Have you ever meant to say one thing, only to find that what has actually come out of your mouth is a garbled mess that isn’t what you intended at all? Everyone is afflicted with communication troubles at some point in life, but some of us have a particularly hard time saying precisely what we mean, precisely when we want to say it. After particularly delicate or important conversations, you can find us in the corner, kicking ourselves and thinking of everything we should have said instead of the random grunts and screeches that seem replace our faculties for human speech whenever we open our mouths.
It’s a cruel truth that the more important a subject is, the harder it is to talk about. Intense, confusing emotions and fears of confrontation can make some conversations seem impossible, but there are practical ways to make them easier. Improving your communication skills requires a little bravery, a lot of patience (for yourself and others), and some simple preparation. In the future, you still may not be comfortable having difficult conversations (who ever is?), but you’ll be more confident in your ability to get through them and to make your point of view heard. If you’re one of the perpetually foot-in-mouthed, try these easy tips for saying exactly what you mean:
1. Have face-to-face conversations
When you have trouble communicating, it’s very tempting to hide behind texting, email, and social media. Communicating across these platforms can feel less awkward than speaking in person because you are, in a sense, “protected” by the media; you don’t have to deal with the spontaneity and unpredictability of a face-to-face conversation. The problem is that it is this very sense of distance that creates misunderstandings. If you can’t see someone’s eyes and body language as you speak, you can’t tell if he or she understands what you’re trying to say. How do you know, for instance, that he or she will know you’re being sarcastic in a snarky email, and not just angry? For any important conversation, make sure you’re able to speak in person.
2. Don’t be afraid to pause
Silences can feel awkward, but don’t feel like you have to fill every silence at the expense of your own point. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, take it. The ensuing pause will probably be less awkward in reality than it is in your own mind.
3. Write it out
If you’re really struggling to figure out how to say something, take some time to write it out. The process of writing may help you to identify what is most important about what you’re trying to say, as well as help to solidify your key points in your mind. I still suggest that you speak about the issue in person (rather than sending a letter, for instance), but the exercise of writing might help you to go into the conversation feeling more prepared.
4. Say it out loud on your own
Similarly, if you’re having a hard time articulating something, try to explain it aloud to yourself. The act of speaking will give you a chance to order your thoughts and to figure out how you’re really feeling. You’ll take that mental work into the conversation you have with the other person.
5. Be constructive
If you need to give someone criticism—let’s say your coworker shirking responsibility, or your S.O. is doing something that hurts your feelings—take time to think about how you can be constructive. It’s not useful to simply spew anger all over someone—it puts that person on the defensive and doesn’t provide him or her with an alternative plan of action. Writing or speaking aloud what your want to say in advance can give you a valuable opportunity to analyze what you’re saying: is it all “YOU ARE THE WORST I HATE YOU”? Try to adjust what your saying to a structure more like this: "When you did X, it made me feel like Y. Please do Z in the future." Example: "When you stole my waffles, you made me feel like a hangry rage-ball. Please bring your own lunch in the future."
6. Be honest
In pretty much every situation, honesty really is the best policy. Be open with the person you’re speaking to about the fact that you’re struggling to say what you mean. That way, he or she will know to exercise a little patience with you and give you the space to explain yourself. If you find yourself becoming flustered by repeated interruptions—even if they are well-meant—calmly, kindly ask the person you’re speaking to for a bit of silence. Your conversation partner might not even realize that he or she is interrupting.
Good communication isn’t just a matter of being able to verbalize what you mean. You also must be careful to listen—really listen—to what your conversation partners are saying to you, with words, facial expressions, and body language. If you need clarification about what they are trying to say, ask questions and listen to the answers. Try not to interrupt, and, if necessary, repeat their points back to them, so that they know you’ve understood them.
8. Get a response
You also want to make sure that your conversation partners have understood you, so after you’ve said your piece, discuss what the next step is going to be. Affirming that you’re all on the same page will help you to avoid awkward misunderstandings in the future.
Images: Toan Nguyen/Flickr; Giphy (4)