Making a connection and building relationships with people is critical for us in our society. It can really improve our quality of life, reduce stress and make us feel less anxious about things.
We now know that improving social connections and support from others improves our outlook and mental health in general. This is particularly true if you are a socially nervous or anxious person, and you want to meet people and make friends. It is also relevant for those of us who are not avoiding social situations but want to be more effective with how we communicate. We might just want to be better at meeting people and making conversations. We might want to be better at networking and making small-talk. We might just want to be more effective and confident when interacting with others.
If we find ourselves avoiding social situations we miss opportunities to build confidence and strengthen our communication skills. If we take the plunge and put some practice and effort into our social life we will gain two benefits;
Our communication skills get better and will go from strength to strength
We will build confidence in dealing with people and we will make a really positive impact on others.
On the other hand if we are afraid of going to functions and get-togethers, or asking someone to join us on an appointment (or on a date), lack of confidence will in turn make it more challenging to know how to approach social and networking situations. So practice builds confidence and in turn more experience. With experience we get more skills and the momentum shifts in our favour pretty quickly.
The importance of good communication skills
People who are really good at communication tend to find it easier to build and keep friendships and relationships. Having a good support group and network around us helps us achieve what we want to achieve an also can help to take care of our needs. We are not born with excellent communication skills. They are a set of skills and like any set of skills, we learn them and we try them out and we get more confidence using our skills. When we get really good at using a set of skills and we feel confident doing so, we feel more fulfilled.
Broadly speaking when I am working with people in business and general life coaching and counselling, there seems to be three areas that we can focus on when improving communication skills. These three areas are:
Body language and non-verbal communication skills,
Conversation skills and
Being more assertive.
Body language and Non-Verbal Communication
A big chunk of how we communicate with one another is actually not what we say, it is in our non-verbal communication. That is to say, it is how we stand, our posture and how we sit, it is in our eyes, our facial expression and how we act. What we say to people with our eyes or body language can be just as powerful as what you say with words.
When someone is anxious, they might behave in ways that are designed to avoid communicating with others. For example, avoiding eye contact or speaking softly. In other words, they are trying not to communicate, and avoiding being judged negatively by others.
One thing is for certain however, body language and tone of voice communicates powerful messages to others about:
Attitude towards the listener (e.g. submissiveness, contempt)
Emotional state (e.g. impatience, fear)
Knowledge of the topic
Honesty (do you have a secret agenda?)
Therefore, if someone is avoiding eye contact, standing too far away from others, and speaking quietly, they may be implying that they don’t want to communicate. They may not even want to send this message, but they are broadcasting it.
Another example is when someone is cranky and can’t completely hide it. They might be frustrated having to be in a meeting or they are being held up from another appointment. This can be hard sometimes to miss if the person is not managing their non-verbal communication.
We have outlined some steps and techniques that can help you identify if there is an issue.
Step 1: Reflect on and consider the aspects of non-verbal communication that you struggle with
To get started, ask yourself a few questions:
Do I smile too much because of nervousness? Do I smile too little?
Do I have trouble maintaining eye contact when talking with others?
Do I slouch? Do I keep my head down?
Do I speak with a timid voice? Do I speak too quickly when I am anxious?
Do I cross my arms and legs?
Some of the nonverbal behaviours you may want to pay attention to are:
Posture (e.g. head up and alert, leaning forward)
Physical distance (e.g. standing closer when talking to others)
Eye contact (e.g. making appropriate eye contact when talking)
Facial expression (e.g. smiling warmly)
Movement and gestures (e.g. keeping arms uncrossed)
Volume of voice (speaking at a volume easily heard)
Tone of voice (e.g. speaking with a confident tone)
(n.b. Some of the examples outlined here are just examples and they are also somewhat culturally related. For example, in most western societies, it is generally accepted that frequent eye contact while listening, and looking away slightly more often while speaking, are appropriate).
Step 2: Try some things out & be deliberate about practicing non-verbal skills
Some areas to focus on:
Posture and positioning – be aware of your posture and be deliberate about it being engaging and sending the message that you are listening and paying attention.
Distance – check your distance and make sure you are not too close or too far away.
Eye contact – in western contemporary society, it is customary to have frequent eye contact when you are listening and look away a little more when you are talking. This takes the pressure off. Don’t gaze down or off into the distance or don’t stare too unrelentingly.
Gestures – don’t move around so much it is distracting and don’t cross your arms.
Voice – be aware of volume and tone of voice. What does your tone imply?
