Communication 101 – 10 Crucial Practices

an old design 02I remember a long time ago and being in a conversation that just made me squirm.  Oh it was painful.  I kept interrupting, interjecting, and trying to explain what was happening.  My friend, a close friend, grew annoyed at my interjections.  It made her mad.  I was confused.  I thought she loved me, I thought she cared, I just couldn’t understand why she was beating me up with all these words of complaint.

A few years later I took a communications class sponsored by my employer.  It wasn’t a required class, but it was offered as a service to help us be happier, healthier employees.  I learned much, but because I wasn’t in a relationship at the time, I didn’t have a way to practice these new found skills.  But I did try applying them in other situations – with my Mom, friends, coworkers, etc.

The thing I found was that even though I may play by the rules, others may not.  I’d listen, I would try to be empathetic and repeat what I thought I heard, and then I waited for my turn.  But more often than not, my turn never came.  Too often, the other party would take my retelling of their experience as acceptance of their point of view, or agreement with their perspective.  It wasn’t.  It’s called “active listening.”

One thing active listening did for me was to help me better understand the other person’s point of view.  It gave me patience to wait for their point, to help them work through their issues, and to help me figure out what my role was.  Unfortunately, there are time when I’d like the opportunity to do the same, but it seems as if few people understand this crucial skill.

Long after I took the communication class, I was in another relationship and was having a similar conversation to the one I first mentioned.  This time however, I didn’t squirm, fidget, and/or get defensive.  I realized the conversation was my friend explaining her feelings and perspective, not an attempt to denigrate me.  As I listened, showed empathy, and sought to understand her perspective, she was able to work through her feelings.  As I actively gave her feedback (not answers mind you) and repeated what I heard her saying, she felt heard and safe.  It was amazing!

At the end of our conversation, I didn’t feel beat up, she felt heard and appreciated, and most of all – our relationship was strengthened.

The interesting thing is this.  When I ask people to do this for me, I watch them get frustrated, anxious, defensive, and fearful that they are condoning my actions and words.  I see them struggle, try to give me answers, correct my assumptions, and defend certain points of view.  All I want is a listening, understanding ear.

 “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Most of us possess the answers, but we can’t see them due to the emotions we struggle with.  In these conversations, we are trying to process our emotions – and often we are clumsily struggling to grasp onto a sense of what happened, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.  If we merely needed answers we could read books, search the web, or take a class – but it is the emotional baggage we struggle with.Friendlies

Once I learned that my friends weren’t trying to hurt me, criticize me, or make me change, I felt free to listen.  Yes, they were frustrated with me, but they were trying to work through that frustration.  In their hearts they knew I couldn’t or wouldn’t change.  They were merely seeking to understand how we could better understand one another.  Two broken people coming together, it’s never going to go well – but we try nonetheless!

So, I’ve found, that when I can find someone willing to let me process out loud, I begin to make sense of things.  Once I know I’ve been understood, I am ready to put things into perspective, I’m ready to hear new ideas, different perspectives, and process solutions.  most of us are unready to receive new information, usually, until we feel heard and understood.  Covey put it best, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

For those unskilled in this practice, or when dealing with someone who has a different worldview, cultural background, or temperament, this can be difficult.  It is a good skill to practice during conversations where it doesn’t matter, so that when it does, you will be better prepared to tackle the Crucial Conversations.  This will help you deal with teens, when they don’t feel heard.  It will help you deal with conflict between liberals and conservatives.  It will help you deal with conversations between church goers and non church goers.

It may take awhile, you may have to do a lot of listening, but you will experience amazing results when you help the other person to know you care enough to listen to their point of view.  It really is important to let others know we care more about them than we do our own beliefs and practices.  This might be the hardest part however – maybe you don’t.

So, in summary, here is my step by step guide to seeking to understand your friend (whether in real life, or on Facebook):

  1. Listen Actively – make eye contact, nod, smile, hear their words, listen between the lines, quit thinking about how you will answer.
  2. Give Feedback – try to repeat the gist of what they said.  Don’t interpret, don’t agree or disagree, just repeat.
  3. Ask Clarifying Questions – It’s OK to interrupt if you don’t understand a word, phrase, or perspective.  But make sure your interruptions is not cutting off a thought, and be patient, maybe that clarifying question will be answered as your friend unfolds their heart.
  4. Keep Listening – don’t derail the conversation.  Don’t interject your own observations (unless you are asked).  Don’t reject their feelings.  Don’t tell them they are wrong.  Don’t try to fix, be defensive, or be hurt – this isn’t about you.  Most of all however, don’t take over the conversation by talking about your own self or experiences.
  5. Keep Listening – some issues are small and can be solved in a few sentences or a few paragraphs.  Others may require multiple conversations, over several weeks – especially if it is a huge issue.  Be Patient!!
  6. Keep Listening – let your friend know you care by making eye contact, smiling, laughing, crying, nodding, and by not engaging in distracting behaviors.  In other words, don’t text, don’t answer your phone, and don’t walk away.
  7. Be Safe – don’t share confidences with others.  Keep secrets secret.  Don’t retaliate.
  8. Give Feedback – one of the best replies is to say something like:  “So, what I hear you saying is ____________?” As a question, more than a statement, you will make it safe for the other person to correct or clarify what you think you heard.  Once you “get it” the other person will get a look of pleasure or gratitude.  They may say something like:  “Exactly!  Yes!  You get it!”  Once this happens, they may either be ready for more conversation, they may move on to other topics, or they may solicit your input.Exchanging life experience
  9. Don’t Volunteer Advice – only when the other person solicits your input should you give it.  This is probably the hardest part of this whole process.  We all think we have good advice, and in fact, we probably have a pretty good handle on our friend’s issue.  But maybe, just maybe, now that they have unpacked their emotions, they will be able to figure it out on their own now – and believe it or not, they will remember your caring, your listening, and your help forever.  This is far more valuable than any advice you ever have to offer.
  10. Keep Listening – sometimes it feels as if your friend is denigrating everything you stand for – they’re not.  Sometimes it feels like they are criticizing you – ignore that.  Sometimes it feels like your friend is a bottomless pit of despair and hopelessness – this is where your caring comes in.  Stay in the conversation, put your own agenda aside, keep listening.

Sometimes when my Wonderful Wife and I are talking, something I say will remind her of something she’s been wanting to say.  This is frustrating for both of us.  For her, she just wants to interject something and then she’ll let me keep talking.  But for me, this derails my train of though, doesn’t make me feel safe, and sometimes feels like she is saying:  “Oh yeah, but you do {this}!

I heard of one technique that people can use to clarify whose turn it is to talk, and that is to pass an object back and forth – like a small stuffed animal.  Only one person can talk at a time, and only after the other person hands them the object.

Another good tool is to keep a notepad handy.  As the other person talks, you can write down notes, questions, or issues you are reminded of.

  • What are some techniques you’ve found to help this process?


  • What are some struggles you’ve found in connecting with others?


  • Do you feel like people listen enough?
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