Before exploring relationship building further, let’s take a look at an essential set of building blocks – effective communication skills. Interpersonal communication is basic to all human interactions whether they occur in person, by phone, in writing or online. Good communication skills foster key components of peer support, such as trust, self-determination and recovery, and are important factors in building strong relationships.
Video: Communication Skills Training (7:20)
Nonverbal communication is extremely important in any interaction with others. It is particularly important when communicating with persons from other cultures because we tend to look for nonverbal cues when verbal messages are unclear. Nonverbal behavior arises from our common sense – our ideas about what is appropriate, normal, and effective as communication in relationships. Consequently, we use different systems of understanding for gestures, posture, silence, special relations, emotional expression, touch, physical appearance, and other nonverbal cues.
Some studies claim approximately 90% of meaning is derived from nonverbal signals. People may rely more on nonverbal signals in situations where verbal and nonverbal messages conflict. They may also rely on non-verbal cues when emotional or relational communication is taking place.[i] For example, the question “What are you doing this weekend?” may mean any number of things, but we can rely on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact to see if the person is just curious, suspicious, or hinting that they would like company this weekend.
Let’s take a look at some recent research that breaks communication into three segments – verbal, vocal and visual. This video highlights the importance of making sure we are successfully conveying all parts of the message (not mixed messages).
Video: 3 V’s of Communication (4:46 minutes)
Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your job effectiveness, and on the quality of your relationships with others. Research suggests that, even when we are listening well, we remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear.[i]
The way to improve your listening skills is to practice “active listening.” This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent. It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener. This requires that you set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don’t, then you’ll find that what someone says to you and what you hear can be amazingly different.
There are five key active listening techniques. They all help ensure that you hear the other person, and that the other person knows you are hearing what they say.
- Pay Attention
Recognize that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly.
- Show That You’re Listening
Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention, such as nodding occasionally, smiling and using other facial expressions, etc.
- Provide Feedback
Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. This may require you to reflect (paraphrase) what is being said and ask questions. “What I’m hearing is,” and “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back.
- Defer Judgment
Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions. Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.
- Respond Appropriately
Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down. Be candid, open, and honest in your response. Assert your opinions respectfully.
Video: Effective Listening – Being Exceptional in the Art of Listening (6:01 minutes)
Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. It’s our capacity to recognize the concerns other people have. Empathy is often likened to “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” or “seeing things through someone else’s eyes.” And most importantly, it’s about acknowledging a person’s reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding.
This requires that you practice listening to people every chance you get. Practice shutting down your inner voice so that you can hear more clearly and recognize when you need to ask more to really understand something. There’s virtually no preparation you can do to understand this person – this peer – in advance. There are no prewritten questions. You have no idea where a person will lead you in conversation—and this is good. It is important, however, to remind the speaker that you’re interested in answers explaining what is going on in his or her mind and heart, ask questions like:
- “What were you thinking when you made that decision?”
- “Tell me your thinking there.”
- “What was going through your head?”
- “What was on your mind?”
It is all too easy to make assumptions about what the speaker means. You have your own life experience and point of view that constantly influence the way you make sense of things. You have to consciously check yourself and be ready to automatically ask the speaker:
- “What do you mean?”
“I don’t understand. Can you explain your thinking to me?”