As I reflect, I don’t think I’ve met a dozen people who I felt were good at interpersonal communication.
Most people I work with communicate without really thinking about it. As a result, I see good, smart people engage in messy and shallow conversations. For example, I find that much of my clients’ attention drifts off when the other person is speaking. They are more focused on what they will say next than on understanding what is being said. When they speak, they tell their own story rather than show that they have understood the other person’s story. They come to me because their interpersonal communication skills are not good enough to become influential leaders.
I’ve also been reflecting on the cost of poor interpersonal communication. I’m not sure that many of my business clients appreciate the problems their poor communication skills cause. My clients face team dysfunction, the challenges of remote team management, the great resignation following the pandemic, and the difficult recruiting environment. They can fix these problems by paying attention to leadership communication skills.
Recently, a client told me of a situation where she could not manage a group of unmotivated and undisciplined people. They interrupted each other in Zoom meetings or were unengaged. Upon exploration, my client realized that she was not reading the correct interpersonal communication cues and responding to them correctly… She was missing 90% of what her team communicated to her because she was too focused on her own needs.
The Best Interpersonal Communication Definition
I tell my clients that interpersonal communication is simply how people exchange information and feelings in their face-to-face communication. I like this definition of interpersonal communication because it condenses interpersonal communication into two parts: information and emotion.
Interpersonal communication is seldom seamless. Instead, people are more likely to send and receive informational and emotional messages simultaneously in a complex, interactive process. A lot can get in the way of clear communication, so you can only improve by learning communication skills beyond your childhood and education.
In my experience, most interpersonal business communication is ineffective because of poor training. Having reviewed several communication skills courses, I find them mostly lacking useful skills that make a difference. You will learn what works in this article.
The 2 Goals of Interpersonal Communication
Every conversation or communication has two goals. The first goal, to exchange information, is obvious. We learn to exchange information through words starting in early childhood. Formal education teaches us how to speak and write words to send information.
The second goal, emotions, surprises people. They don’t think about emotions as being a part of interpersonal communication. What I have learned is that every communication contains emotional information for the listener. I will explain how to listen to emotions later in this article.
What Are The Five Elements of Interpersonal Communication?
Every interpersonal communication has five elements: the speaker and the listener, the message, noise, feedback, context, and the channel.
The Speaker and The Listener
People talk to each other. Since early childhood, everyone learns rules around taking turns and not interrupting. These rules help us have polite conversations. That is about as far as
However, the roles go much deeper than turn-taking. The speaker has the responsibility for creating and structuring a thought into the words heard by the listener. The listener controls comprehension and interpretation of those words. Most speakers don’t see this division of labor. Most speakers believe that they are responsible for the content, structure, comprehension, and interpretation. They think the listener is an empty container to be filled with an idea and respond to it. This is where interpersonal communication breaks down.
Speakers want to convey what they mean and be heard, and they do this through words. Again, most people are taught as children that words communicate meaning. Words, however, are only 7% of the message. 55% of the message is in facial expression and body language, and 38% of the message is in the tone of voice, volume, and speaking speed.
Most speakers are not conscious of their non-verbal interpersonal communication; for them, it just happens. The best communicators pay close attention to the non-verbal communication cues they send. They also are good at receiving and interpreting the non-verbal communication cues received from others. Understanding non-verbal communication cues are essential interpersonal communication skills.
Noise In Interpersonal Communication
Noise in interpersonal communication refers to the stuff that distracts you from communicating clearly or understanding what another person is saying. For example, you might be sitting in a sports bar with a friend and a big football game is on the screen. The game may distract you from paying attention to your friend’s communication. The game and the television are called “noise.”
Likewise, your mood, whether you are rested or tired, what you have on your mind at the moment all constitute noise that may get in the way of clear communication. Great communicators know about noise and are disciplined enough to ignore the noise when receiving clear communication from another person is essential. Undisciplined people are usually poor communicators because they cannot filter out noise.
Feedback In Interpersonal Communication
All interpersonal communication is a dance between people. We constantly give and receive feedback as a communication skill to assess how the communication is going. Most people give and welcome feedback without any conscious thought. Masterful communicators pay close attention to the feedback they receive from others, and they give precise feedback to people listening to them. Later in this article, I will show you how to hone your feedback skills.
Context-Where You Talk Is Important
Context in interpersonal communication refers to where and when you talk. We automatically adjust our communication style and information to make them socially appropriate. We learn that how we speak with friends is different from how we communicate with a supervisor or superior. Romantic communication is much different than business communication. The context of a conversation tells us a lot about what we say, how we say it, and when. Undisciplined people often ignore context and speak inappropriately, destroying their credibility. Great communicators understand the importance of context and adjust how and what they say to it.
