The real secrets to outstanding communication

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Let’s go straight to the bottom line. The only path to outstanding relationships in your personal and professional life is outstanding communication. Consequently, excelling in communicational skills is absolutely one of the most important skills you can possess, if not the skill number one.

You can find hundreds of books and online articles explaining thousands of different rules for how to be a good communicator. In fact, there is so much different advice out there that you can get easily lost and in the end implement none. That’s not the strategy we’re looking for.

I’ll share the right strategy, the best recommendations and the real secret to outstanding communication. The real secret to outstanding communication is that it’s not really hard to achieve it. It’s actually extremely easy. You don’t need to follow 100+ rules. All you need to know are a few core concepts that make the difference between poor, mediocre and deep, multidimensional human connections.

In this blog post, you will learn these few core concepts that will make you a great communicator. Not only great, an outstanding communicator. If you decide to implement them in everyday life, your professional and personal relationships will start to blossom.

And remember, healthy relationships are what matters most in life. If you excel in communication and have many deep relationships in life, your happiness level will definitely increase.

Here are the core communication concepts you need to know:

  1. Be curious about the other person
  2. Know how to really listen (there is a simple trick how to do that)
  3. Create a psychologically safe environment
  4. Employ radical candor (honesty builds trust)
  5. Always have an active constructive response
  6. Explain relationship rules with values
  7. Sometimes words aren’t enough and so you must communicate things with your behavior

That’s it. If you follow these rules, people will see you as an outstanding communicator. Now let’s go into detail.

Outstanding communication

Be extremely curious about the other person

If we forget about abusive and toxic relationships, there are only two types of communication: meh & wow. The first one is the average type of communication, the okay one, the “meh” one, and the second one is the outstanding, extraordinary, “wow” I-want-more type of communication. There is no middle ground when we communicate.

The main difference between “meh” and “wow” is the extent to which you show genuine interest in someone. Curiosity is your best ally when it comes to extraordinary communication. I think you shouldn’t even start a conversation if you aren’t honestly, deeply, vigorously, expectantly interested in someone.

It’s extremely obvious when you’re really interested in forging a connection with someone. You want to know everything about them. I mean really everything. Their life story, how they achieved what they achieved, how they think, their values, what they love the most in life, and numerous other things.

You know in a single second if there is a spark of genuine interest in a conversation or not. When there is no spark at all, there is no right vibe in the air, no shine in the eyes, it’s hard to come up with questions, and awkward silence often takes place (not the good type of silence).

In such a case, it’s better to say goodbye rather than torture both parties; or even better, make yourself interested. Committing yourself to go from “meh” to “wow” in any case.

It’s easy to become interested in someone with the same values, the same hobbies or any other common ground. That’s what you’re usually naturally looking for when you start a conversation (common friends, places etc.) and then you build up the communication and relationship from there. What’s much harder is to show curiosity in people who are completely different from you.

Showing interest in somebody even when it’s hard to make a connection is what makes you the real master of communication. If you learn to communicate with people you share no common ground with, you become that much better in communication with other people where a connection exists. And your intellectual horizon significantly expands. I’m still learning this mastery level.

Here are a few tips that can help you achieve such a level I am also learning to follow:

  • Be extremely tolerant. The most advanced societies in the world are tolerant societies. Tolerance is what leads to diverse, heterogenic and integrative environment. Only two completely different views hold the potential to create something new. That’s why we say that opposites attract. That’s why tolerance is important. The only thing you shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.
  • What’s your story? Every human has their own completely personal story that absolutely has interesting parts, you just have to dig deep enough to find them.
  • You can learn something from everybody you meet on your life path. You just have to avoid being cocky or feeling superior. Never put your ego before learning something new.
  • Treat other people as you want to be treated. That means showing respect to other people. Instead of being judgmental, try to understand why somebody is as they are.

Following these values – showing tolerance, curiosity, the desire to learn and understand and respect, is the first step that will make you an extraordinary communicator.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Dale Carnegie

Active listening

Listening skills

If you’re really curious about someone’s life, you really listen. You follow the rule that God (or whoever) gave you two ears and only one mouth. What being a good listener really means is not very complicated. In fact, there is only one subtle difference between being an active listener and a bad one.

