Take Your Communication Skills To The Next Level With This Advice From An Expert


Carol Fleming doesn’t traffic in platitudes. While your favorite self-help authors and television hosts promise to help you get everything you want by “following one simple rule of communication,” Fleming, who’s been in the business of teaching people how to communicate for the better part of a century, rejects the idea that there’s a quick fix that will turn you into a titan of clarity and assertion.

The thing about communication, Fleming says, is that there is no “one size fits all.” If someone had asked her, for instance, to deliver a lecture on how to speak well and be heard to a crowded conference, she assures me that she would have to turn that opportunity down. Why? Because trotting out a few old chestnuts and motivational cliches would be an exercise in futility; it’d be like selling snake oil.

Fleming tells me all this while we’re sitting across from each other at a small desk in her office. The narrow table is equipped with an iPad (which she uses to record her clients) and a clipboard on which she sketches out the history of communication for me, starting with the grunts and cries of cave men and stretching into the future.

“Boom!” she says as she slides her pen off the paper and points it at the ceiling. “That’s the internet.”

I nod dutifully every time she makes such a proclamation, worried that she’s about to reveal some listening technique that I’m doing wrong, but Fleming is kind. She wouldn’t dare critique me, she says, unless I had come in with a specific problem. And even then, we’d discuss my problem and how it’s affecting my life in depth before she could start helping me with exercises and homework assignments.

Fleming’s speech, by the way, is extraordinary. The flow of her words is slow and even without being soporific. Her voice never raises. And you can tell when she’s passionate about something — like when it comes to making it clear that there’s no panacea for better human interactions — because of the content of her message rather than the fervent yearning that often creeps into our voices when we’re desperate to make a point.

Even though Fleming is opposed to giving me (or you) any quick fixes when it comes to speaking better and making yourself heard, she offered some indispensable advice that you must absolutely follow before you venture out into the wild world of human interaction.

Empathy is the key to getting yourself heard


“If you want people to really listen to you,” Fleming says, they must feel deeply heard.” This flies against the conventional wisdom you’ve probably been told time and again — use “I” statements, state what you want as clearly as possible, etc. — but Fleming says you shouldn’t shy away from making empathy a primary goal of your communication, even if it sounds counter-intuitive.

“If you want to get your way, get your point out” she adds, “the first thing you need to do is listen.”

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, there’s a little bit more to this advice than just closing your mouth and opening your ears. Fleming says that before you can start making yourself heard, you need to shut down the part of your brain that’s ready to speak and try to get on the wavelength of the person you’re communicating with, whether it’s your boss, your partner, or a relative who’s politics don’t quite match yours.

Sure, you could start by telling the other person that they need to understand your point of view, but Fleming says that if you reach out, embrace the other person’s humanity, and really try to listen to what they’re saying while making your best effort to respect that what they’re saying isn’t calculated to hurt you — even though it sometimes feels like it is — that’ll change the entire tenor of your conversation. It will allow you to move past having to “convince” someone and into having a discussion with them; one that they’ll feel more comfortable having because they’ve felt heard.

“If you feel deeply accepted,” Fleming says, “you’re going to be much more likely to treat me in the same way.”

This, she says, is the best way to develop communication. Truly try to hear what the other person is saying without judgment or argument and then respond in a way that they’ll understand. Is this difficult? Absolutely. And it will require a lot of practice. But it’s also, Fleming points out, going to serve you better than a general prescription of how to talk to others. That’s because every person you know speaks in their own language.

“When you become open, accepting, and receptive to that,” Fleming says, “conversations will go quite differently.”

If you’re having trouble with this advice, it may be because you think that meeting others where they’re at or adapting your interaction style is akin to “selling out” or letting others dictate your personality. That’s valid. Your thinking might be helped, however, if you change your perspective a little. Instead of viewing this directive as an admonishment to change who you are or an attack on your integrity, think of it as learning another language, one that you can utilize in order to foster a connection.

Cultivate the art of small talk


Everyone hates small talk. We hate it so much, in fact, that Fleming says that many of us would much rather take a course on public speaking — one that would teach us how to organize a speech and then present it to a large group of people — rather than speaking about ‘the good weather we’re having’ or exclaiming ‘how about them Yankees?’ to someone we’ve just met. And since small talk is so reviled — Fleming says the moniker itself is contemptuous and dismissive, suggesting that this kind of talk is frivolous and unnecessary — most people don’t recognize that it’s an important component of building a relationship with someone.

Sure, it’d be nice to get right up in there and start talking about the hows and whys of the world and the worst thing you’ve ever done and your ten-year plan with someone new because it might be more interesting, but Fleming says that you need to lean into the anguish you feel when you’re trying to come up with something, anything to talk to a relative stranger about and just go with it. Otherwise, you will usually come across as someone who doesn’t respect boundaries or only attract the type of people who don’t respect boundaries, meaning you’re going to get a whole lot more 3AM phone calls that you could have done without.

“When someone doesn’t start with small talk,” Fleming says, “what they’ve done is taken away your decision about whether you want to talk to this person in the first place. They assumed, instead of giving you that playful area where you bat the conversation back and forth to see what you’re going to come up with. It’s a violation of your privacy.”

If that sounds harsh, think about this: How kindly would you take it if, upon meeting someone, they immediately started talking to you about a controversial issue that you didn’t agree with? Because the person is not yet a known quantity — these conversations are hard enough to have with someone you’re close to — there’s no way that you’ll feel safe in the discussion, nor will you be able to trust that the other person has your best intentions at heart.