Channel: How You Communicate
The channel of communication refers to how you communicate. There are dozens of different channels we use every day. For example, in verbal communication, we might be face-to-face, in a Zoom call, on a mobile device, on WhatsApp, or Facebook Live, to name a few. Each of these is a verbal communication channel. We can also send texts and emails or, can you imagine, write a letter on paper and mail it.
Like context, the channel you choose for interpersonal communication influences the information you are sending. Likewise, the channel you choose to receive a communication influences what you receive. Problems arise when a channel is used that distorts communication. The most common error is using text messaging for anything other than short, fact-based communications. Text messaging is terrible for conveying emotions and subtle information, yet people like the emotional safety it provides because it is anonymous and detached. As people have relied more on text messaging, they have lost the courage and the ability to have difficult face-to-face conversations. Great communicators use their channels appropriately and avoid using inappropriate channels for the information they want to convey.
The only way to sharpen and strengthen verbal communication skills is through actual face-to-face verbal communication. Text messaging does not count, LOL.
Why Bother Developing Your Interpersonal Communication Skills?
You might be wondering at this point why to bother developing your interpersonal communication skills. Many people don’t bother with it because it takes effort. However, suppose you want to become a leader. In that case, everyone wants to follow, if you want career success, if you want to stand above all of your colleagues, and if you want happy, fulfilled relationships, developing your interpersonal communication skills is worth your time.
Here is a list of reasons I came up with why developing your interpersonal communication skills is worthwhile.
- Create emotional safety
- Connect with people and contacts more easily
- Maintain good relationships with others·
- Provide and reassurance to those around you·
- Express your needs in an effective manner·
- Give — and get — emotional support and empathy·
- Have the emotional intelligence to understand how decisions will affect others·
- Know how to “read a room” when you are speaking·
- Give and receive the information you need for every task·
- Stay grounded and true to your best self
Creating emotional safety is not something most people think about. Google performed an analysis of its highest-performing teams and discovered a startling fact. The single most important factor that separated a high-performing team from other teams was the leader’s ability to create emotional safety. When people feel safe from ridicule, bullying, criticism, judgment, teasing, put-downs, and gossip, they are more loyal, productive collaborative people.
Connecting with people is much more than a “Hi,” elbow bump, or handshake. When you can connect with someone, you can create a positive emotional relationship that makes the other person feel welcomed and appreciated. Most people shy away from connecting because emotions make them anxious. They are defensive and shut down, or don’t know how to manage emotions. As a result, they are distant or, at best, superficial. Their connection is not authentic, and they are not perceived as effective.
Maintaining good relationships with others means attending to others’ emotional experiences. You can maintain your relationship with ease and comfort when you can read others’ emotions (as I will show you how to do later in this article).
Great interpersonal communication skills allow you, as a leader, to provide emotional safety, reassurance, stability, focus, and direction. Your team members cherish all of these and will follow you anywhere if you provide a bedrock for them.
Great communicators express their needs effectively in a non-attached way. What I mean by non-attached is that the communicator can accept rejection without upset or anxiety. A request always implies a negotiation, which means that the listener has an opportunity to meet, change, modify, or even reject the request. A great listener will always offer another option when rejecting a speaker’s request. This is a very useful interpersonal communication skill to develop with a boss or superior.
When you can read and reflect on another person’s emotions, you are engaging in empathy. Great communicators know how to create empathy. I will show you exactly how to do this later in this article.
Great leaders understand how their decisions will affect others. Sometimes, the decisions will hurt; sometimes, not. However, good interpersonal communication skills include knowing how a decision will be received and how it will affect others.
What Gets In The Way of Great Interpersonal Communication?
The common interpersonal communication problems include:
- Poor Skills
- Poor Self-Worth
- Lack of Confidence
Verbal and non-verbal communication skills that go beyond what you learned as a child have to be acquired. The skills are not innate and must be refined over a lifetime. While this is a serious commitment to self-development, the good news is few people bother. You will gain an enormous advantage over others as you improve your skills.
You have to fight past your natural tendency to not care, boredom, self-absorption, and shyness. Great skills help you overcome communication barriers. The barriers only exist for those without expertise. When you are an expert communicator, the barriers go away.
5 New Powerful Ways To Rocket Your Career With Interpersonal Communication Skills
Congratulations! You have made this far in a long article and have shown enough interest and discipline for me to reveal the secrets I have gathered over the decades. Here are the five most powerful interpersonal communication skills. Master these, and your life will change forever.
