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Choosing the right words when dealing with an uncomfortable topic is difficult for most of us. We end up avoiding challenging conversations or say something that inadvertently leads to misunderstanding, conflict or distrust. Fortunately, we can improve our communication skills with attention and practice. Being intentional about how we communicate can improve professional, ministerial and personal relationships. The first step is to acknowledge how difficult communicating can be.
“For many people communicating directly feels like a risk,” said Emily, Cash, the director of the Saint Luke Center in Louisville, Ky. “They feel vulnerable.”
One of the biggest barriers to healthy communication is the expectation that the other person knows how we feel and what we want without being told. “Other people can’t actually read our minds, and what we’re talking about might not be as important to them as it is to us,” therapist Martha Keys Barker said. “It doesn’t mean we’re being rejected.”
Success is more likely if we think through the message we want to deliver and then practice it, emphasizing being clear and honest. It is helpful to frame what you want in a way that benefits the recipient. Speak from personal experience and use “I” statements (rather than “you”).
Periodically stop to clarify with the listener that the message is clear. And, consider where you share the message. Select a time and place that is safe and comfortable for all parties. It is ideal to address a difficult topic in person. If it must be done by e-mail, be sure to read the message carefully before hitting “send” and consider asking a neutral party to review the content before sending.
It also is important to tackle one sensitive issue at a time and not “throw the kitchen sink” at someone, Barker and Cash said, so that he or she does not feel “dumped on.” The ability to deliver a difficult message effectively is, however, only half of healthy dialogue. The other is being a good listener.
Good listening skills include making eye contact, allowing the speaker to finish, and reflecting what you believe to be the message back to the speaker to ensure that you understand the person’s viewpoint. “Don’t try to interpret, don’t try to fix it and instead focus more on letting them know you have heard them,” Cash said. “Ask what would be helpful.”
The resolution to a difficult situation may not always be immediately clear. It may be necessary for all parties to take a step back and revisit a sensitive issue at another time. “Be prepared to negotiate,” Barker said. “Don’t feel pressured to come up with a solution right away.”
Cash emphasized the importance of staying calm, even if a conversation does not go well. “What you don’t want is, in the heat of the moment, to say something that causes irreparable damage.”
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