Three Steps To Improving the Way You Listen: Key Communication Skills

Do you know someone who thinks they're a great communicator but who drives you crazy? Maybe he has a fund of stories that he rolls out at every opportunity, whether you've heard them before or not. 

Or maybe he caps every remark you make with one of his own. You know how it goes. You say, "I broke my foot," and he says, "I did that last year and the doctor said it was the worst fracture he ever saw."

A teenager I know started at a new school so she had to catch a different bus in the morning.The first day, she came home full of enthusiasm for a new friend.
"He's so funny," she said. "We just laughed all the way. I nearly fell off my seat."

I bet you can guess how she felt after two weeks. 
"I'm hoping he won't be on the bus today," she said. "He never shuts up and it's all about himself."

Yes, you may be more shy, less extrovert, more self-conscious than others: but chances are you're a better communicator if you take the time to listen instead of talking. 

Here's how to do it in three easy steps:

1 Make sure you really understand what someone is saying to you. Ask questions to keep yourself focused on him. "What happened next?" or "Why do you think that happened?" Who/what/when/how/where/why questions are a great way to keep the conversation going. 

2 Check back with him that you've understood. "So you didn't enjoy the day at the sea?" 

3 Watch his body language. If he's looking down, or out of the window, he may be really upset. If he's leaning back and smiling, things are OK. Be sensitive to his mood: his dating disaster may sound funny to you but if he's devastated, it's cruel to laugh.

TOP TIP You can help change  his mood if he's miserable. Get him to look up at you and he'll  feel a little better. We don't say "chin up" for nothing. (Don't say "chin up" by the way. It's annoying. Just stand back so he looks up at you. That's subtle.)

Got more top tips on listening? I love to hear them. Just leave a comment and spread the word.

Want to know more about communication skills ? Try these posts:

How to Make a Good Impression

How to Learn to Speak the Same Language

The Secret of Using All Your Five Senses

How to See Things From His Point of View

How to Avoid the Unscrupulous Salesman’s Language Traps

How to Banish Guilt Through Positive Thinking

How to Get Agreement with Communication Skills

Help To Tell Your Story in Court: Witness Intermediaries

Today's post is a little different, as it's especially for anyone who has communication problems (or knows someone who has) and is involved with the justice system in England and Wales.

For tips on verbal and non verbal communication, and links to other posts on the site, click here.

If you’re a child, or you’ve got autism or ADHD or had a stroke, a court appearance may seem scary.

A court is a strange place. The judge and lawyers wear wigs and gowns.  The room’s full of jury members, mysterious officials and odd members of the public, watching from the gallery.

Everyone uses strange language and talks too fast.

The good news is that the judge really wants you to be able to tell your story. He or she can make changes to help you.
  • There’ll be other adults there as well, whose job is to help you.
  • You may be able to talk to the court from a separate room, through a video link.
  • Maybe the judge and barristers will take their wigs off, so you can see that they're ordinary people.
Witness Intermediary
You need to understand all the questions anyone asks you,so you may have a witness intermediary, like me, with you. 

I work with people who have been a victim of crime, or know about one. I also work with a defendant,  who's been accused of something and is in court to stand trial. 

This is what people like me do. We've had special training and we're registered with the Ministry of Justice.
  • We spend time with you, to find out a bit about you.
  • Then we write to the courts. We tell them about any problems you have with understanding or talking.
  • We meet with the judge and the lawyers before the trial.
  • We may be there with you, in the separate room, called the ‘live link’ room. 
  • We can ask for a break if you get tired.
  • We can suggest other ways that the lawyer asks you a question, so you understand it. 
  • We can point out to the judge if you get confused.

Remember, the judge wants you to have your say.
  • ·         if you have difficulty in listening and concentrating,
  • ·         if you find it hard to understand what people say,
  • ·         if talking is difficult,
ask the police or your solicitor if a Witness Intermediary might be able to help.

Here's more information about special measures in England and Wales.


How to Build Your Own Communication Kit: Don’t Jump to Conclusions

My grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s mad except you and me, and sometimes you’re a bit strange”. That’s the cleaned up version, anyway.

I thought about this when I sat drinking coffee with a bunch of colleagues. I watched them and marvelled at their differences. I tried to guess what their behaviour meant.

