Three Tools for More Effective Communication
Human communication is complex. There are a myriad of factors in any interaction. Our emotions, ideas, and beliefs come into play both verbally and nonverbally. We have to negotiate patterns of relating that have been established, whether between two individuals or between the groups and communities to which we belong.
Yet, in all of this, there are certain consistent foundations to skillful communication. Over the course of many years of teaching in this area, I have found that there are three foundations to effective communication: presence, intention, and attention.
The first step of mindful communication is to lead with presence, which means that we show up as fully and completely as possible. If we’re not here, we’re probably on automatic. And if we’re on automatic, we’re less likely to remember whatever communication tools we’ve learned, and we’re less likely to come from our best intentions.
Presence is hard to pinpoint with language, yet it makes a huge difference in the quality of our lives. I define presence as the experience of being fully aware and sensing one’s body in the present moment. I’ve found presence to be so important to communication that I begin all my trainings by pointing this out and giving participants a taste of what it’s like to be present in dialogue.
Effective communication depends on our ability to be present because speaking openly and honestly, listening deeply, and navigating the inevitable twists and turns of a conversation all require a high degree of self-awareness. This includes a sense of mutuality, seeing the other person as an autonomous individual, and a respect for the unknown (rather than having a fixed result in mind), both of which create new possibilities in dialogue.
Our intention can determine the whole tone and trajectory of a dialogue. Intention is where we’re coming from inside. It’s the motivation behind our words or actions. It’s about how and why we speak or listen.
Intention is particularly important because a great deal of our communication is nonverbal: body language, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice. We can say one thing and communicate the complete opposite, sometimes without even knowing it. Your true intention will shine through!
If we’re not consciously choosing our intention, once again, we’re on automatic— relying on unconscious, habitual patterns. And if that’s what’s happening, it’s pretty much hit-or-miss whether we’re going where we want to go.
Conversation and relationship are always changing. So we often have to check in and pay attention to navigate conversations more skillfully.
For example, what’s actually happening in a given situation, and how much is our interpretation of what’s happening? Stating clearly what happened, without judgment or evaluation, makes it easier for someone to hear us and to work toward a solution.
We also have to pay attention to ourselves and our needs. How are you feeling? If you’re not aware of your emotions, they’re probably running the show! And, what do you need? What really matters to you in this situation, beneath all of the details? Which of our own needs are we aware of, and what needs might be lurking beneath the surface of our awareness?
Being aware of our emotions feelings and needs supports our ability to choose consciously how we participate in a conversation. The more awareness we have, the more choice we have in how to proceed. Attending to our own reactivity, noticing the rise of activation and supporting the calm of deactivation, can help us make wiser choices about what to say and when. And the clearer we are about what we want and why, the more creative we can be about how to make it happen.
And of course, to communicate effectively, we have to pay close attention to the person we’re communicating with. This kind of attention helps both of us: it helps them to feel seen and heard, and helps us to understand them more clearly. The more we can other people’s feelings as a reflection of their needs, the easier it is to understand them without blaming, or needing to agree, or feeling responsible for their emotions. And when giving feedback, attention enables us to be specific about what we’ve heard, what and is and isn’t working and why.
Communication is complex, but these three foundations – presence, intention, and attention – can be the basis of transforming conversations to be more mindful and effective. Of course, human beings are complex, living systems. Changes happen slowly over time. But they do happen – one mindful step at a time!