No matter how much you study, much of your success will come down to how well you communicate with others.
Your communication skills at work or home have a deep effect on developing relationships, and also affect how people respond to you and how things get done.
Despite communication skills being “soft” skills, you can still improve them, you just might not know how to.
That’s where this post comes in. I’ve broken down the specific communication skills that will have the greatest effect on your life, along with how you can improve them.
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Why Communication Skills Are Critical To Success
It’s nice to imagine a purely individual merit-based world, but the reality is that we depend on others, and your interpersonal communication skills will play a big part in how successful you are at building a business or moving up at work.
You can either complain about this or accept it and make sure your skills are the best they can be. Since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re taking the latter approach.
In this post, I’ve broken down the most important communication skills, how to develop them, as well as other factors that influence how effectively you communicate.
Essential Interpersonal Communication Skills
Understand that communication doesn’t just mean speaking, it includes writing and other mediums, as well as nonverbal messages expressed through body language.
There are dozens of interpersonal communication skills, but some are more important than others.
These are skills that allow you to be: persuasive, likable, a good team member or leader, and effective.
Developing them will help you be more successful in business, but they also translate outside of work and will help improve your life.
Below is a list of the most crucial interpersonal communication skills, although in no particular order. For each, I’ve gone over why they are essential, and how you can improve them.
When you first think about communication, you think about speaking. Nearly everyone does.
But communication is a two-way street. Listening keeps others engaged in a conversation and helps you deliver a clearer message to them because you understand them better.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of being an active listener. This means you should be more engaged when listening, and try to ask questions or reaffirm points made by the speaker.
But the general definition of active listening is missing a step.
Research of college students in the Journal of Communication Research found that mindfulness was a critical factor of active listening and empathy.
Mindfulness is the state of being engaged and present.
If you’re not present and focused on a conversation, you can’t absorb everything. This includes both verbal and nonverbal messages.
It’s easiest to think of mindfulness by thinking of its absence. Ever listen to someone and space out a bit? It’s hard to remember more than a few words, let alone their tone or facial expressions. This is the result of not being mindful. Being mindful requires effort, but it is a skill that can be improved.
Here is Brendon Burchard’s primer on mindfulness that will get you going:
So while active listening is important, start with trying to be more mindful.
In the following amusing video, Jeffrey Chand presents three key ways to improve your mindfulness: note distractions, notice the thoughts behind distractions, let go of distracting thoughts.
In addition to the ideas mentioned above, doing activities like yoga and meditation will help you be more mindful.
2. Observing Non-Verbal Cues
Nonverbal communication includes everything other than the words themselves:
- Body posture and lean
- Eye contact
- Head movement
- Arm and hand movement
- Facial expressions
In a study of medical residents, having better nonverbal communication skills resulted in greater patient satisfaction.
The results can be applied to any communication. The better your nonverbal skills, the more confident and happy people will be with you.
Improving Your Nonverbal Communication
So how do you improve nonverbal skills? This is one of the hardest skill sets to improve because most people don’t pay too much attention to it. You can’t improve until you know what you’re trying to achieve.
That means the first step is to study people with great nonverbal skills. If there are people in your life (at work or home) that you know have great nonverbal skills, start by paying more attention to the things they do, rather than the words they say.
They may even be able to give you some pointers if you ask them for help.
Study the Pros
If no one comes to mind, there are two great places to study nonverbal communication: TV shows and public speakers.
The best actors are incredibly expressive, with more than just their words.
Pick any actor in a show (or movie) that you find yourself drawn to because of the way they communicate. Study their expressions, posture, and movements until you understand them. Then, try to replicate them and practice in front of a mirror.
Alternatively, head over to TED. The most popular speakers have great nonverbal skills. A lot of the time you’ll find that you’re moved by the presentation, even if they haven’t said anything particularly meaningful.
Study the nonverbal cues they use and implement them in your own life.
3. Delivering Messages With Clarity
What you have to say doesn’t matter if no one understands it. This is where clarity comes in.
There are two ways clarity can be important in communication.
First, clarity matters when it comes to the words you use to deliver your message. Don’t hide what you can offer or what you need behind complicated sentences. Choose words that are easy to understand and remove unnecessary explanations. Doing this will distill your message and make it easy to comprehend.
Using clear language applies to both voice and text communication.
How do you improve your language? Record yourself in a conversation and type up what you said, or find a few recent email messages.
Then paste the transcripts or messages in the Hemingway App, which highlights words or sentences that may be unclear.
Screenshot via Hemmingway App.
Edit those passages in the app until you’ve gotten rid of all red, yellow, and purple highlights. Then, read it out loud until it sounds natural.
Do this on a regular basis for a few weeks, and you will see a significant improvement in your writing and begin to notice the filler words you use most often. The most common filler words are:
- sort of
Removing these words from your writing creates stronger sentences that are easier to comprehend.
Use the Active Tense!
