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Open Your Ears: A Simple Guide to Improving Your Communication Skills

By Virginia Kenyon

If we were unable to communicate, where would we be?

That’s just it…we probably wouldn’t “be” anywhere. Communication is so important that, in some instances, our lives actually depend on it. On a daily basis hostage negotiators talk gunmen into handing over their weapons or convince suicidal men and women to seek help rather than take their own life. Now, you may never find yourself in one of these situations, but that doesn’t mean that communication is any less important for you in your daily life. According to the website, “many people believe that the significance of communication is like the importance of breathing. Communication is the foundation of all human relationships.” Think about how many times throughout the day you communicate with someone. According to “Measurement of Time Spent Communicating” by E.T. Klemmer and F.W. Snyder, office professionals spend “50-80% of the workday communicating, two-thirds of that in talking.”

So, if communication is so imporant and something that we do literally thousands of times a day, why are some of us so bad at it?

There are a whole host of reasons why, but no matter how good (or bad) you are at communicating, there are a few simple steps you can take to improve your communication skills.

Listen: This is first on the list because it is the most important step to successful communication. If we don’t listen to others, we can’t possibly know what they need from us or how we can best assist them. Think back to the last conversation you had. During that conversation, were you:

  • 100% engaged in listening?
  • Did you tune out all of your thoughts and focus solely on what that person was saying?

I would say the answer to that question is “no.”

Our brains are so sophisticated that, while we are engaged in a conversation, we ARE able to actually carry on a whole converation with ourselves inside our head while still “listening” to that person that is speaking. However, oftentimes in conversation, we are so busy formulating what we plan to say when it is our turn to talk, that we don’t really listen to what the other person is saying.

The next time you have a conversation, try to:

  • tune those other thoughts out of your head by directing your focus and thoughts on the dialogue
  • engage fully in what that other person is telling you by asking clarifying questions
  • use reflective listening techniques to confirm what you heard, such as “What I think you said was (fill in the blank)…is that correct”?

When you are able to do this, you will find that you “hear” that other person much more clearly and understand fully the ideas and thoughts they are passing on to you.

Be Assertive: This is very imporant. When we beat around the bush, we run the risk of not communicating effectively or accurately. According to, “being assertive is a core communication skill. Being assertive gives you the best chance of successfully delivering your message. If you communicate in a way that’s too passive or too aggressive, your message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to your delivery.” You don’t want someone to get so caught up in your approach that they miss your message. There is a way to be assertive, yet still have tact and not be offensive. However, if you are assertive and direct in your communication, there is a much smaller chance that your words or intentions will be misconstrued. If you are in a difficult situation and unsure of how to say something in a direct way without hurting or offending the other person, then think how you would like someone to present similar news or information to you and handle it that way.

Try to Eliminate the “uh’s,” “um’s,” “ah’s,” and other filler words from your vocabulary: This is a tough one, especially if you are speaking in front of a large crowd of people. The reason that we utter these filler words is because we do not like “dead air.” If you pause because you are trying to formulate your next thought, you don’t want there to just be silence, so you fill it in with “um’s” and “ah’s” and other similar sounds. When I was a Communication student at Western Illinois University, we were taught that we had to eliminate these filler words from our vocabulary if we want to sound professional. And how were we taught to do this? We had to learn the hard way…by presenting speeches, debates, and projects to our classes. Some learning can’t take place by reading a text book or listening to someone tell you how to do it. And this is one of those cases.

In order to break this habit, you have to:

  • practice it, and
  • make a conscience effort to avoid doing it.

What I learned by removing these fillers from my vocabulary is that a little silence is okay. It seems like a much longer span of time to us when we are standing in front of a crowd then it actually seems to the audience. And silence is much less distracting to an audience then you repeatedly saying, “um” or “ah” or the ever popular “you know.” In fact, if you repeat these over and over again, the audience will become so focused on the filler words, they won’t even hear what you are saying. As I stated earlier, this one will take some practice. But, once you can break the habit of using these filler words, you will find that allowing yourself to pause and just stay silent for a moment while you formulate your next thought helps you keep a clearer head and formulate your thoughts much more quickly.

Be Open to Feedback and Comments: While this is at the bottom of my list, it is by no means the least important. However, this is one that most of us struggle with, myself included. Most of the time when people offer us feedback, or even criticism, they mean it in a positive, helpful way (even if it comes across negatively). Oftentimes, when someone tells me something that I don’t want to hear about myself, my first instinct is to block it out or find an excuse. But, a huge part of becoming a better communicator is recognizing our weaknesses and acknowledging and listening to others when they offer us helpful suggestions for improvement. By opening ourselves up to their suggestions, we are ultimately making ourselves better communicators and opening the door to a whole world of possibilities.

As you can see, the art of communication is not as easy as it seems. By following these tips I have presented, you will improve your communication skills by sounding more professional, understanding the needs of others more clearly, and successfully getting your point across.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on ways we can improve our communication skills, as well as your feedback on how these tips worked for you. Feel free to email me at I look forward to hearing from you!