Effective Communication Skills for Everyday Life

COMMUNICATION SKILLS

  • REFLECTIVE LISTENING

  • AFTER THE FACT

  • MAKE THE FUZZY CLEAR

  • PUT THE INSIDE OUTSIDE

  • MIXED MESSAGE: RETURN TO SENDER

  • TURN YOUR QUESTIONS INTO STATEMENTS.

  • TALK WITH ME NOT AT ME

  • THE INSTANT REPLAY

a) REFLECTIVE LISTENING:

One of the most powerful communication skills is Mirroring, also called Reflective Listening.  As a mirror reflects back one image, the receiver verbally reflects back to the sender words that let the sender know for sure that the message sent was the message received.

Mirroring is difficult to learn but well worth the time and effort. It pays off big time in developing solid connections between partners. For that matter, it works with people in general. Often when couples I work with learn this skill, one or both will report back how mirroring was effective in a situation at work, with one of their children or with a friend.

Reflecting Listening is NOT repeating the message word for word. That is called parroting. Parroting is useful at times, such as making an appointment or date.

Example: Dick: “We have a reservation for 7:00 pm at the Delight Restaurant.

Jane: “OK. Reservation for 7:00 at the Delight Restaurant.”

Mirroring is NOT repeating or even remembering all the details of what was said. People think that just because they can repeat back everything that was said means they were listening. Hearing the words is not enough. Hearing the message the words are conveying, and saying that message back to the sender, is mirroring.

Mirroring is NOT saying “I understand.” Or “I get it.” The receiver may or may not understand but the sender has no way to gauge whether they do or not. If the receiver actually does not understand, things could get worse later. “But I thought you understood!”

Mirroring involves the receiver putting his or her own viewpoint aside and letting the sender know in words that they see or know the sender’s point of view.

The Receiver puts into words what the sender:

  • thinks and believes
  • feels (emotions)
  • has done, has not done, is doing or wants to do (behaviors)
  • wants and needs.
  • values.
  • wants you to understand.

Example:

Stan, “I expected you back from your trip yesterday morning. I had made plans for us. I was really looking forward to going out together. I can’t believe you would not let me know you’d been delayed.”

Cindy (instead of getting defensive she reflective listens to Stan). “You’re really disappointed that I didn’t get back yesterday. You missed me.”

Stan (relieved), “I sure did. I’m glad your back.”

Cindy, “I’m sorry I didn’t let you know about the delay. I understand you’re disappointed and I’m glad to know you missed me.”

Stan had not said he was disappointed or that he missed Cindy. Cindy picked his feelings up and mirrored back to Stan how he felt. Even if Stan had actually forgotten that she had told him she would be late, Cindy is better off doing what she did, reflective listening, rather than arguing, defending herself or withdrawing in silence. As a result of Cindy’s reflective listening, what stood out for both of them was the positive connection between them – he missed her and she likes that he missed her.

Couples who are positively emotionally connected to each other have relationships that are strong through the good times and the bad times.

Caution: When mirroring, reflect back only the message sent. Do not add more than was said or try to put your own message into your response. That is, don’t put a spin on your response. That wont work and it could easily make communication worse. Wait for your turn to say what you want to say.

For an exercise that gives an experience of Mirroring or Reflective Listening, see the Blog Page We can communicate Better.

b) AFTER THE FACT

The After the Fact communication skill is one of the many communication skills that I teach my clients. It is a very useful skill that facilitates connection between partners.

Many clients tell me that during a discussion, argument or fight they often cannot think of what to say in the moment but then later, they come up with what they could have or should have said. They find this very frustrating.

For some reason, spouses often think if they missed out saying or doing something in the moment that nothing can be done. So they do nothing. Often they stew or ruminate about it but it does not occur to them that they could possibly remedy the situation.

It is not always possible to think of what to say or do in the moment. Sometimes people are distracted with something or someone else. When people are anxious they often cannot think, so they say or do nothing. Or, they may blurt out something they don’t mean or something that is not even relevant. Sometimes people laugh in situations like this and the laughter is misunderstood.

In ongoing relationships it is always possible to bring up an issue later. Later can be minutes, hours, days or even years. This keeps the lines of communication open and strengthens the connection between couples.

