Interpersonal Communication

To communicate effectively, in other words, to be understood and understand others, is a set of skills to be learned and practiced. This section outlines the common misconceptions many of us hold about the art of communicating, as well as the importance of self-awareness in communication. It also presents some essential skills for sending and receiving messages. 

In this Section:

Common misconceptions about communication

It is fairly common for two people not to understand each other. Often, without even knowing it, we hold certain misconceptions about how to communicate with one another. These misconceptions create barriers to engaging in effective exchange and genuine conversation. Below is a list of the common misconceptions about communication. Take a look and see where your pitfalls might be. Becoming more aware of your own "habits of mind" about communication could help increase your effectiveness at work.

"If I say it, the other person will understand."

Not necessarily. Meaning is ascribed by the receiver of a message, so saying it doesn't mean it will be understood. We need to check to see if the meaning of our message is understood as intended.

"The more communication, the better!"

If you are feeling misunderstood, talking too much and louder is a mistake. This can actually worsen the situation instead of clarifying it. Excessive talking won´t help. Try different ways of expressing yourself. Knowing when to remain silent is part of communicating effectively.

"Any problem can be solved at any time if we communicate with each other."

There are times when taking some time away from each other and the situation can be a better solution than trying to talk it out. High intensity emotions such as anger or sadness can often blow an interaction out of proportion. A few moments of self-reflection and calm can help you gain perspective on the issue.

"Communication is a natural ability – some have it, some don’t."

Communication is not an innate ability. Skillful communication can be learned with practice. There are some very simple tips that can dramatically increase how you understand others and are understood. Try them out and see for yourself if anything changes.

(Adapted from Johnson, Reaching Out, 2003)

Self-awareness at work

Although interpersonal communication requires at least two people, the most important place to begin is with yourself. Being open with another person starts with being aware of who you are and what you are like. Self-awareness helps you identify the actions required to behave competently in different situations. The more self-aware you are, the more able you are to manage your own behaviour and increase your ability to adapt your behaviour to changing circumstances. 

Key areas for self-awareness

Personality – Understanding the unique traits and characteristics of your personality can help you find situations in which you will thrive, as well as help you avoid overly stressful situations. Awareness of your personality helps you reach the appropriate decision.

Values – are your beliefs in which you have an emotional investment. For example, if you value respect, you will make sure that you and your teammates are treated with fairness and courtesy.

Habits – are the behaviours that are repeated routinely and often automatically. Although we would like to possess the habits that help us interact effectively with and manage others, we can probably all identify at least one of our habits that decreases our effectiveness. For example, if you are a manager who does not always consult with your staff before making decisions, that habit may interfere with your ability to build your staff members' commitment to the decisions and their decision-making skills as well.

Needs – are a condition or situation in which something is required or wanted. For instance, you may be someone who needs continuous feedback to keep motivated at work. If this is the case, think about which processes you can implement with your co-workers to get the feedback you need. Needs create motivation; and when needs aren't satisfied, they can cause frustration, conflict and stress.

Emotions – acknowledging your own feelings such as anger, happiness, fear, or surprise, what causes them, and how they impact your thoughts and actions is a fundamental step in becoming self-aware.

By stepping back from your experience, you can become aware of what is happening rather than being immersed and lost in it. For example, being enraged at someone and having the self-reflexive thought, “This is anger I´m feeling”, demonstrates a subtle shift that can occur within you. From this place, you can objectively decide how you want to respond to an interaction with confidence and finesse.

Communicating effectively

Communication amongst people is a process in which everyone receives, sends, interprets and infers all at the same time, and there is no beginning and end. How do you send messages effectively? Taking into account your own internal states, what can you do to ensure effective communication of your ideas and feeling?

  • Use “I” statements. Powerful and influential statements are made when a person uses personal pronouns when speaking. It contributes to direct communication. Simply say what you think or feel about something. “I feel frustrated when people are late to meetings” versus “Some people may think that people who come late to meetings are passive aggressive.” 
  • Describe behaviours without judgment or an evaluative statement. “You interrupted me several times during our staff meeting” versus “You are an attention-seeker and have no care for others.
  • Describe your feelings: this is an important part of the message that often gets skipped even though the emotional content is directly colouring your message. Best to just name it so that others can understand what is going on for you.  For instance, “I felt angry when you cut me off during our staff meeting.”
  • Maintain congruence between your verbal and non-verbal messages. Saying, “I enjoyed your presentation to the board.” with your eyes rolling or a sarcastic tone, will confuse the person and most likely decrease trust, which closes communication down. Your body language accounts for more than 60% of your message – verbal and physical congruence will build trust and clarify your intent.
  • It takes practice for most people to become effective communicators. Ask for feedback around the clarity, delivery and timing of your message. It might feel risky, but each small risk will build your confidence and increase trust in those you work with.

Important:  Trust is especially necessary for open and effective communication. When we have a high degree of trust in the other person, we tend to be willing to share our thoughts, feelings and ideas. Trust simplifies our interactions by giving us confidence in other people’s words and deeds. On the other hand, a lack of trust reduces the amount of information the sender shares and increases the receiver’s suspicion of what little information is communicated.

Listening and responding

Too often in our conversations, we talk to each other but don´t listen attentively. We are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else or formulating an answer.

Listening and responding is how we understand the feelings and thoughts of the other person. There is no skill more important for effective communication than taking into consideration the other person’s perspective. Try standing in someone else’s shoes; it will considerably improve your communication with that person.

Tips for listening and responding
  • Focus on what is being said – tune out distractions.
  • Look for non-verbal cues such as eye contact, facial expressions or body postures.
  • Listening is about the other, not you. Try to refrain from forming your response before you have even heard what the other is saying.
  • Clarify and ask pointed questions to help you understand what is being said.
  • Paraphrase: restate in your own words, what the person says, feels and means.
  • Try to understand the message from the sender’s perspective: “So if I understand you…”