When focusing on these skill areas, practice one drill at a time until it becomes second nature. Once you have mastery then you can move to another one. You could ask a friend or colleague to give you some feedback, or better still you might want to film yourself to get some real insight into how you come across. Some people even practice these skills when they are on their own to get comfortable with how it feels.
Once you have gained a little confidence and practice using nonverbal communication skills at home, try it out in real interactions. It is a good idea to start small with everyday interactions. Then you can increase certain skills deliberately. For example, be aware of your eye contact and try to increase the amount of eye contact you make when talking with others. Another easy one I to smile more and pay attention to the reactions of others. For example, does you colleague act in a more friendly way when you give more eye contact and smile more?
Skills for making conversations
Two of the biggest challenges for someone lacking confidence socially and with communication are:
Starting conversations and
Keeping conversations going.
It is pretty typical to find it a bit of a challenge when making small talk. This is because most people are doing a couple of things at once and it takes up a lot of our concentration. You are basically are working out things to say as you go. Pretty taxing at times, and throw into the mix a bit of anxiety or performance pressure, and hey real quick, you don’t feel confident and you it feels really hard.
Step 1: Reflect and understand the things you have trouble with
Take some time out to reflect, talk to some people you trust and explore areas that you find the most challenging with conversations. Some people have difficulty in different areas of making conversations.
Do you have trouble starting conversations?
Do you run out of things to say too quickly?
Do you tend to say “yes”, nod and try to keep other people talking to avoid having to talk?
Are you reluctant to talk about yourself?
Tips for starting a conversation
There are several tried and reliable ways to start a conversation. You can make a general comment, you can pay a compliment or you can make a relevant observation.
Making a general comment – this one is quite common and safe to use. You can start a conversation by making a general comment about something relevant. Make sure it is not too personal or controversial. For example, a safe topic is talking about the weather (“Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”), or a question about the day or the situation, ‘How did you get here today?’
Make an observation – relevant to the situation, you can engage with an observation. For example ‘I see you are carrying a cycling magazine. Is that your interest?’ or ‘I noticed that you were reading a book on management, is that a good one?’.
Introductions - You can also introduce yourself or offer to introduce them to someone else in the group. For example ‘ I don’t think we have met, my name is … ‘ or I don’t think the two of you have met before …’.
Pay a compliment – you can connect with someone and start a conversation with a compliment. Naturally you need to make sure that this is appropriate. A good test of this is if you are sure they will feel comfortable and id can’t be misconstrued. For example, ‘Those sunglasses seem to suit you. Where did you get them?’
Some guiding principles
It is better to be sincere and genuine rather than try too hard to be funny or witty.
Once you have talked for a while, especially if you have known the person for some time, it might be appropriate to share some more about yourself & your views. Keep to topics that are comfortable and not controversial, but it can be ok to open up a bit.
Remember to pay attention to your nonverbal behaviour - make eye contact and speak loudly enough so that others can hear you.
Tips for keeping a conversation going
Conversations need to be balanced – if you are talking with one other person, remember that a conversation should, as a general rule, be a two-way street – don’t talk too little, or too much. Rule of thumb here is to keep it about 50:50 if you can. If there are more than two people in the conversation, then keep it balanced by involving people in equal measure. If one person is contributing less, then could you redirect some questions to bring them in more.
Appropriate disclosure - disclose some personal information about yourself, (such as your weekend activities, the sport you like to follow, or something that you are really interested in). Personal information does not need to be “too personal”. There can be a risk of oversharing or over-disclosing, and this can take the conversation into an uncomfortable space.
A bit of humility and vulnerability goes a long way to making all parties feel at ease. Some vulnerability, such as being a bit nervous, can break the ice. For example, ‘I don’t always know what to say at theses networking events’. Don’t overdo it though, it is just meant to help keep the conversation going.
Listen – practice listening skills and reflecting what you have heard. This is called active listening and can be a powerful way to make a connection with someone. It also makes it very easy to keep track of the conversation and keep it going.
Questions - ask plenty of questions about the other person, be interested and engaged yourself. If you are first getting to know someone however, take care not to ask questions that are too personal. Appropriate questions might be to ask about their weekend activities, their preferences, or their opinion about something you said. For example, “How do you like that new restaurant?” (As a general rule stay away from overly personal topics or controversial topics, such as very personal issues and political choices, distressing topics and ‘heavy’ topics).
Use open-ended questions – as much as possible, use open-ended questions rather than closed questions. A closed question is one that is answered by a few words, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, “Do you like your job?” In contrast, an open-ended question invites much more detail; for example, “How did you get into your line of work?” Open questions tend to start with ‘How …’, ‘What do you think about ‘… ‘what are your thoughts on ‘… ‘what was that like ‘… ‘how did you find that …’
Nervous over-talking – some people talk too much when they are nervous and the conversation can get out of balance. As yourself – do you talk too much when nervous? Check yourself with questions and balancing the conversations.
