s
situation or feelings, then state your needs or opinion. “I know you’ve been very busy at work, but I
want you to make time for us as well.”
Express negative thoughts in a positive way. It’s OK to be angry, but you must be respectful as well.
Receive feedback positively. Accept compliments graciously, learn from your mistakes, ask for help when
Learn to say “no.” Know your limits and don’t let others take advantage of you. Look for alternatives
so everyone feels good about the outcome.
Developing assertive communication techniques
Escalating assertion can be used when your first attempts are not successful. You become increasingly
firm as time progresses, which may include outlining consequences if your needs are not met. For
example, “If you don’t abide by the contract, I’ll be forced to pursue legal action.”
Practice assertiveness in lower risk situations to start with to help build up your confidence. Or ask
friends or family if you can practice assertiveness techniques on them first.