Examples:

A while ago you said ………. to me . I was surprised and didn’t know what to say. Well, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it I …………

You know yesterday when we were talking about …………… I kind of blurted out …………. I didn’t mean it. What I wished I’d said to you was………….

I’ve been thinking about what we talked about last week, you know, about ……… I want to add …………….. and let you to know it’s important to me that ……………

It’s been a month since we had that fight about ………. It is still bothering me. Let’s talk about it again.

When we married (10 years ago) you said you never wanted to ……………. I want to know if that is still true for you.

When people use the After the Fact communication skill frequently, the time between the incident and the delayed communication tends to shorten. Gradually, the time becomes so short that partners are better able to think of what they want to say or do what they want to do in the moment. It’s not essential to occur in the moment, After the Fact is just fine.

The After the Fact skill is extremely helpful to keep a couple emotionally connected with positive feedback and behaviors.

Examples:

I really had a good time last night. (One partner to another about making love.)

You know, last week when we went to the concert I was so focused on getting there on time I didn’t tell you how great you looked.

The last time my parents were over you treated them really well. I appreciate how welcome you made them feel.

While the After the Fact communication skill is really helpful for couples, it is also helpful in many other situations as well – parenting, work, and social interactions.

c) MAKE THE FUZZY CLEAR

Too often in conversations and interactions people assume they know what the other person is talking about or doing. Without checking out their assumptions they act as if what they assume is true or fact. Sometimes their assumptions are indeed true and communication is clear. However, when their assumptions are incorrect communication tends to go sideways.

In relationships we know our partners well. Usually we know what they think, feel, value, expect, get upset and excited about. Sometimes though, knowing each other too well creates blind spots. Clarifying can help navigate the blind spots.

PRONOUNS

Pronouns often make communication fuzzy: I, mine, he, she, his, hers, they, them, you, yours, we, us, one, it, this, that, these, those, other(s), etc.

Example A: Bob’s mother and her sister are coming for dinner.

Bob, “My mom said my aunt is a little unsure that you want her to come. She wants you to give her a call.”

Ann (thinking the ‘her’ referred to is Bob’s aunt), “I don’t feel comfortable calling her.”

(For Bob the ‘her’ is his mother). Bob (impatient), “What’s the big deal? Give her a call.”

Ann: (feels pressured and wants to avoid) It’s your family. You do it. I bought the groceries and I’m making the dinner. You haven’t done much at all.

THE FIGHT IS ON. Now the issue shifts away from making a phone call.

Make the fuzzy clear: Ann, “Who, your mom or your aunt?”

Example B: Sue, “This week I’m going on the road with my boss.”

Greg, “Yesterday I really impressed my boss with what I did. You know, when you get an opportunity to make more of an impact you should go for it.”

[When people say ‘you’ they could be referring to you, they could mean themselves, or everyone one in general.]

Make the fuzzy clear: Sue, When you say ‘you’ do you mean yourself, everyone or me?”

Example C: Siggie: We’re going to Joan’s for a potluck dinner. Do you want to come?

[Knowing specifically who or what is involved helps you make decisions that work out better for you.]

Make the Fuzzy Clear: Jane: (Thinking – It depends on who is going.) Who is ‘we’?

Example D: Joe, “I’m working late every night next week. The week after I’m going out of town for 3 days. It gets more and more difficult.”

[What is the ‘it’? Working a lot? Traveling? Keeping up? Getting enough time with family?]

Make the Fuzzy Clear: John, ” What is it that is more difficult for you?”

Fewer misunderstandings lead to easier relationships.

QUALIFIERS

Words that qualify can have different meaning for different people.

Sometimes, early/late, in a little while, high/low, hard/soft, big/small, strong/weak, fast/slow, positive/negative, mostly/slightly, more/less, helpful/not helpful, harmful, safe/dangerous etc.

When people communicate they often have different ideas in mind. It is often helpful to inquire more about what someone is thinking or intending before you respond. What is difficult for one person may seem easy to another. What is slightly stressful for one person may be really stressful for another.

Example E: Make the Fuzzy Clear: Sam, “When you say you will be late, how late is late?

Example F: Make the Fuzzy Clear: Julie, “You mentioned you wanted to earn more money, how much more do you have in mind?”

Example G: Fred, “Stop doing that, it’s harmful.”

