communication skillz

Reader C. C. writes:

I was talking to my mom the other day about how my brother has terrible communication skills. If there is a fight, it’s usually about that. So mom and I started talking about my communication skills…Well, the bottom line: people get upset when I ask them questions. It seems some people think that I am questioning their authority or manliness or intellegence or something when I am really just asking a question or trying to have a conversation or questioning to see whether or not they know what they are talking about. So mom suggested I stop that. My immediate response is : why should I change who I have been alll my life? But part of me thinks maybe I should change. What do I do?

Dear C.C.:

I can’t stress enough that in your life, if you want things to change, you have to do the changing. You can never ask someone else to change.

While I value the whole “be true to yourself” sentiment, the fact is, if you find that you’re fighting with people more than you’re communicating with them, and this bothers you, you should change your communication style.


No two people are not on fire. Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’re okay with the miscommunication continuing, by all means, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Just remember, according to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping to get different results.

But if you do decide that you’d prefer talking to fighting, here are a few hints to help you re-mold your communication style to be what you need it to be:

Read up on the subject.

Some of us have undergraduate degrees in this stuff (wink, wink), but that doesn’t make us experts. Do your own research. Check out sociolinguistics, particularly inter-personal communication and cross-cultural communication books. I will personally recommend “You Just Don’t Understand” and “That’s Not What I Meant” by Deborah Tannen. They’re easy to read books that point out a lot of the communication styles you may not know you’re prone to. You don’t have to become a total expert, but you should obviously figure out the basics.

Listen to yourself.

Get a tiny tape recorder or digital voice recorder and record a few of your conversations. Don’t be self conscious about it, because that’ll change how you talk. Just set it to record at some point and forget about it. Then listen to your conversations later. Take notes about where conversations go well and where they go awry (if they do). You don’t have to take notes about the other person’s communication style, and in fact, I wouldn’t. Focus on your own style. What do you say? How do you say it? How is it taken? What do you mean?

Be aware.

After you’ve figured out what parts of your speech you want to change, make it a point to be aware of these styles when you’re talking in conversation. Talking is basically completely natural to humans, so we forget we have control over it. You don’t have to jump into change right away, just teach yourself to be aware of what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and what happens in reaction.

Don’t blame the other person.

You’re probably not going to be having conversations with sociolinguists who are interested in changing the way the conversation goes by changing their communication style. If and when a conversation turns into a fight, instead of blaming the other person, back track to what you said that they could be reacting to. Again, as humans, we sometimes forget conversation is a two-way street. You may not realize that the sudden change in a person’s demeanor is due to something you said that was misconstrued. In fact, if you really want to change your conversation style, you’re going to have to learn to blame yourself solely and entirely.


It is your job to redirect the conversation now. You have to change how you’re talking until you get the reaction you want. So start changing. Try new tactics. Start over in conversations if you have to, or walk away when they go bad and try again the next day. Just make an effort to change. Try practicing with a friend who can point out when things aren’t quite right. For instance, your mom is apparently aware of your conversation style — ask her to have a practice chat with you once a week until you feel ready to self-police on the fly. And then do it. Change.

I think you can see this as a form of empowerment rather than changing your basic self. You have control over your mind, how you talk, how you look, and how you’re perceived — it’s just another one of those things human beings forget. Take charge and you’ll feel better, not only about your conversations in general, but about your life as a whole. You have the power to change. And if you can change something as basic as your speech habits, imagine what can come next on the list.


1 Response to “communication skillz”

  1. 1 -C
    September 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I’m no expert but I’ve found that paying greater attention to body language can really help in figuring out what is going on in a conversation. This has helped me significantly, especially in the work place where people are much less apt to verbalize freely. People often say things that don’t line up with how they feel, but it’s much harder to mask body language. People tend to be less self-aware of body language so it’s often more “honest” than verbal communication.

    The secondary benefit is that trying to pay attention to the other persons body language sets up the dynamic such that I naturally focus on how they are receiving what I’m saying rather than being in a “megaphone” mode where I’m just broadcasting (my personal failing).

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