An outstanding communicator doesn’t listen to respond, but listens to understand the other person. That’s it. Active listening means being an empathic listener. You imagine being in the shoes of the other person, reliving their experience and trying to understand it – from what happened to the person you’re talking to, to how they reacted and why they reacted as they did.

An outstanding communicator doesn’t listen to respond, but listens to understand the other person.

If you are a good listener, you deeply understand the other person and you know how to show it. On the other hand, if you are a bad listener you always miss the point, especially because you are eager to respond and tell your opinion. You see, in communication people most often aren’t looking for your opinion but want to be understood, feel connected to someone.

The next time you’re communicating with someone, have a goal of learning about them and understanding them, not telling your opinion. Shut up, open your heart, pay attention to every word, ask questions, and try to relive the situation of the person you’re communicating with.

Empathic communication

Creating a psychologically safe environment

Google did big research on the best performing teams and their data indicated that psychological safety was critical to making a team work, more than anything else. In the best teams, members listen to one another and showed sensitivity to each other’s feelings and needs. Read that again: members showed sensitivity to team members’ feelings and needs. They listened verbally and non-verbally to understand.

There were two indicators of psychological safety:

  • Firstly, team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, in other words there was equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking.
  • Secondly, all the good teams had high social sensitivity, meaning team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Psychological safety is what makes teams function best and in the same way, creating a psychologically safe environment with someone you are talking with is what makes you have outstanding communication skills.

As we’ve already mentioned, if you want to be a good communicator, you can’t be dominant in talking – you have to actively listen and be curious. It’s part of creating that kind of a safe environment.

Equally important, if you want to be an outstanding communicator, you must not pay attention to only what people say, but also to what their body language tells you and how they behave. That helps you understand the whole picture and the hidden hints a person is trying to tell you, but doesn’t tell them directly. I call these things reading between the lines.

On a practical level, when communicating with anyone, observe their body language – is it open, defensive, positive, negative …? It’s not hard to notice posture, facial expressions and other basic body language signs. Try to sense feelings inside a person you’re communicating with, and connect and resonate with the same feelings. Synchronizing the vibes will create the safe environment.

Psychological safety means that people know, on the emotional level, that they will be accepted in communication with you with all their flaws. That you understand their imperfection, their struggle and battles with themselves. A psychologically safe zone means that you understand them, if necessary encourage them, mentor them and love them even if sometimes they can’t follow the path they have set for themselves.

When you communicate with people, you must show that you do care.

There are many things that destroy psychological safety, and here are the most frequent ones:

  • Should statementsyou should do this or that (people usually already know it).
  • Non-constructively criticizing and preaching – Constantly criticizing, judging and preaching means that people will start talking with you only about the weather, traffic jams and the daily news.
  • Being dominant in communication – Interrupting, talking 50%+ of the time, using an aggressive tone.
  • Gossiping – If you are gossiping about somebody else it’s a clear sign that you will be gossiping about the person you are talking with.
  • Lying to people and being a hypocrite – If somebody catches you lying or they know you lie frequently, it’s hard to build a psychologically safe environment.
  • Politics and diplomacyYou sense somebody isn’t saying something only so they wouldn’t offend you, but deep down you know they think differently than they say … which leads us to the next point.

Being radically candid

Radical Candor

Source: First Round

You definitely have to establish a psychologically safe environment, but that doesn’t mean you put being nice and kind before the honest truth. That’s hypocrisy and manipulation. Introducing diplomacy and politics into communication is what immediately kills psychological safety and outstanding communication.

I would never trust a politician with my secrets. Duh!

With curiosity, active listening, understanding and creating a psychologically safe environment you show that you deeply care about a person, that they can trust you and that you will put the integrity of the conversation above everything. Offering a shoulder to lean on is a good first step, but it’s not enough for outstanding communication.

After establishing a safe environment and showing that you care, you also have to counter-balance conversation by being radically candid. Otherwise communication is nothing else but bitching, whining, complaining and spreading negative energy. If you really care, you sometimes have to show tough love. But it’s more art than science to figure out when to do that and when to just offer a shoulder to lean on.

