Do You Want to Be a Better Communicator?

How to be an active listener and ask questions so people feel heard, not blamed.

Posted Sep 08, 2014

Do you want to be a better communicator? Are you trying to improve your relationships with loved ones? Are you a health care, social services, or human services professional who wants to be a better interviewer? Are you looking for a therapist or counselor who knows how to be supportive and not blaming (even unintentionally?) This is the 3rd article in a series on basic psychotherapy and interviewing skills.

The Basics: The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

It is often said that more than 90% of communication is nonverbal. This is probably said more often than studied scientifically, but it does emphasize a very important truth. Take, for example, a simple statement such as "I like your new hairstyle." These five words can be said with enthusiasm and communicate praise. However, these same five words can be said with a questioning tone or even a sarcastic edge and communicate just the opposite—an insult.

To avoid appearing more negative than you intend to be, the first place to start is with your nonverbal behavior. This refers both to your overall body posture and stance and also to the tone and expressiveness of your voice. The examples here focus on victimization and adversity, because that is my main area, but can apply to most situations.

1) Show understanding and acceptance by:

--The sound of your voice—stay calm but avoid a monotone

--The way you sit—lean forward, face the speaker, keep good posture, try not to fidget

--The expression on your face—some eye contact is important but do not stare

2) Respond by saying the other person’s most important thoughts and feelings back to them.

This is sometimes called "mirroring" or "reflection." Like a mirror, the idea is to give back what you received without changing it or adding to it. Of course, do not mimic the person. It is best to rephrase and summarize what they said, just enough to communicate that you heard it and took it in.

3) NOTICE what is going on

4) Avoid interrupting.

5) Your message: This situation can be dealt with and they are not alone. It is imperative that you not appear overwhelmed yourself, no matter how tragic the circumstances.

Remain calm, stay professional and focus on understanding and offering options.

Next Step: Add Some Words

The most important feature of good questions is that they are open-ended.

Open-ended questions are often “what,” or “how” questions.

Examples: Can you tell me what happened?

So, first, _______ <reflect>. What happened next?

How did you get to the hospital?

How did the police get involved?

Avoid closed-ended questions, such as those that can be answered with just “yes” or “no.”

Examples: Were you drinking?

Did you call the police?

Open-ended questions elicit much more information than closed-ended questions. They also give control over the information to the speaker (client, victim, partner, whoever you are trying to support). People will feel more heard and you will learn more about what is going on. An occasional closed-ended question will not ruin an interview, but there should be far more open-ended than closed-ended questions.

As you can see from the above examples, closed-ended questions can easily sound more victim blaming and imply that the person did something wrong. I hope it is obvious that it is important to avoid saying anything blaming. Nobody wants to be a victim of violence, a victim of identity theft, addicted to drugs, or stuck in an unhappy situation.

Not All Open-Ended Questions Are Equally Good

This is more advanced communication skills. Some open-ended questions can still imply a judgment. Avoid open-ended questions that could sound blaming or challenging—especially “why” questions.

Example: Why didn’t you leave when he first threatened you?

Why did you put those pictures online anyway?

It is possible to use "what" or "how" questions in a negative way, too. "What did you think you were doing??" "How could you be so careless??" Obviously, those should be avoided too.

Exploring Options

As the saying goes, it is better to teach someone to fish than simply hand them a fish. That applies to therapy, problem-solving with loved ones, and many other forms of communication. The goal is not to solve the problem for someone. Even small children should be encouraged to be part of the problem-solving to the extent that they are able. The goal is to provide a safe space and support to work with someone toward a solution or to at least identify the best coping steps available.

Do:

1) Be an honest observer.

Examples: I am really concerned for your safety.

He sounds potentially dangerous.

I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.

2) Offer more than one option.

Example: For domestic violence, multiple options can include going to shelter, getting an order of protection, increasing safety at home, getting counseling, talking with minister. See over 100 options for domestic violence at http://thevigor.org. There are multiple ways to cope with almost any problem. Many complicated problems will need more than coping strategy.

Statements to avoid:

1) Avoid saying “should.”

2) Avoid offering false comfort.  For example, it can be risky to say “You’ll be fine.” That is ok for a scraped knee, less certain for many other life problems. 

3) Avoid saying "I know just how you feel."  This is sometimes called "mind-reading." In addition to probably not being true, this statement can sound condescending or, again that there is some way the person is supposed to feel. Feelings are feelings. We can control our behavior, including our outward expression of our emotions, but it is seldom a good idea to try to clamp down or otherwise control feelings.

4) Avoid second-guessing the victim’s judgment—no one else knows the situation better.

Example: The safest option would be for you to file for an Order of Protection.

5) Avoid making promises you don't know if you can keep.

Movies and television are the worst role models for this. Heroes are always saying things like "I promise we will find the killer" or "I promise I will keep your mother safe."

The good news is that becoming a better communicator is within reach. These steps are relatively simple and can be done by almost anyone in any interaction. Give them a try and see how differently both you and your conversation partner will feel.

© 2014 Sherry Hamby

Dr. Hamby 's most recent book is Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). To learn more about exploring options with people who have experienced domestic violence, visit http://thevigor.org. For other strengths-based approaches to resilience and overcoming violence and other adversity, visit http://lifepathsresearch.org.