Tips for ending a conversation
Permission to finish a conversation – keep in mind that all conversations end sometime – don’t feel rejected or become anxious as a conversation nears its end. Running out of things to talk about doesn’t mean you are a failure or that you are boring. This is the natural way of things.
Think of a graceful way to end the conversation - For example, you can say that you need to refill your drink, catch up with another person at a party, get back to work, or you can promise to continue the conversation at a later time or date (e.g. “Hope we’ll have a chance to chat again,” or “I have really enjoyed talking with you, let’s catch up again soon.”).
Be complimentary – as a conversation winds up, why not end it on a nice note so that that is the last thing they remember about talking with you. It could be as simple as saying ‘Thanks for sharing this time with me, I really enjoyed talking.’
Step 2: Experiment with and practice your conversation skills
Practice the small stuff
The next time you have an opportunity to practice starting or ending a conversation, try breaking some of your normal patterns. For example, if you tend not to speak about yourself, try to share your thoughts and feelings a bit more and see what happens. Or, if you tend to wait for the other person to end the conversation, try a graceful exit yourself first.
Below are a few suggestions for some practice situations:
(Adults) Speak to a stranger: e.g. at the shops waiting to be served, in an elevator or waiting in line.
Talk to your neighbours: e.g. about the weather or something going on in the neighbourhood.
Interact with co-workers: e.g. chat with co-workers on your coffee break or in the staff room at lunch.
Have friends over for a bar-be-que or for drinks: e.g. invite a co-worker or acquaintance over, meet someone for coffee, or throw a birthday party for a relative. Make sure you interact with your guests.
Try giving a compliment: How about giving some compliments. Be deliberate about giving out at least one compliment each day and see what happens. When giving compliments, keep in mind a few guiding principles. First, make sure that you are sincere and you actually believe the compliment you are giving. Second, don’t be controversial or uncomfortable. Make sure the topic is always safe and comfortable for the person receiving it.
There is plenty to be gained by recording some of these skills with a camera or even just recording your voice with a dictaphone. You get used to the terms and the expression as well as trying some questions and phrases.
Make a list of conversation topics that you are interested in and do some research and reading on them. Being informed will help you when you are talking about a topic.
Have you ever observed someone who is really skilled at communication and also at getting their point of view across without rubbing others up the wrong way. Chances are, you have observed someone who is assertive and confident being assertive with their communication. The ability to be assertive is a learned skill, it is not a trait that we are born with.
So what is assertive communication? Using assertive communication involves the following:
Each party takes responsibility for their own actions, comments and expression, and most importantly it tends to come from an objective or personal point of view. It has expressed or implied ‘I’ statements
Being open and honest about what you think, feel, believe and want,
You respect the views of others and how they feel about what you are saying
It is succinct and stays on the topics more often than not
It is targeted and somewhat specific
It is non- threatening or judgmental
This style of communication tends to be ‘two-way’, inviting response & discussion.
Sometimes when we feel overly self-conscious or a little anxious, we may find it hard to express ourselves in an open fashion. This anxiety and self-consciousness tends to absorb some of our ability to pay attention and distracts us from being able to be assertive.
As mentioned, assertive communication is a skill that can be learnt, but learning this skills can be a different journey for people. Someone who is extraverted and quite outgoing may be inclined to control and lead interactions and as such that person may have a more pushy and stronger communication style. On the other hand, some people may prefer to avoid conflict and as such are more inclined to comply and fit in when communicating. As such they might have a more passive communication style. Either way, the skills need to be learnt and practiced.
So how can it help to be more assertive? Being more assertive in communication has many benefits.
Feeling more empowered and in control - It also gives you more control over your life, and increases your confidence that you can get what you want and need.
Connecting with others - it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and more openness.
Achieving your goals – being more assertive allows you and others be clear about achieving their goals.
Step 1: Work out where you have difficulty being assertive
Some aspects of being assertive might be easier or harder for you, so work out where you are going to do the learning and practice first.
Do I express my opinion and use ‘I’ statements?
Do I struggle being open what I think, feel, and want?
Do I waffle?
Do I over-talk or under-talk?
Do I struggle to ask for what I want?
Do I have trouble saying no?
Here are some tips and process suggestions for improving assertive communication skills.
Give yourself permission and practice asking for what you want or saying what you feel. Start with small steps and build up from there.