Avoid the passive tense when writing and speaking. The passive tense is when the subject of a sentence receives an action. For example:
At dinner, the shrimp were eaten by Sarah. (Passive)
Sarah ate the shrimp at dinner. (Active)
Phrases that use an active voice are assertive and clear, making it easier for others to understand your message.
Second, clarity can be affected by how you speak. As someone who grew up with a speech impediment, I’ve seen first-hand that people simply can’t understand you if you can’t enunciate well. The same goes if you talk too fast, or too quietly.
This isn’t an issue for everyone, but you’ve likely been told if you have one of the above issues.
The only way to get better at this is by practicing. Record yourself speaking and play it back to yourself to see what it sounds like. Reading books out loud can give you extra practice with no added pressure from other people.
Tone and Tempo
Some people sound angry or bored, even when they aren’t. It’s just their default tone that they either haven’t noticed, or been able to fix. The tempo (speed) of your speech can also influence the perception of your mood.
If a co-worker always seems angry or bored, you’re going to avoid talking and working with them when possible.
Even if you don’t have a serious issue, start paying attention to your tone in workplace conversations.
If it’s anything other than a friendly, lively tone and tempo, ask yourself how others might perceive that. You don’t have to be peppy or happy 100% of the time, but you should have a pleasant tone most of the time.
Everyone has the ability to sound happy and pleasant, but it’s not until you make it a habit that it will become your default state.
4. Empathic Understanding
Empathy is needed to be persuasive, that’s why it’s arguably the most important skill for sales.
Empathy is the process of understanding someone else’s viewpoint. Once you understand what people like, dislike, enjoy, and are afraid of, it’s a lot easier to get them to take a certain action you want.
Some use empathy to manipulate others, but most of us use empathy to learn and truly care about others.
The good news is that almost everyone knows how to be empathetic; it’s a part of human nature.
Improving Your Empathy
Unfortunately, it’s not always practiced. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own viewpoint, which can quickly become a habit that is hard to break out of.
- Listen to Others
- There are a number of steps to improving your empathy. The first is something we’ve already discussed: listen. This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication.
It is only by listening that we can gain enough information from others to understand what they are actually feeling.
- Be Open to Other Perspectives
- Listening is not enough, however. You must be open to what the others are saying.
This doesn’t mean that you must agree with it. But it does mean that you must accept that what others tell you is true — if only for themselves.
- Apply Information to Your Life
- Once you understand what others are saying and what it says about how they think, you still need to take another step: learn how it affects them emotionally.
To do this, you need to see how you would be affected under the same circumstances. With the information you have acquired, put yourself in their shoes. This will allow you to better feel and think what they feel and think.
Using Triggers to Practice Empathy
Most people are not in the habit of practicing empathy. So it is helpful to set up a system that encourages you to do so.
One very helpful tool is to set up triggers. That could be a time of day, talking to a certain person, or an activity that you do every day.
When that trigger occurs, focus on applying empathy to the last person you talked to. Over time, this will develop a habit and you will find yourself automatically being more empathetic.
5. Objective Perception
Spending all day together with any group of people is going to result in some minor conflicts. Over time, grudges and biases can build up that lead to strenuous relationships.
Empathy and friendliness are a great start to prevent these issues, but sometimes grudges develop from taking things too personally.
Someone being a little rude is often enough for a small grudge to form that develops into bigger conflicts later.
The best way to prevent this is to stop it before it starts, by not taking small things as seriously and personally.
But this is easier said than done. Luckily, there are a few excellent books that cover this exact topic.
First, there’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff — an old but classic book by Richard Carlson.
For a newer take, try The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck instead.
6. Using Gratitude and Friendliness
At its core, most interpersonal communication is about developing bonds and friendships.
You do this through being friendly and thankful.
The Ben Franklin Effect
The Ben Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon that makes this easy. It essentially states:
When someone does a favor for you, they will be more likely to do more favors for you. As a result of cognitive dissonance, the person doing the favor reasons that they would not have done a favor for you if they did not like you — even if that isn’t true.
With gratitude, this effect becomes even more powerful.
We can take this one step further. Research has shown that when someone does something nice for you, it reinforces the Ben Franklin effect.
Essentially, it’s a back and forth of doing nice things for each other, that builds a strong bond over time. It can start with small things like lending pens or bringing coffee.
If you want to develop more friendly relationships in the office, start by going out of your way to help someone:
- Help them with a work-related problem
- Bring in coffee or treats
- Keep a snack bowl on your desk
- Change the coffee when needed
- Take one for the team if someone needs to stay late
I’m not saying to become the office errand boy or girl, but if there’s someone who needs help, go out of your way to help them. That will show you care about them and most people will return the favor.
Clever Ways to Grow Communication Skills
We’ve looked at many ways to grow communication skills so far, but here are a few ideas that are particularly actionable and non-obvious:
1. Check out a Toastmasters International Meeting
Consider joining a local chapter of Toastmasters International. This helps you to improve your communication and leadership skills.
