Mental health issues have been near and dear to my heart for many years. I’ve been working in the mental health field in one form or another since the age of 19. I started out volunteering at a local domestic violence shelter advocating for victims of assault and have worked in many other areas of mental health since that time. I earned my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and then Ph.D. in psychology and have been practicing as a psychologist since 2005.
One of the important mental health topics that often gets overlooked is communication skills. Communication skills are important in every aspect of our lives! We use communication skills daily, but we don’t always choose the most appropriate words or tone.
Here are some great reminders of the communication skills we can all improve on to make our lives just a little easier because they allow us to get our point across in a way that helps others understand what we want and need.
The first part of communicating with others is to listen to what the other person has to say. This means REALLY listening. Not just smiling and nodding. Not focusing your attention on your phone or the television. Not thinking about what you are going to have for lunch or what you plan to do tonight.
Active listening is truly caring about what they are saying and thinking.
To be able to truly communicate with someone else you have to be able to have a conversation with them and a conversation means taking turns and giving and taking on information and ideas.
Use “I” Statements
“I” statements are the best way to communicate your feelings. They allow you to express your emotions and share how you are truly feeling, while owning those feelings.
“I” statemens allow you to communicate your feelings without the other person feeling blamed for the way you feel, even if this is a misinterpretation. You are taking responsiblity for your own feelings and reactions, because, in reality, we are in charge of our feelings, words, and actions.
- I feel sad
- I feel lonely
- I feel angry
- You make me sad
- You make me lonely
- You make me angry
Communication is much easier when everyone feels heard and when they are able to express themselves appropriately.
“I” statements can even go further to help with communication. For example:
- I feel sad because you forgot to meet me for lunch.
- I feel lonely because everyone is busy.
- I feel angry because traffic was bad and someone cut me off.
Each of these examples gives specific information. It explains the feeling and describes why you are having that feeling. This leaves room for discussion and does not put the blame on the person you are having a conversation with. Even if that person is the reason you are having that feeling, “I” statements give room for communication, rather than an argument.
Your Tone of Voice Matters
Actively listening and using “I” statements are the first two aspects of good communication. However, tone of voice makes a HUGE difference.
We all know tone of voice can change a conversation completely. For example, say “What time are you going to be home?”
Now, say “What time are you going to be home?” with the following in mind:
- neutral (just asked a question)
Can you tell the difference? It’s the same sentence, but it has totally different connotations (situational meaning) depending on your tone of voice.
In addition to tone of voice, the volume of your voice makes a huge difference. Imagine saying the same sentence above in a neutral tone, while yelling, or while whispering. Again, it’s the same sentence, but it has an entiredly different connotation.
Pro Tip from a Psychologist: One of the tricks (talents?) I have learned through the years as a psychologist (and parent and wife) is to lower my voice when others raise their voices. I do this automatically and don’t even think about it.
A few things happen when I lower my voice when someone else is trying to yell/angrily argue.
- I’m choosing to not engage in a yelling match.
- I’m attempting to have a rational conversation.
- Most people tend to lower their voices (or raise them) when to match others around them. Thus, the other person will lower his/her voice or he/she will be the odd one who is yelling.
Clarify As Needed
Sometimes clarifying what you are trying to say can be the most frustrating part of communicating with others! Even when you believe you have spoken clearly and thoroughly, the person you are talking with may still not grasp what you are saying.
Sometimes clarifying means restating information with different words.
- The lasagna was palatable vs. the lasagna was tasty.
- I’m ecstatic about the new moving coming out vs. I’m really looking forward to the new moving coming out.
Not all examples of clarification are this easy, but they give you the idea!
Sometimes clarifying means explaining more details.
For example, if you are giving directions. You may have to give more specific details or give more landmarks of how to get where you are going. You may even need to give up and plug the address into their GPS for them!
And sometimes you need to be blunt!!
Empathy is being able to understand someone else’s emotions. You are able to identify with them and, hopefully, able to see the situation from their perspective. This is also important when communicating with loved ones because it shows respect and that you care.
You may not necessarily agree with what the person is thinking or feeling, but you are able and willing to try to see the situation from their perspective. You can still be empathetic even if you don’t agree with what the other person is saying.
Empathy is not always easy, but it is possible.
Empathy often takes practice because it is a skill most people need to learn or at least practice to improve on that skill. Some people are lucky enough to be naturally empathetic, but most need practice to do this well!
Last, but not least, nonverbal communication is essential to good communication. Body language is a big part of nonverbal communication, but there is more to nonverbal communication than just body language.
Hopefully, nonverbal communication matches our body language.
In the picture below, my second-youngest son is feeding my grandaughter (his niece) ice cream. His nonverbal language is definitely matching his verbal language, thoughts, and feelings. He was thrilled to feed her ice cream when mean old grandma wanted her to have applesauce and he enjoyed spending time with her! (And she still has that excited, adoring look when she sees him now!)
Communication confusion can occur when our verbal and nonverbal communication are not saying the same thing.
Nonverbal communication is more than body language (smiles, fidgeting, etc…). It can be sighs, poor eye contact, eye rolls, stammering when talking, and more. It’s all the ways we communicate that aren’t with words.
When nonverbal communication and verbal communication don’t match up, it is often the nonverbal communication that gives away our true emotions. For example, when we try to be excited and we really aren’t, sometimes our body language gives us away. Conversely, if we are sad and pretend to be happy or feeling guilty for not being truthful, our body language can give us away. (This is how our parents knew we were lying when we were kids…that darn body language!)