People in conversation

Difference, Conflict & Love: 3 Steps to Improved Communication Skills

Family: the original gift, like it or not. My sister and I named ours the “news, sports and weather family,” since we had perfected the art of not talking about emotions, differences or potentially conflictual topics. We replaced open dialogue with silence, daily activity reports, getting things done, or worse yet, arguing. We were an intelligent, talented, hard-working family with parents from different cultures and dramatically different points of view. Self-understanding, presence and conversation skills would have made for more joy a lot earlier than we finally found it. Even as a teen I wondered…

How can we have conversations that are more curious and less instructive, more appreciative and less judgmental, more flexible and less fearful?

How can we let our guard down, name what is happening and find solutions that are satisfying for all of us?

What our family lacked in conversation skills we made up for in hard work done well. It was our way of demonstrating love, and it worked, though what I most wanted was both conversation and action, the full complement of well developed skills that could make a rich life at home, at work and in our community. This was my family’s original gift - life experience that helped me notice what I had, what I longed for, and what I wanted to develop. Only now, years later, can I see how our family dynamics illuminated the path, however winding and circuitous, back home to myself. That’s my path. Here’s my strategy. No matter what your personal or professional goals, these steps will help you.

3 Steps to Improved Communication Skills

Step 1: Build Emotional Sturdiness

Stretch your comfort zone. Break old patterns. Say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Learn new things. Build trust in yourself as you strengthen your emotional capacity to listen, speak, create, succeed, fail, give, receive, lead. There will be moments of awkwardness, but you’ll survive them and, with humility and good-heartedness, they can even be endearing. You’ll likely wish for a few ‘do-overs,’ too, but you will grow. Step one: live your life beyond what you already know.

Step 2: Understand Self & Others

Ask why do I do what I do? What motivates each of us to be so different in how we communicate, lead and interact in relationships? What are my gifts and challenges? How can I be more accepting of myself and others? How might acceptance, appreciation and knowing more about how to meet people where they are impact our relationships at home and at work? Would we be happier and more productive? One of my favorite resources is the Enneagram. It’s helped me be more compassionate, appreciate differences, and relate more effectively. Step two: know thyself. Appreciate. Diversify. Respond, not react. Communicate in ways that make sense to the receiver.

Step 3: Develop Communication Skills

I sought tools I could use, and that’s what you will receive in our dialogue workshops. We’ll help you expand your conversation toolkit beyond news, sports, weather and the 140 character comment to include how to: listen and ask genuine questions to have a conversation that’s rich with curiosity and connection; unlock stuck conversations through mutual understanding; feel more grounded in your own voice; communicate across different cultures, personalities and contexts, and develop everyday tools to resolve or transform conflict. Step three: expand your quality communication skills. Practice every day.

So here’s the sweet ending to my family story. I flew home early one Saturday morning to visit my parents. I was departing the next evening. It was a short visit so I decided to simply ‘be with’ them. Just do what they do. No plans. No squeezing in hurried visits to old pals. Mom spoke from her heart about things important to her. Dad was his usual not too talkative self.

Sunday morning while I was in the kitchen he spread his arms across the doorway and gruffly said, "Have you been here for even 24 hours yet?" I have been known to rise to his bait, do some destructive inner self-talk, or push back. (Remember, I said, practice every day). But this time, feeling relaxed and happy, I had a sense of humor, looked at my watch, smiled straight from my heart and said, "Yes, actually, I have.”

All of the sudden, Dad's faux gruff curmudgeonly expression softened and a huge smile spread across his face, as he said, "And look how much joy you've brought in such a short time!" My heart nearly pounded out of my chest that morning. I'll never forget his words, and that we arrived there simply by my choosing to 'be present.’ My father died suddenly several months later. I never saw him again after that moment of joy in the doorway. Thank heaven we chose as we did. It was joy enough to last a lifetime and beyond.

Kathy Eckles is an Associate at Essential Partners and Project Manager.