What do you get when you cross a smartphone with the act of snubbing someone? “Phubbing.”
That’s not just a punchline — the word is defined in multiple dictionaries, and close to 44 percent of people do it more than twice a day, according to research from the University of Kent. Phubbing negatively affects the way people perceive communication and their satisfaction with a relationship significantly, according to additional research from the university.
Although technology has had a positive impact on communication in many ways, it can also make in-person communication more challenging. The good news: We’ve got tips for revamping your communication skills from the ground up.
1. Be specific (but not over-specific).
Specificity is the key to unlock effective communication. The problem: Finding the right balance can be tricky. Too few specifics can mean sacrificing clarity, while too many can be seen as condescending. If you lean towards over-explaining, instead of assuming the other person doesn’t know something, try going with, “You probably already know this, so if you do, stop me.”
To set the tone for your conversation, think about your audience and their history, experience and level of understanding. For example, if you’re starting your own ice cream company, you’ll want to tailor your pitch differently to someone in Antarctica vs. someone in Ecuador.
When you’re talking expectations, it’s especially important to make sure everyone’s on the same page, so ask for confirmation by way of a follow-up question. For example, managers can trade “Repeat what I said back to me,” for “Based on what we talked about, can you tell me what your next steps might be?” says Skip Weisman, a workplace communication expert
2. Get body (language) conscious.
Crossing your arms, leaning back and avoiding eye contact can all make someone view an interaction in a negative light. Other communication no-nos include slouching, sighing, supporting your head with your hand and accidental glaring (known colloquially as “resting bitch face”). It’s easy to be unaware of your own body language habits. How can you figure out where you can improve?
“The best way to do it is also the hardest — you have to ask other people for feedback,” Weisman says. “There’s no other way to know if you’re doing something and the impact it has on other people.”
Tell a few trusted friends or colleagues that you’re looking to improve your communication skills, and ask them to be honest about what you could do better. Think of their feedback as an opportunity for growth, then make a conscious commitment to working on just one thing at a time (say, for 30 days) to avoid feeling overwhelmed. First thing in the morning, try setting an intention or goal for the day ahead, and picture yourself being successful at it.
3. Choose to listen.
“Listening is a choice — it’s not a skill,” Weisman says. “We get to choose what to focus on any minute of the day.”
Framing listening as a choice can help you discipline yourself and stay accountable, even if you’re itching to check your phone or aren’t particularly interested in what’s being discussed. It’s possible to still hear what someone else is saying while scrolling through Instagram or replying to a quick text, but since you don’t appear fully engaged, it sends the message that something else is equally or more important.
“There’s no such thing as multitasking when you’re communicating,” Weisman says. “Something’s got to give, and usually it’s the other person feeling devalued in the moment.”
4. Talk with others rather than to others.
In the same vein, it’s important to make sure you’re engaging with the person you’re speaking to — in other words, make sure it’s a conversation, not a speech. Recent findings from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggest it’s human nature — even from a young age — to favor an engaging conversation over a one-sided one. The research showed that increasing numbers of “turns” in back-and-forth conversations were critical to language development in children, even affecting brain physiology.
As for how to build the habit? Incorporate the other person’s perspective by asking questions and making it clear how what you’re saying is also relevant to them. If you’re famously long-winded, try paring down your word count by planning out what you’re going to say in your mind before you speak — or give yourself an overall time limit by asking the other person if they can set aside a certain amount of time (say, 15 minutes) to focus on the conversation.