People think of Toastmasters as being all about public speaking, but it is much more than this. The program is designed to help you communicate on all levels: from one-on-one to talking to a stadium filled with people.
It also helps with different kinds of speaking: from storytelling to extemporaneous and prepared speeches. Toastmasters also helps you build leadership skills such as team management and organization.
2. Start Your Own Podcast
Start a podcast. Listening to your episodes will help you notice filler words you use, how interesting your tone and tempo is, and help you learn to prepare for communication better.
It is also a good way to improve your writing because there is often a big difference between the way words sound inside your head and how they sound when spoken.
3. Learn Non-Verbal Communication Through Silent Observation
Mute a TV show: if you’d like to learn to be more expressive, turn off the volume and just watch the faces and bodies of actors. You may be surprised at how much of what is happening you can understand without words.
By studying what you see, you will learn tricks of how to communicate beyond your words.
4. Journal With a Twist
Journal every day with an emphasis on gratitude: write down the things you appreciate most about others during the day. This will form a habit and help you show more gratitude. It will also make you a more interesting and empathic communicator.
5. Try an Improv Workshop
Join an improv comedy class. They will teach you to be more expressive and creative, as well as cooperate with others. As a result, many businesses use improv classes to improve team communication and bonding.
Any kind of theatrical training would also help, but given the spontaneous nature of improv, it is probably the most helpful to those who want to increase their communication skills in everyday life.
Frequently Asked Questions About Interpersonal Communication
After all this, you might have a few short questions still in the back of your mind. Here are common questions that people often have about communication.
What Does “Soft Skills” Mean?
Skills are usually divided into 2 categories: hard (sometimes called “technical”) and soft. Hard skills can be learned and mastered simply through reading, but don’t rely on communicating with others. Conversely, soft skills refer to those skills used to interact with other people. They are typically learned through observation and practice.
Is Taking an Interpersonal Communication Course Worth It?
It can be, but it depends on the course. Most courses will cover what we’ve looked at in this post in greater detail. It may also help to be able to do practice exercises in-person.
What’s the difference between emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication?
Both emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication skills are needed for effective relationships with others, but they are not the exact same. Emotional intelligence is a way to measure how well you can understand other people, while interpersonal communication skills mostly describe how you take that understanding and use it to communicate more effectively with others (although empathy is a part of both emotional intelligence and communication).
Conclusion and General Resources
Interpersonal communication is important for working with others, getting results, and having others want to recognize you for your work.
The tools that go into good interpersonal communication are normally called “soft skills” — things like active listening and empathy. So despite the term, soft skills can be challenging to learn. But with effort, they can be mastered.
In this article, we’ve focused on interpersonal communication at the micro-level — discussing these soft skills that are critical to being an effective communicator. But you never want to lose track of your ultimate goal of effective interpersonal communication.
So I want to end with a few resources that look at this subject as a whole.
Here are a few helpful videos. A great one is this talk by Stanford lecturer Matt Abrahams. In it, he breaks down communication into four steps: approach, audience, context, and structure. But you will be surprised how he uses these concepts:
This VideoJug video discusses the three physical tools we all have for communicating: body, voice, and mind. And then it provides a simple tip for improving each:
The following IBT video provides ten very useful tips on communicating more effectively in a business setting. Some of it will be quite familiar based upon what we have discussed above but other things are more specific to a business environment and may not have occurred to you.
A TEDx talk by Mark Bowden about nonverbal communication, The Importance Of Being Inauthentic may seem counterintuitive at first. But Bowden shows how parts of effective communication require you to be “fake.”
Given how many aspects of interpersonal communication there are, it is a subject that lends itself well to a book-length treatment. I’ve presented some of the best books available on this topic.
- How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie — although not specifically about interpersonal communication, this classic book is largely about business communication and the skills necessary to connect with people.
- How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships by Leil Lowndes — more than just tips, this book goes into great detail about accomplishing various tasks in conversation — including details of body language and tips for things like building a sense of community.
- It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace by Anne Kreamer — the ultimate guide to dealing with the difficult subject of expressing emotion in in a work environment.
- Improve Your Social Skills by Daniel Wendler — more or less a book-length version of this article, so if you would like to drill down into the concepts I’ve discussed here, this is the book for you.
And here are a few online articles that you may find helpful:
- How to Become Famous Online: a guide to building an online presence, particularly important for freelancers and entrepreneurs.
- The Most Inspiring Leadership Quotes: inspirational quotes can give you motivation even during the toughest of times.
- 15 Books That All Entrepreneurs Should Read: these books will help you improve soft skills and specific business knowledge that’s useful for entrepreneurs.
Improving your interpersonal communication skill is largely a matter of being able to break it down into more basic skills and trying to improve them. That’s why I’ve focused so much on skills like active listening.
By communicating with these skills in mind, you will be able to judge how your conversations go. You will be able to pinpoint why a particular conversation went poorly or well.
Now all you need to do is go out into the world and communicate. And have fun!