Modern Reflective Listening
The first interpersonal communication skill to master is listening. You must know what to listen for and how to reflect on the information you received from the speaker. Without reflection, you are not listening. This is a secret that most people never learn. The art of listening is the art of reflection. There are four levels of reflective listening.
Mirroring: Repeating Back Word for Word
Mirroring means that you repeat back word for word what the speaker has said. This is quite difficult because you have to concentrate hard to remember the words. Fortunately, mirroring is only used to make sure you and the speaker understand a request, recipe, list, or procedure entirely. Here’s an example:
“John, I need you to go to the market and buy vinegar, apples, baking soda, and detergent.
“Yes. Thanks for verifying, John
You do not use mirroring to reflect back anything other than a list or procedure. You would never use mirroring to calm someone, and mirroring is not empathy. Still, knowing how to use mirroring is a powerful interpersonal communication skill.
Paraphrasing: Putting Their Words Into Yours
When you paraphrase a speaker, you demonstrate that you understand what the speaker is saying and reflect back on the words using your own interpretation. Like all other forms of reflective listening, always use a “you” statement, not an “I” statement. Here’s an example:
“I woke up this morning and the sun was shining. I was super excited to get my day started.”
“Your day started beautifully and you were full of energy.”
Keep your paraphrases short and simple. You use paraphrasing when understanding the speaker’s intention is important.
This is a good time to introduce Vera and Clara as your new best listening friends. Vera and Clara are the Fy sisters. They are also known as Verify and Clarify. When you paraphrase, you are verifying what you heard and clarifying what the speaker intended to say. Use Vera and Clara often to avoid dealing with the problems of their nosy neighbor, Ms. Understood. You avoid misunderstandings when you paraphrase to verify and clarify.
Core Messaging: Searching For The Hidden Meaning
You have probably been around someone who talks in circles. That speaker is like a rabbit running around a forest with no purpose or direction. This person can be annoying and frustrating. The secret to listening is to use a skill called core messaging. In core messaging, you mostly ignore the words and listen for the underlying meaning. When you have the gist of what the speaker is saying, reflect it with a “you” statement. Here’s an example:
“Yesterday, I was in the pet store getting some cat food and then I had to get some gas, but I forgot to go to the grocery store and pick up milk, but then I remembered and had to turn around and go back. Some guy pulled into the parking space I had chosen and I was so upset I forgot why I was there, but I saw the sushi place and realized I was hungry, but there were so many choices I couldn’t decide, so I left and then remembered I had to buy some milk, so I did and finally got home.”
“Your day was like being in the ocean with the currents going one way and the winds blowing another, making the sea choppy and confused.”
“Yeah, exactly. Thanks.”
Affect Labeling: Putting Feelings Into Words
Very few people know about or use the fourth level of reflective listening. Technically, it is called affect labeling, but we can simply call it reflecting emotions.
Unlike the other levels of reflective listening, we ignore the words because they are meaningless. Instead, we focus on the speaker’s emotional experience by reading the emotional data field. Emotions are information, just like numbers. We can read and interpret emotional information the same way we can read and interpret other types of data. The good news is that our brains are hard-wired for this.
When we have read the speaker’s emotions, we reflect those emotions with a simple “you” statement.
Here’s an example:
“I can’t believe what a bunch of idiots they are. They never get anything right and leave the mess for us to clean up!”
“You are angry and frustrated. You feel disrespected and unappreciated.”
Your listening and reflecting focus is completely on the speaker’s emotional experience, not the spoken words. When you validate emotions this way, you help the speaker calm down. Brain scanning studies show that the speaker’s prefrontal cortex activates as her brain’s emotional centers calm down. This is the most powerful listening skill you can master.
The 5 Biggest Mistakes In Verbal Interpersonal Communication
The five biggest mistakes people make when confronted by an emotional speaker are
- Trying to “Solve” the Problem
- Becoming Defensive
- Trying to Rationalize, Excuse, Justify, or Explain
- Putting The Speaker’s Emotions Down
- Becoming Angry and Frustrated In Response to the Speaker’s Emotions
Your job is to validate the speaker’s feelings. When you do that, you don’t have to problem-solve. You will not feel defensive or anxious. You won’t feel like you have to explain yourself. Learning how to do this takes training, coaching, and practice. However, your payoffs are huge. You will have people eating out your hands. Your relationships will flow with grace and ease. You will be confident in every situation.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Doug Noll’s website.