Here’s an example: Several years ago, when I was a graduate student studying clinical psychology, I met a woman at a party. After asking me what it is that I do and learning that I was working on becoming a therapist, she immediately asked “how does it feel knowing that you’re going into a profession that’s largely been debunked?” Was it a good question? Maybe. It was certainly one I’d struggled with myself considering that much of my training was in Freudian theory; but that’s a conversation I would have been more ready to have with someone I knew didn’t have malicious intent. And whether or not this person, this woman I’d just met, meant to hurt my feelings or not, her words came as an attack and I quickly excused myself from her company and avoided her for the rest of the evening.

Perhaps, if we’d spent a few more minutes discussing the things we had in common (or even the weather) we would have been comfortable enough with each other to become acquaintances and then friends. But because this person immediately tried to get too deep (and in a fairly ungracious way), extricating myself from the interaction felt like the safest choice.

Still unsure about this? Certain that small talk is a plague that none of us live long enough to have to deal with? Then consider Fleming’s words: “Small talk is about relationship, not content.” Rather, it doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about, it’s the connection you’re fostering that’s the key element.

First impressions truly matter


Remember that guy who dressed up to meet his sister’s new baby in a suit because he wanted to make the best possible first impression? We laughed and laughed at how cute that was, but it turns out that he had the absolute right idea. Yes, there are people — including me — who will tell you that first impressions don’t count nearly as much as the content of our character, but Fleming says that’s simply not true.

Here’s the thing: No one wants to be judged. We all want to be accepted. But judging others is something we’re all going to do, it’s just wired in our DNA (and no, just because you say “you don’t judge” doesn’t make it true; we make judgments about others all the time). Fleming says that “first impressions start with first light.” What that means for you is that how people perceive you starts not when you start speaking but as soon as someone lays eyes on you. That’s why Fleming suggests becoming more aware of your non-verbal communication.

Before you rush to Google to figure out exactly what you’re doing wrong, you should consider taking an inventory first: How do people see you? What is your behavior like? What do you do when you first enter a room? Do you slink in? Do you slouch? Do you wander off into the corner to play on your phone and hope that others approach you? Or do you wander off into the corner in the hopes that no one will start a conversation? All of these things matter, and they’re all within your control.

This is another area in which it’s easy to say “well, I am who I am, and people can take me or leave me,” and that’s fine. No one’s suggesting you reinvent yourself in order to make friends and influence people. And if you don’t care, that’s fine. But if you do care, Fleming says that modulating how you present yourself is important.

This makes sense, even if we don’t like to think about it. On a conscious level, all of us want to imagine that we’re tolerant beings that accept others regardless of presentation. On an unconscious level, though — and that’s one we all operate on a great deal of the time — we’re much more discerning. That’s why we may turn down a candidate for a job due to their tendency to up-talk, or their proclivity for standing too close, or their habit of speaking too loudly or too softly. But instead of lamenting the lot life has given you, Fleming says it’s important to consider how you appear to others and then work to your strengths.

How to do this? Well, once again, consider taking an inventory or asking someone you trust (and who will not be malicious) to give you an honest assessment of your presentation. And if it’s something you really want to work on, you might consider visiting a communications coach like Fleming, whose entire career is centered around helping people manage not only what they communicate but how they present themselves to be viewed in the best light. Be yourself, yes, but be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.

Sure, many of us will still toss out the old adage that “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best,” but it’s important to remember that others need to see our best, to know that it’s there, before they commit to more prolonged interactions with us.

Put down the electronics and no one gets hurt


Fleming refers to the internet, the space where many of us do the bulk of our interactions on a daily basis, as “bloodless.” And when we spend all of our time chatting and emailing versus actually talking to others, our communication skills atrophy. Think about it this way: Have you ever worked from home for a few days, loving the fact that you could wear sweats and not take a shower, only to find that you’ve lost your ability to interact with others when you venture outside once again?

The first time it happened to me, I had been working at home for two months. I didn’t think the isolation had much of an effect on me until I went out to dinner with my husband for the first time in a few weeks. I struggled with placing an order, couldn’t tell when our server was making a joke, and yearned to return to my office (the living room), where I could go back to typing and forget that speaking was a necessary component of life.

Fleming says that one of the most important things you can do, if you want to communicate better, is “to step back into your comfort zone.” This sounds easier than it is because for most of us, texting and tweeting is far more comfortable than making a phone call. But what Fleming’s talking about is stepping back into our comfort zone as a species. Humans, she says, need to have face-to-face interactions. And no, moving from speech to text won’t make you more assertive. The medium, unfortunately, doesn’t change your interaction style. In fact, if you don’t take risks, you may end up in a communication rut that will be hard to alter.

“The more difficult it is, the more important it is,” Fleming says. “If I have bad news to give to somebody, I don’t email it. If I really got something horrible, I’ll go talk to them face to face, because that’s the big thing.” Not doing that, not even making an attempt is “a barrier to feeling.”

“Don’t be afraid of feeling,” Fleming advises. “It’s where the real stuff is. And if you fail, you fail; there’s always another chance to try.”

Assume the best about others


If there’s one more tip that Fleming can give you — although she’d never call it that, because she hates tips — it’s to trust that the people you communicate with have the best intentions. No, that doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be treated badly or blunder into dangerous situations, but if you’re having a conversation with someone else, you should do your best to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. This, more than any other pre-fab piece of advice can be what helps your relationships grow. Because it allows both you and the people you speak with to be more honest in their communication.

“This really ends up helping you,” Fleming says. “If you assume the best, then you’re not going to distort my words. I will feel quite willing to trust you, and respect you, and work with you.” But in order for this to work, both parties have to move beyond the apprehension we often feel when stepping into a discussion, even one that isn’t difficult. And that takes us back to empathy and listening and trying our best to understand others. And that kind of wisdom — the realization that we need to make an effort to understand others, to manage the impressions we make, to really listen — is more helpful than any pop-psych platitude.