Before asking, show that you understand the other person’s situation, this can pave the way and get you ready to express what you want. For example, ‘I know we have been to that café before and we know what to order. There is some comfort in that. But I am keen to try the new café that has just opened. What do you think about that?’
Be open and share the situation and what is going on for you. This provides more context, makes it personal and is less ‘jarring’. Next, describe the situation and how you feel about it. For example, “This presentation is due next Friday and I am feeling pretty overwhelmed, and worried that I won’t be able to get it done in time.”
Talk about your own feelings and be open. Lean into the emotion and feelings that you have and share those feelings. For example if you are upset about something, say how you feel and what has made you feel that way.
Dial down the accusations and blame – there is not real place for this with assertive communication skills. Here is an example; ‘When I wait up late for you to arrive home, I worry & feel nervous and it also gets me upset that I am getting tired for the next day’. This is much better than having a go at them and accusing them of something right off the bat; ‘you are late again and kept me up for hours’.
Show the way. Always better to be clear about what you want & what you would prefer.
Be succinct and deliberately on topic, don’t stray onto irrelevant or related areas, as this becomes a distraction.
Wrap it up with a positive. If you want something, share how you would feel or what would happen if you got what you wanted. For example, ‘If you help me with this presentation it would really take some pressure off me this week & I would return the favour next week’.
Some more guidance about how to use assertiveness skills
Be independent and own your opinion. Being assertive means being willing to state your opinion, even if others haven’t done so or if your opinion is different.
Keep an open mind. Remember assertive communication is a two-way street so remind yourself consider new information. This also means that you keep your mind open to changing your point of view or opinion.
Here are some tips and techniques for saying ‘no’. These techniques are particularly helpful for those people who have been in the habit of using passive communication. Keep in mind, you have the right to say ‘no’.
Be congruent. Check your body language and non-verbal communication so that when you are saying no verbally, your body language reflects this also. Face the other person and reflect their posture, check tone, pace and volume of speech, open eye-contact.
Think before you comment. Be really clear in your own mind about what your position is and work out what your rationale is.
Stop yourself from saying yes too quickly. Give the conversation and the person making the request, the time to explain it all. Be careful not to say ‘yes’ too early. This might be because you want to please or to fit in with arrangements.
No need to apologise when you don’t need to. Saying ‘no’ to something that does not suit you or to something you just don’t want to do does not mean you need to say sorry.
Buy some time. Just because someone has asked for something does not necessarily mean you need to respond right away. In fact sometimes we can feel a bit of pressure to reply just because they have asked, but in reality you have every right to hold off on any commitment. So sometimes it is fine to say that you will need some time to think about it, or some time to check on other arrangements.
Step 2: Practice the assertive communication skills
Reflection – think back over some examples when you could have been more assertive. What are some alternate approaches? Write down and say out loud some of the preferred responses.
Practice and experience – Nothing better than practicing and gaining some experience using the assertive phrases and responses. Be succinct, use ‘I’ statements and stay on the topic.
Plan ahead – Think about what is coming up over the next few weeks. Perhaps there are some events or some people where you will be able to use assertive communication skills. Start with easy ones before tackling the more challenging scenarios.
Mastering the art & science of using assertive communication skills
Communicating assertively is not about getting your own way and being selfish or pushy. Communicating assertively means being open and honest about your point of view and also keeping an open mind to other people’s points of view. Respect is critical for being assertive; respect for yourself and respect for the other party. So there can be occasions where you change your view, or there can also be occasions where you work toward a compromise or even agree to disagree.
Also it doesn’t mean therefore that being assertive is about being self-focused. Others don’t have to comply and follow your recommendation and vice versa.
Sometimes we resist being assertive and expressing our opinion as we might feel it is impolite. This is not necessarily the case. Whilst we need to be sensitive to certain situations and consider cultural ques and social mores, on most occasions however, people are actually interested in what we really think.
Putting it all into practice
A really effective way that people gain confidence and ability with a new set of skills involves four broad steps. First learn about the theory and ideas. Second observe someone who has expertise and mastery. Third, break it down into its components and practice; and fourth, ask for feedback on how you are doing. So with this spirit of learning in mind do some further reading and also talk to people who are good with communication; ask them how they do it and make a real point of observing their techniques. Then give it a go and ask for feedback from someone you trust and respect.
Price C (1994) Assertive Communication Skills for Professionals Audio CD
Paterson, R. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and In Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
Burns, D. D. (1985). Intimate Connections. New York: Signet (Penguin Books)
Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2000). Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
Antony, M. (2004). 10 Simple Solutions to Shyness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
Alberti R. E; Emmons M.L. (1995) - Your Perfect Right : A Guide to Assertive Living