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11 Communication Tips to Build Understanding

Leadership LessonsBrigida Swanson
Learn 11 tips for clear communication, inspired by the students of a 5th grade class.

We’ve all been in situations where it seems like there are two different conversations going on because the points of view are in such strong contrast to one another. In these situations, speaking clearly and actively listening are keys to building connection and understanding.

In leadership class, my students practice improving their skills at clear communication on a regular basis. After I had one class complete a collaborative sketching lesson to practice clarity and active listening, I asked the girls to work in groups to come up with several communication tips. They focused their advice on two areas: listening tips to build understanding and speaking tips to improve clarity. Here are some tips inspired by the ideas they came up with.

1. Use body language to show you're listening.

When you're listening to another person, one of the best ways that you can improve your retention of the information as well as show the speaker that you care about what they are telling you is through body language. Sit or stand in an open position with your hands to your sides. Avoid crossing your arms or otherwise closing yourself off.

2. Don’t turn your back to the person you're talking to.

Face the person who is speaking to improve your engagement as you listen. During the collaborative sketching exercise, I had the girls try sitting back to back to see how that affected their instructions and drawings. The amount of difficulty they experienced caused them to realize how much being able to see the person they spoke with improve ease of communication.

3. Make eye contact with the speaker so they know you're listening.

Making eye contact can help you to focus on the intent and meaning behind the speaker’s words. By observing her facial expressions, you can get a better sense of her emotions and level of certainty in what she says.

4. Don't interrupt while someone is talking.

Sometimes interruptions occur as a natural part of the flow of daily conversation. When practicing active listening, however, you'll want to focus all your attention onto the speaker so that you can understand her meaning clearly. Instead of interrupting with a related thought, try jotting down your idea on a piece of paper to refer back to when it's your turn to speak.

5. Let the person finish speaking before you start talking about the subject.

Wait for the person to finish speaking before you share your thoughts on her words. Maintain a mindful attitude in the conversation so that you can focus solely on the present moment instead of thinking about what you'll say next. If you are always planning what to say and waiting for your chance to share your ideas, you may miss a key point in the speaker’s words.

6. Summarize what you think you've heard so the speaker knows what you do or don’t get.

If you've been taking notes on what the speaker has been telling you, it’s a good idea to repeat back what you understood to be the key points of what she said. This will allow both you and the speaker to understand whether you're on the same page or if there are any points that need to be further clarified.

7. Use descriptive words when speaking.

When giving instructions, using descriptive adjectives can help to bring your thoughts to life for the listener. Describe the shape, size or color when speaking about an object or supply to be used. Answering questions like who, what, where, when, why and how will help bring clarity to your thoughts.

8. Be specific when giving directions.

My students gave the example of using the terms "hamburger style" or "hot dog style" when giving directions on how to fold a piece of paper in half. The more specificity you bring to your instructions, the more accurately the listener will be able to follow them.

9. Try to explain your instructions in different ways.

It helps to think about the situation from the listener’s point of view. Trying multiple ways of describing your instructions will help the listener to connect to one way of doing things if she wasn't able to understand a previous instruction. My students gave the examples “left to right,” “up to down” or “side to side” as all being possible explanations for a similar description.

10. Use sensory words.

Describing how it feels to touch, taste, smell, hear or see the subject you are speaking about will allow the listener to connect to the topic in a visceral way. Sensory words help the listener to imagine herself in your position so that she can better understand your point of view.

11. Try to imagine the perspective of the listener.

Incorporating empathy into your conversation will help create connection between the listener and the speaker. If you're in disagreement or coming from a different point of view to the person you're speaking to, taking an empathetic approach to imagining yourself in her position can help to better find a way to meet in the middle.

These tips can help to build a stronger connection between the speaker and listener, whether the situation is one of giving directions, debating a point, or having a friendly conversation about each other’s day. Try incorporating these tips into your conversations and see how they improve your retention and understanding of the information you give or receive. What's your favorite way to practice clear communication?