Jane was talkative and nervous as a kitten. She laughed often and fiddled with her hair. Was she anxious and upset? Or was she excited about something so good she couldn’t wait to tell us?

Laura sat back and spoke rarely. Every comment was appropriate, and each one seemed to put a full stop to the discussion.  Was she bored, or was she taking in everything she heard? Was she shy, or does she just prefer not to talk much?

Helen kept trying to pull the conversation back to the original topic. “Yes, but that’s not the point,” she said three times. Is she a control freak, or did she really want an answer to a question that mattered to her? Was it frustrating to her that we wouldn't take her seriously?

Sarah said, “I’m sorry, am I talking too much?” the second time she spoke. Was she anxious that people won’t like her, and think her pushy, or was she passive-aggressively pointing out that others were dominating the conversation?

Imogen tapped the table with a pen, as though she couldn’t wait to be somewhere else. Was Imogen anxious and worried about something, or did she just have a tune running through her head?  

The way we communicate with each other is so subtle, so full of richness and difference, and we give off constant signals about our personalities and our state of mind. Every one of us behaves differently from every one else.

So, beware of ‘mind-reading’.  Most signals can mean more than one thing.

There is always more than one way to read another’s behaviour. Maybe we should hold back our criticisms of each other and look for other reasons when we see behaviour we don't find appealing.

Often, the key to understanding can be simply finding out a little more about someone. When we're in a group, we behave in a 'public' way. Before we next meet for coffee, I plan to spend a few minutes alone with at least one of my colleagues. If I want to understand her behaviour, I need to build some rapport with her, and find out what makes her tick. Maybe even start to see the world from her point of view and stop trying to read her mind.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Have you ever found someone's behaviour difficult to understand? Do you sometimes get it wrong because you don't know as much as you thought about someone?  Do some people drive you mad, but you can't put your finger on the reason? Let me know. I'd love to hear your experiences.
If you liked this, why not have a look at some of these other posts.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Golden Rules

Even introverts like to talk to other people sometimes, and it gets easier if you follow a few simple rules.

Mostly, we learn these rules by trial and error, sometimes called bitter experience. Boy, can the expewrience hurt. Ever had someone look over your shoulder to find someone more interesting while you're talking? That's one sign you may need to work on your skills.

Don't despair. You too can become an expert communicator. Start with some of these tips.

• Speak more slowly. Your listener’s brain has to remember your sentences, then decode the words and grammar before he can understand your message. It takes time. Talk too fast and you’ll be misunderstood.

• Pause between phrases and sentences. Give your listener a chance to catch up and to react.

• Use short sentences. You can only hold seven things in your memory at one time. If you pack your sentences full, your listener will miss something. Say important things as simply as possible.

• Match your body language to your meaning. How often do you say, “I’m listening” to your child, while your eyes slide away to your computer screen or TV? Do you ever say “yes,” while your expression says “no”? Avoid giving mixed messages.

• Make eye contact with your listener. She finds it easier to listen to you and you make a connection: the eyes aren’t called “the windows to the soul” for nothing.

• Check your tone of voice. Sound impatient and that’s all your listener hears. He won’t notice your words: we all know now that most messages come from our non-verbal language.

• Listen to the other person. It’s so easy to plan your next sentences, forgetting to listen to the answer. Watch TV interviewers and see how often they ask a question that’s already been answered, because they forgot to listen.

• Watch for the other person’s body language. Notice his crossed arms or when he leans away from you, showing that he’s feeling defensive. Watch when his body language mirrors yours, showing he feels empathy with you.

• Give a context to what you say. Don’t launch straight in to a set of instructions or questions, but set the scene first. Your listener needs time to adjust to the new topic. Phrases such as “can we talk about arrangements for the weekend,” tune her in, help her start thinking and make it easier for her to understand.

• Take turns. Let the other person finish what they have to say and avoid interrupting. This matters even more in a tricky situation, when an interruption signals that you are not prepared to consider another’s point of view.

If you found this article useful, why not have a look at some of these other posts.

How to Make a Good Impression

How to Learn to Speak the Same Language

The Secret of Using All Your Five Senses

How to See Things From His Point of View

How to Avoid the Unscrupulous Salesman’s Language Traps

How to Banish Guilt Through Positive Thinking

How to Get Agreement with Communication Skills

I write this Communication Blog

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Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.

I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.

I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.