Make the Fuzzy Clear: Mike, “What exactly do you find ‘harmful’? [He thinks he know sbut perhaps it is not what he expects.]

Make the Fuzzy Clear: Mike, “How do you see it as harmful?”

[The key here is the word YOU. The receiver may or may not see it as harmful but to the sender it is harmful. Rather than argue about whether or not it is harmful, inquire how the sender views it, or experiences it as harmful.

IDIOSYNCRATIC (personal) MEANING

People often use the same words or expressions but have different meanings for them. Often the meanings are only slightly different but sometimes they are vastly different.

Take the word ‘drunk’ for instance. We all have a common meaning for ‘drunk’. Yet a person who had a parent who was a mean drunk when they were growing up has a different additional meaning for ‘drunk’ than a person who had a parent who occasionally got drunk and was funny when they did.

Words

Example H: My Tennis Instructor: “I no longer trust Federer.” (Federer is a top tennis player.)

Make the Fuzzy Clear: Me: “In what way don’t you trust him?” (I was inquiring about what he meant by the word ‘trust’.)

Phrases

Example I

‘Losing it’ refers to a range of behaviors varying from almost nothing to extreme violence. For some people ‘losing it’ means saying something or doing something when usually they say or do nothing. Some people use this expression when they just mean that they lost their focus. For other people ‘losing it’ means they became physical, either with only themselves (punched a hole in the wall), or with someone else (punched someone else).

‘Losing it’ could also mean becoming emotional. For some people this could mean showing a few tears while for others it means they became hysterical.

Example J: Jim: “Boy, I lost it with my manager yesterday.”

Make the Fuzzy Clear: Rick, “When you say you ‘lost it’ what exactly did you say and do?”

Inquiring early in a conversation keeps communication clear. Clarifying leads to clearer understanding, effective communication, and less reactivity. Fewer misunderstandings lead to easier relationships.

I encourage all of you to assume less and clarify more.

d) HANDLING MIXED MESSAGES: RETURN TO SENDER

A mixed message is a message that can be taken different ways. Mixed messages cause lots of communication problems in intimate relationships and in relationships in general.

First of all, you need to know when you’re are getting a double or mixed message. The way you know is by your feelings (confused) and your thoughts (puzzled). These feelings and thoughts are your cues to guide what you say and do in response.

When messages do not match they are incongruent and come in various forms.

1. What a person says conflicts with what they said previously.

2. What a person does conflicts with what they did previously.

3. What a person says conflicts with what they do.

4. What a person says conflicts with their body language.

When you receive a double or mixed message, without expectation or demand for change, send both messages back to the sender.

HANDLING MIXED MESSAGES: RETURN TO SENDER:

Give both message back as feedback to the sender. Report what was said, what was observed and describe behaviors. When you communicate in this way, the sender is more likely to respond in a positive reasonable way. If you respond in an attacking, blaming, contemptuous or sarcastic manner then the sender is mostly likely to be hurt, angry and defensive.

You cannot control how the sender receives your feedback; you can only control how you deliver it.

WHEN WORDS DO NOT MATCH WORDS: Examples of what to say.

1. Last week you said your think mothers should stay home with their babies (words) and now you’re saying mothers should work outside the home to be good role models for their children (words). I’m wondering which you believe or if you believe both.

2. I’m having trouble figuring this out. You just told me you love me very much (words) and now you’re saying you need some space from me (words).

WHEN WORD DO NOT MATCH BEHAVIORS: Examples of what to say.

1. I don’t get it. You complain about me not helping (words) yet you re-do everything I do (behaviors).

2. I’m confused. You say you want me to be affectionate (words) yet when I touch you, you push me away (behaviors).

3. I’m confused. You said you would help me (words) but now you’re going to the store.

4. I’m puzzled. You said you wanted to spend more time with your kids (words) but when they are here, you often go off by yourself (behaviors).

WHEN WORDS DO NOT MATCH BODY LANGUAGE. Examples of what to say.

1. I’m puzzled. You say you’re fine (words) yet you look sad (body language).

2. I’m confused. You said you like my plans for Saturday night (words) yet the tone of your voice has an angry edge to it (body language).

3. You say you’re listening to me (words) but you have not looked at me (body language), so I’m not sure.

You cannot stop or prevent your partner from sending you mixed messages. What you can do is change how you respond to them. By telling the other about your confusion you are letting them know the impact of their behavior on you. This has the potential to improve communication.

