[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
Whether you're a psychologist, business person, or simply an attentive spouse or friend, the rules of good communication are very much one and the same.
Good communication involves two things, listening and talking, and there are just five golden rules for each. This sounds pretty basic, but many people forget that good communication involves listening as well as talking. It could even be argued that listening is the more important of the two: how can you know what to say unless you first know what your audience wants or needs to hear?
The 5 rules of good listening
1. Be warm and attentive.
People have an instinctive feel for who wants to listen and who doesn't. Unfortunately, most people don't really talk to but at each other. Their conversations can be paraphrased as 'Me, me, me,' with the inevitable reply of 'No, me, me, me.' To actually listen to someone is a rare and precious gift. Do not underestimate its power.
2. Show that you are listening.
Communication is a dynamic, interactive process. Unless you show that you are listening, people will lose confidence in whatever it is they are saying, think you're not interested, and grind to a halt. You'll miss out on all the really interesting, juicy bits that people only reveal once they are in their comfort zone. So how do you show that you are listening? Some common and useful strategies include adopting an open body posture, making reactive eye contact, nodding, prodding, echoing or reflecting back, and checking. "Treated you badly? In what way?"
3. Check understanding.
Show that you are on the same wavelength, that you are really 'getting' what is being said and even, often, what is not being said but trying to be said. Engage with the material, ask questions, provide feedback, empathise with emotions. If you can't empathise with an emotion (feel the same emotion), then at least sympathise with it.
4. Be slow to pass judgement.
The best way to stop someone from self-disclosing is to be or even just appear to be passing judgement over them. Sometimes it's important to disagree with something or other, and some people might appreciate you for doing so. But even then, there are ways of doing so.
5. Use silence appropriately.
Conversations that don't use silence are hard work, and endless drivel is not always the best response. For example, some things are so subtle or important or shocking that the most appropriate response can only be an appreciative or understanding silence. Silence also shows acceptance and creates intimacy. As the writer Aldous Huxley once put it, 'After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music'.
The 5 rules of good talking
1. Convey messages in a clear and effective manner.
This should go without saying. If you are going to say anything at all, then it should be as clear and as concise as possible. If people get the feeling that you or your message are confused or that you are just using small talk to fill up time and/or embarrassment, they may switch off. They may also label you as a time-waster and shun your company. The key here is to make sure that you've actually got something to say before you open your mouth. If not, just make jokes or, if British, speak in irony.
2. Use clear and unambiguous language.
Avoid long, complex, or jargon-filled sentences, and keep your message as clear, simple, and to the point as possible. For example, empty expressions such as 'best practice', 'core competencies', 'evidence-based', and 'moving forward' are as pretentious as they are annoying, and almost designed to make you appear like a soulless corporate monkey.
3. Use non-verbal methods of communication.
Think laterally. Think creatively. Support and enhance your message with non-verbal tools such as a diagram, prop, powerpoint presentation, or video. It is far more effective to pass a message through several media, in this case sight as well as hearing.
4. Use repetition.
If provided with a list, people best remember the first item (primacy effect) and the last item (recency effect) on the list. Therefore, if something is particularly important, say it twice: once at the beginning and once at the end. If a concept is particularly difficult or unwelcome, it may be worth building up to it over a period of time, and then to repeat it until it has been both understood and—crucially—accepted.
5. Check understanding.
Yes, again. After going through a complex or difficult concept, make sure that the concept has been understood before you move on or leave. By getting your interlocutor(s) to grapple with the concept and translate it into their own words, you are not only checking understanding but also reinforcing learning and memorization.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.