chandra_clark.jpgLiving Well: 101 Florida A&M University

TALLAHASSEE — Communication is broadly defined as using verbal and nonverbal messages to generate meaning. We are always communicating — consciously or not — whether with others via language, clothing, hairstyle, body language or a constant stream-of-consciousness (our thoughts).

In fact, there are many ways to conceptualize communication, be it through computer-meditated modes (texts, tweets, e-mails, blogs, etc.), mass media (newspapers, television, radio, etc.), small-group interactions, public speaking engagements or dyadic (one-on-one) conversations.

If we can improve the quality of our communication, then the quality of our relationships — with ourselves, loved ones, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances — will also improve.

One way we can improve our communication skills is by becoming better listeners. If communication — which is the foundation of all relationships — is a transaction that results in shared meaning, it is important that the messages we send are accurately delivered to our counterparts.

Thus, effective listening involves our entire being so that miscommunication does not occur.

Often, during a conversation, we are too preoccupied with thinking about what we want to say when the other person stops talking, or become distracted from giving the other person our complete attention, to effectively listen to them.

But active, strategic listening, can make the other person feel as if you genuinely care about what he or she is saying, and can thereby improve the quality of the relationship.

But how can we become more active, engaged listeners?

Consider the communication context. The physical setting, time and location of a communication exchange may well impact its reception. For example, if you have a sensitive message for someone, it may be better to speak in person or by phone rather than via text or email.

Paraphrase/Ask questions. With this strategy, we repeat what we think the other person has just said, but using our own words.
For example, you could say something like, “So what I hear you saying is…” This gives you the chance to clarify whether you have properly understood the other person. It also gives them the opportunity to correct any misconceptions you might have regarding the communication.

Likewise, asking questions of the other person is also a way to clarify what has been spoken. Paraphrasing or asking questions decreases the chances of you jumping to conclusions, and it also communicates to the other person that you care.

Pay attention to feedback. Feedback is the verbal and nonverbal responses of receivers during the communication process, and can be either positive or negative. Nodding, texting, yawning, and giving eye contact are all examples of feedback and can alert us to what the other person is feeling or thinking (no matter what they actually say).

We can respond effectively to feedback in many ways. For example, if our listener gives us a quizzical look, we might rephrase what we have just said, or ask them if they have a question.

Note nonverbal communication. The aforementioned feedback examples are also forms of nonverbal communication, which also includes tone of voice, gestures, all body language, etc., and can also shed light on the other person’s thoughts or
feelings. In fact, according to research, between 60 to 70 percent of our communication is nonverbal.

Be mindful of gender and/or cultural differences. For example, studies show that men and women generally communicate differently. Men tend to focus more on what is said during a conversation, while women tend to focus more on the relationship between the speaker and listener. While men seek comprehension, women seek empathy and connection.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, all human beings have a need to belong. We achieve this sense of belonging through our relationships.

By improving our communication skills through becoming better listeners, we can enhance the quality of these relationships, and thus, our overall quality of life.

So listen up!

Chandra Clark is an assistant professor in the department of English and Modern Languages at Florida A&M University. Join Clark on Feb. 7 at 6 p.m. for a live Twitter chat for expert advice on relationship building through better communication.

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