When the other knows they are sending mixed messages, they can clarify. It could be that they are not really conflicted and don’t realize they are sounding or acting like they are.

If the sender is truly conflicted, however, your feedback brings their incongruence to their attention. It’s like holding a mirror up to them so that they can more clearly see themselves. Now, if they want, they can address it. This too, has the potential to improve communication.

Experiment with this skill and see how communication shifts.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay.

e) PUT THE INSIDE OUTSIDE

Put the Inside Outside is another communication skill that I teach clients in both individuals and couples sessions.

When people talk to each other they often think thoughts or have feelings that they do not reveal to others. Most of the time this is perfectly OK. It certainly would not be appropriate to say everything one is thinking or feeling. Yet often, when more information is given there are fewer misunderstandings and a greater connection.

It can be as simple as letting others know you are feeling pressured for time. In a session with client(s) if I’m running late, I often start to speak faster and may interrupt my clients, especially when working with couples. When I notice myself doing that I will say to clients, “The session is almost over and I’m feeling pressured for time to complete what we’re doing.” This helps them understand what is going on with me and lets them know that I’m not impatient with them. They experience how it feels to be informed and usually want to cooperate. I am also teaching them the skill of Put the Inside Outside by modeling it.

When working with couples I often find that partners do not let each other know what is going on inside of them, positive or negative. They do not give each other feedback. It leaves each partner guessing and hoping that the impact of what they said is what they meant.

Example: In a couples session.

Wife to husband, “I appreciate how you help with the kids when you get home.”

Husband, “Well I always do that.”

Dr. Bea, ” Your wife just told you something that she appreciated about you. What was that like?”

Husband, “What do you mean?”

Dr. Bea, “Well, did you like her telling you that?”

Husband, “Yeah, it felt good.”

Dr. Bea, “Let her know.”

Husband to wife, “It felt good to hear you appreciate what I do.”

Dr. Bea to wife, “What was it like to hear that from him.”

Wife, “It felt really good.”

We all laugh.

Often it is the simple things that people communicate to each other that can make a big difference in their communication and their connection with each other.

f) TURN YOUR QUESTIONS INTO STATEMENTS

People often ask questions when they are really making statements. Sometimes this is intentional but mostly people don’t even realize they are communicating in this way.

Some examples:

“Do you want to see a movie tonight?” may actually be “I want to see a movie tonight and I want you to come with me.

Are you leaving now? may actually be “I don’t want you to leave now.”

“Don’t you have to be somewhere by 8:00?” may actually be “I want you to leave so I can get back to what I was doing.”

“Did you take out the garbage?” may actually be “ If you have not taken out the garbage I’m going to be mad at you because I have to do the bulk of the household chores. The least you can do is take out the garbage.”

“Are you coming to bed soon?” may actually be “I’m feeling randy and I’m hoping I can entice you into making love.”

“Have you done your homework?” may actually be “If you have not done your homework you’re going to be in trouble because I need you to do well in school.”

“What are you doing?” could really mean “I don’t like what you’re doing!” or “I really like what you are doing!”

Usually the person being asked this kind of question takes it at face value, as a request for information, and answers accordingly. This may develop into an argument that neither want to have on a topic that is not the real issue.

If a husband asks his wife – Do you have to go out tonight? – she may explain that she has made a commitment and needs to keep it. “I promised Janie I’d have coffee with her.” or “ I need to get groceries.” The conversation may escalate into an argument about whether or not she really has to go or that she is going out too much. Perhaps she feels he’s trying to control her.

What the husband is actually saying is “We’ve both been really busy lately and I would like to spend some time with you?” If he had made this statement, his wife would know what is really going on with him and be able to respond to the real issue. She could generate options. She could set up a time to be together soon. She could come home early. She could put off what she was going to do to another time. Depending on the situation, she could invite him to go with her. Now the couple is communicating clearly with each other. Each feels cared about rather than frustrated.

Usually a question is just a question – a request for information. But many questions are really disguised statements with the sender’s real message hidden within them. When that happens people can feel interrogated, manipulated, attacked or put on the spot. When questions are disguised statements a person can feel set up and get defensive. These kinds of questions create resentment which leads to lots of arguments and poor communication. After awhile spouses become wary of any questions. Before long relationships deteriorate.