Anyway, having radical candor means creating a bullshit-free communication zone. The concept is taken from the business world, explaining how a constructive relationship between a boss and an employee should be like, but I think it applies to every single relationship.

Honesty builds trust. Nevertheless, there is a very subtle difference between preaching with “should” statements and criticizing and showing that you care while employing constructive radical candor. To do the latter, here are a few basic rules:

  • Show that you care, not only with words but also with actions (buy people books that can help them solve a problem, introduce them to new people who can help them, send them interesting articles, recommend conferences to them etc.)
  • Don’t tell people what they should do, show them how they can do better
  • Contribute out-of-the box creative ideas that aren’t so obvious
  • Use the ratio of 5 praises for 1 critique, and make sure that the critique is constructive
  • And especially: don’t tell people to do things that you aren’t doing yourself

Active constructive response

Active constructive responding

Source: Go Strenghts

When somebody initiates a conversation with you, there are four ways of how you can respond. Your initial response usually sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. Therefore, always beginning with the right kind of response and then continuing to use it is what leads to outstanding communication.

Here are the four types of responses in communication:

  • Active constructive: Authentic, enthusiastic, supportive
  • Passive constructive: Showing silent support
  • Active destructive: Pointing out the negative and problems
  • Passive destructive: Failing to acknowledge, ignoring

An active response means that you get fully engaged in conversation. You very carefully follow everything we’ve mentioned so far. An active response means that you put down your phone or whatever else you’re doing, and start paying full attention to the person in the present moment.

You actively listen and show curiosity in what a person has to say. A passive response means that you aren’t fully present – you know, you’re talking to a person while browsing your phone, multitasking etc.

“Want to prolong the battery life on your iPhone? Put it the fuck away when you’re talking to me.”

Your response can also be either constructive or destructive. The destructive type of communication is when you focus on the negative, problems or blame, or when you reject a person in a brutal way.

As we have seen, there are two ways of being destructive. You can be destructive very passively – for example, you show the “meh” response only with your body language or you are passive aggressive. But you can also be destructive in a very active manner, by being openly aggressive, insulting etc. You don’t want either of that.

You want to follow the rule to respond 80%+ in the active constructive way and 20%- in the passive constructive way. And you must unlearn any kind of destructive response.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t say no, if necessary. I’m sure that you know there’s a way to say no in a very active constructive way (more about that in one of the next blog posts).

Talking in office

Explaining rules with values

This one is a little bit complicated, but please bear with me, it’s a very critical core communication concept. In every relationship, there are always at least some rules and boundaries.

Well, to be more exact, for each relationship type you have specific expectations and internal representations of what healthy boundaries are and why they are important to you – in a relationship with a friend, a spouse, a boss or whoever. These internal representations are closely connected to your values.

A very important part of a quality and deep relationship is not only liking the other person for their personality characteristics, they also have to more or less meet your expectations of how a specific relationship should look like, including respecting rules and boundaries important to you. These rules and boundaries usually come from your primary family culture.

Not to sound too abstract, here are a few examples:

  • For someone, it’s normal to greet a person with a hug, for somebody else only with a handshake.
  • One friend may not care at all if you are 5 minutes late, but the other one will go crazy.
  • Your ex-spouse didn’t care at all whether you sent her a message while she was at work, but to your current girlfriend getting a message from you really means a lot; or remembering your anniversary.

There are many different kinds of expectations, boundaries and rules – from frequency of communication, type of communication, level of intimacy, the ways of showing love and respect, what gifts mean to a person, you name it (these are all types of non-verbal communication). Poor verbal communication always leads to a lack of understanding and respecting these rules and values, and consequently to a shitty relationship in general.

A very frequent cause of shitty relationships is poor verbal communication about values, expectations and rules.

The mistake you can make in every single relationship, besides not respecting other people’s boundaries, is trying to only enforce specific rules from your side without explaining why they are important to you. The key to extraordinary relationships is that you don’t just set boundaries and rules, but explain with values why something is important to you. The sooner you do that the better, because you open yourself up. This leads to a whole new level of understanding, trust and quality of communication on every other topic.

