The Foundation Coalition defines interpersonal communication as "the process that we use to communicate our ideas, thoughts and feelings to another person." Verbal and nonverbal cues we send other people may either encourage constructive communication, or lead to destructive relationships. By developing certain skills, you can communicate with others in a manner beneficial to you both, whether you're in the workplace, in the home or among friends.
Just as singers need to train their ears to hear notes before they can sing them, effective communicators must listen to the thoughts of those they're communicating with, in order to have meaningful dialog. Active listening involves listening with compassion and empathy -- but if you haven't developed those qualities yet, you can "fake it 'til you make it." You do this by keeping your mouth shut, maintaining eye contact and nodding your head while the other person speaks. Periodically repeat what the person has said, in your own words, to communicate that you've heard and understood. The more you do this, the more likely it is that your feelings of compassion and empathy will become genuine.
Observation and Acknowledgement
You're engaged in interpersonal communication when you're in the presence of another person -- whether you have a conversation with them or not. Make a habit of acknowledging others when you pass them in the hall, or see them in a group. A smile and a nod, communicating that you're aware of the other person and glad to see him, can mean a lot. Even better, a compliment -- when appropriate -- lets the other person know you think well of him, even when you're not trying to get something out of him in a negotiation. Look for opportunities to observe other people's positive qualities, and let them know you've perceived them.
Being empathetic, compassionate and positive doesn't mean you have to be a doormat. If you have conflicts with another person, let her know you've considered her point of view and are concerned about her hurt feelings or anger, but remain firm in your position. If the conversation gets too heated, and you fear saying something you might regret, end the conversation as graciously as possible and return to it when you and the other person have calmed down. Make sure your responses are not based on negative personal feelings about the other person, or assumptions about her motives. It's easy to misinterpret constructive criticism as a personal attack. If you find yourself taking criticism of your ideas or position personally, or perceive the other person is doing so, steer the conversation back to the issue at hand and, if necessary, apologize for your role in letting the discussion get off-track.
Some people unintentionally send out aggressive signals that intimidate others and impede interpersonal communication. At the opposite extreme are people who unconsciously say or do things that make them seem apologetic when they are trying to be assertive. Look for ways that you unwittingly get in your own way when communicating with others. Are you frequently sarcastic? Do you indulge in gossip that might make others mistrust you? Examine your word choices, and consider the possibility that they may come off unnecessarily judgmental or negative. If you frequently describe things or people as "stupid," for example, consider a word that sounds less condemning, such as "baffling" or "confusing." Unlike "stupid," those alternative words suggest the possibility that you simply don't understand, instead of implying that the other person isn't worth trying to understand. Such subtle adjustments open the door to useful communication, rather than slamming it shut.
Scott Roberts studied communications at the University of Southern Indiana and has written for local newspapers throughout his adult life. He has created articles for more than 70 international clients. An accomplished artist, he has illustrated and written cartoons for newspapers and GoComics.com. He lives in Southwest Michigan.