By making statements instead of asking questions communication remains clear. The real issues are more likely to get addressed in a friendly, respectful and even caring manner.

g) TALK ‘WITH’ ME NOT ‘AT’ ME

As I was packing up my gear from my tennis lesson today the fellow who had next session came into the court. We’d met before. To be friendly and make a bid for connection I said to him, “It’s sure great weather for tennis.” He started talking at me about he had solved the weather question. He kept going on and on about why people should not even bother commenting about the weather. I continued to put my tennis racquet away, thinking to myself  –  I was just being friendly. I grabbed my jacket and towel, found a moment when he took a breath, then remarked, “That’s how people make bids for connection (I couldn’t resist even though I didn’t think he would get it.) ” He continued to go on mentioning that the French had figured it out. By this time, I no longer knew what he was talking about, nor did I care, because I had tuned him out. It was not the first time that he greeted me with a monologue on a topic that I did not relate to. I thanked my tennis instructor, waved good-bye and left. I thought to myself, I have no interest in connecting to him if he is going to talk AT me.

Earlier, during my tennis lesson, my instructor and I had had a very engaging talk about the rivalry between, Federer and Nadal, the top two men in tennis.  Federer had just beaten Nadal in Madrid and the French Open is just about to start.  We were both interested in the topic and what each other thought about it.  The conversation went back and forth as we responded to each other and expressed our thoughts.  It was an engaging conversation.  What a difference experience!

‘Talking AT’ is a monologue.

It is a one way conversation, even if there is an exchange with others.

When people are talking AT you they are telling you about their opinions, their points of view, what they think you should do nor not do, their knowledge and expertise. They want you to hear and believe them.  They want to influence you to do, or not do, what they want. They do not want your input – they only want you talk ask them about what they think.

How can you tell if someone is talking AT you?

You tend to experience boredom, annoyance or restlessness. You tend to tune out the talker and think your own thoughts about what’s going on.  You feel separate and detached from the talker.  You easily get distracted.  You might want to find an excuse to exit. You might also feel disrespected and put down.

‘Talking with’ is a dialogue.

It is a shared conversation about a topic or situation.

When people are talking WITH you they are sharing a conversation with you.  They are open to your response(s) and want your input.  They are engaged with you and the conversation is mutually satisfactory or relevant.  This holds true even if the dialogue is difficult.

How do you tell if someone is talking WITH you?

You experience involvement with the other person.  You feel paid attention to. You are usually interested in and focused on the topic or situation.  You feel your input is wanted and welcomed. You feel respected and valued no matter what age you are.

Do you talk AT people or WITH them?

g) The Instant Replay:

Yesterday I saw a couple for the first time.  They are a feisty couple, very engaged with each other, but at this point in their relationship, not in a good way. In the session, I was able to get them to take responsibility for what each was doing that was, not wrong, just not working for them.  I asked each to take responsibility for what they were doing in their interaction and work to change themselves rather than trying to change the other.  We discussed specific ways they could change. Both are strong willed yet still open to change.  They were desperate for change and willing to try something different.

At the end of the session, while I was writing out the receipt, the couple had a small interaction that was their usual way of reacting to each other.  Each was assuming the negative about the other. They realized what they had just done and were smiling at catching themselves doing it. [This type of smile is called the recognition reflex]. Neither knew what to do next.

So I said to them, “Let’s back up and do this interaction again – only differently.”

The original interaction:

Joe was smiling because he felt good about how the session went.  He was looking at Amanda wondering how she was feeling about the session, but he did not say anything.  He was apprehensive that her reaction would be negative.

Amanda saw the look on Joe’s face and said to him, “When you crinkled your face up like that it makes me feel insecure about how the session went.”

The new interaction:

I said to Joe – Smile again at Amanda and tell her how you were feeling about the session.

Smiling, Joe said to Amanda, “I feel good about how the session went.”

With a warm smile, Amanda readily responded, “So do I.”

Both smiled even more.  The positive emotional connection between them was clearly evident.

I thought,   “This couple is fun to work with.”

Couples, and others, can learn to shift their interactions from negative to positive  by backing up, redoing them differently.  They just need to learn what to say that would work.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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