This is one very good way of developing deep communication with somebody and being perceived as an outstanding communicator. You must open yourself up and explain your values as soon as possible and then listen hard enough to understand the values of other people and, of course, respect them. Forging a connection on the level of mutual understating of core values is what opens the doors to hearts, no matter how different you are from each other.

For that, you have to be able to express your feelings in a healthy manner, clearly explain your values and why certain things in a relationship are important to you, and that you expect the same thing from the other person – to communicate with you what is important to them.

If you aren’t talking about your feelings, values and the kind of a unique relationship you want, communication is rarely deep and quality, especially with the closest people in your life. Feelings are what builds a real connection.

  • There is a difference between forbidding your kid from watching the TV while eating because you say so, and explaining that in your family, it’s important to talk and communicate (explaining values) and a meal is a great opportunity to feel grateful for each other, talk and share thoughts, and how the TV is preventing that.
  • There is a big difference between sulking all day because your friend was 10 minutes late and explaining that being late equals being disrespectful and ignorant to you and that it makes you feel like you don’t matter to them.

The more a relationship develops with time, the higher is the need for communication about values, expectations and internal representations. Only honest talk about these things can lead to taking the communication to a whole new level and deepening a relationship with someone.

When verbal communication isn’t enough

There is one more level of communication that’s really important for outstanding relationships. You rarely need, but it’s a tool at your disposal when words and all the constructive use of language isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to show people with actions, not with words, the directions into which you want to move a relationship for it to stay a quality one and not turn into a “relationshit”.

In specific radical situations, behavior is a much better type of communication than words are. Here is the theory behind this. You let others know how to treat you and what kind of a relationship you want by tolerating different kinds of behaviors.

The more you tolerate a behavior you don’t like, the faster the quality of a relationship declines. At the end of the day, the quality of a relationship and communication with the people you care about depends on how they behave towards you, not what they say to you.

“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” Henrik Ibsen

From time to time, after explaining something that you don’t like over and over again and not getting anywhere, you’re left with no choice but to show what you mean with actions. It’s a way of you communicating with the other person to take the issue seriously.

As you probably figured out, I’m especially talking about toxic and abusive behavioral patterns in relationships. Sooner or later, they happen in every single relationship – from one person investing much more than the other into the relationship, to passive aggressiveness, open verbal fights, envy and jealousy to many other kind of power struggles.

Some form of damaging behavior shows up in every relationship (because relationships are already a broken glass) from both parties and sometimes actions are the best way of communicating things. Here are a few examples:

  • If you are annoyed that you always have to pay, don’t pay next time.
  • If someone is insulting you, explain to them that the relationship will end the next time they do it, and then do it.
  • If you don’t like to wait and you have to wait for someone after explaining your values to them, leave and make sure they turn up on time next time.
  • If a waiter is not respectful to you, ask for the manager and negotiate that you will not pay the bill.

Although, keep in mind that outstanding communication is more art than science. There is a thin subtle line between being rude, wanting to change the other person instead of specific toxic behavior and enforcing important rules to you by acting in a respective manner.

Words have power

Now you know the path to outstanding communication

Encourage people in their goals, mentor them and show them how to do things in a different, better way, help them grow, push them to new levels of competence, be a good friend and show that you care a lot while also being honest and not permitting any bullshit or toxic behavior.

You can only achieve that with outstanding communication and giving your best in every single conversation. To summarize:

  • Show genuine interest and curiosity, have a high level of tolerance and ask many questions.
  • Be an empathic listener, not with the goal of responding, but to understand and learn about the other person. Learning about the other person is the key to active listening.
  • Create a psychologically safe environment by connecting with other’s people feelings and by paying attention to body language and not being a critical, cold, dominant and/or lying person. And make sure you don’t gossip ever.
  • Don’t be a politician or a diplomat, practice honest communication, but when you have radical candor show that you care, and at the same time inspire people or teach them how to do things better. Never only preach with should statements.
  • Respond in an active constructive manner 80% of time. Communicate with people actively and being completely present, or don’t communicate at all. And always be constructive in a conversation.
  • The deeper a relationship goes, the more you must talk about your values, why something is important to you, and your feelings, and you must encourage the other person to do the same.
  • Sometimes the best communication is communication with actions, especially when people start behaving toxically or abusively.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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