Communicating effectively

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Communication is something we do daily; we communicate in-person, on the telephone, in writing, and via e-mail and the Internet. We communicate with our colleagues, our family members, and friends. Most of us never give a second thought to communication. Indeed, many of us have good communication skills in particular areas; we are clear when we need to be; we show empathy when someone is in distress.

Communication may seem easy, but to many people's surprise it is something that has to be learned and practiced. Some of us have developed poor listening skills; we may be judgmental or don't allow others to speak. Some of us may use close-ended questions exclusively, and do not allow others to explore and contribute to the discussion. This article deals specifically with effective communication, including such tools as focusing techniques, open and closed questions, paraphrasing and reflecting. While learning about effective communication through reading is certainly a step in the right direction, the best way to understand effective communication is through practicing and using it.


A useful exercise for volunteer orientations involves strictly listening. Individuals are broken up into pairs, and go to a private space, office, etc. The pairs are given topics which invoke controversy or strong opinions (i.e. abortion, prostitution, pornography). In the exercise, one member of the pair speaks for five minutes about one of the topics. His or her partner listens the whole time without talking at all (including any sort of agreement, or disagreement). After the five minutes, the roles reverse and the other person speaks for five minutes uninterrupted. After this exercise is completed, the group gets together and everyone discusses his or her feelings and experiences being the listener - and the talker. How did it feel? What were the challenges? Often people will say that it was hard to listen without expressing empathy, or agreement. This shows how listening can be difficult - and powerful, and is useful in cases where individuals offer support to people, such as clients.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening describes the effort on the part of the listener. Active listening involves giving verbal feedback on the content of what was said, along with recognition of the feelings underneath. Qualities of a good listener include:

  • the ability to let things go
  • the ability to work things out
  • a good awareness of own feelings and boundaries
  • a high level of commitment
  • being non-aggressive
  • being self-confident
  • possessing openness

Active listening enables us to truly hear and understand what the other person is saying. Active listening can be useful in a variety of capacities, including meetings and dealings with the public- particularly if individuals are struggling to achieve consensus, or are discussing a controversial or emotional matter. Active listening also shows that we are interested and understand what is being said.

Effective Communication

The ways in which we communicate depend largely upon the situation. Indeed, we communicate very differently with clients than we do with colleagues, friends or family members. This section deals with a few 'effective communication' pointers which may be helpful in such situations as assisting clients or discussing emotional topics with colleagues or volunteers. Note: these are not a set of 'rules'. Different scenarios require different methods of communication. For instance, if someone yells, "Fire" and you need to evacuate the building, you are going to communicate very differently than if a client has just disclosed that she and her partner have separated. These tips are guidelines to be used when appropriate and necessary.

  • Be accepting. Use nonverbal (i.e. voice tone, respectful pauses, pacing) and verbal responses. Indicate that you are following the individual's train of thought. This does not mean agreement.

  • Use open-ended questions to learn more. "Tell me about..." "Can you please explain..."

  • Clarify. "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean." "Please explain that to me again." This indicates an interest and a desire to understand and avoids misinterpretations.

  • Paraphrase and encourage validation. Translate into your own words feelings, questions, ideas, and key words. "So you're saying..." "Tell me if I understand this correctly..." This indicates careful listening and encourages further discourse.

  • Make Reflective statements. Integrate feeling and content. This is useful during conflict resolution, and in discussing emotional issues. "It sounds like you are feeling frustrated."

  • Suggest collaboration and a cooperative relationship. This encourages the individual to participate in identifying and assessing the problem. "Let's brainstorm some ideas together."

  • Summarize. Condense what has been discussed. "During the past twenty minutes you and I discussed your concerns about ..." "Let's go over what we've discussed ... " Emphasize important points.

Ineffective Communication

  • Failure to listen. Individuals are not really listening to what is being said.

  • Being Judgemental. This indicates a prejudiced attitude.

  • Belittling or non-constructive criticizing. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!

  • Misunderstanding. There are many meanings of English words.

  • False reassurance. Using cliches such as "everything will be okay", everyone feels that way", "don't worry". Such statements do not allow for any expression of feelings, or show understanding of the person as an individual.

  • Constant probing. Persistent yes or no questioning places the individuals on the defensive and does not allow them to communicate the background behind a particular idea, statement, etc.


Empathy is the ability to understand another person's ideas and feelings. It is gaining the understanding (through listening) and demonstrating the understanding (by responding). In order to understand someone you must gain an understanding of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of the other person, and the situation that the person is in. To do this you need to carefully listen. You must then demonstrate that you have listened and that you understand.

Listening opens the door to meaning. When you hear the person, understand the situation and the feelings, then you are in a position to take constructive action or to reply to her or him in a way that makes sense. Helpful listening helps people look at their ideas, plans, hopes, concerns, fears, etc. It helps them gather information, solve their problems themselves and try out other alternatives. Listening is hard work!

Empathic Listening

Empathic listening requires concentration, willingness and practice. The purpose of empathic listening is to gain a full an accurate understanding of a person's thoughts and feelings and to demonstrate to the person that you do understand by replying. In just about every statement a person makes, there are two parts: feelings and content/situation. In many conversations the most overlooked part of a statement, and yet the most important, is a statement of feelings. It is not possible to use empathy effectively unless you are able to recognize and restate another's feelings. Formula for empathic response: "It sounds like you are feeling (feeling) because (content)."

Empathetic Conversation Leads

  • You feel...
  • Where you are coming from...
  • Are you saying....?
  • From your point of view...
  • It seems to you...
  • In your experience...
  • As you see it...
  • What I hear you saying...
  • You are feeling...
  • I hear you say that...

Common Mistakes in Empathic Listening

  • Sounding like a parrot or robot
  • Talking about content only, ignoring feelings
  • Giving advice
  • Using poor attending skills
  • Shifting attention to yourself
  • Using empathic listening when not necessary (i.e. if individual just wants information, etc.)

When to Listen With Empathy

  • To begin a relationship of trust and caring.
  • To help others understand themselves better and get more closely in touch with their feelings and attitudes.
  • When you find it hard to understand what someone is saying, or don't know what they mean by what they say.
  • When in doubt- empathize!

Closed Questions

Closed questions force a specific answer. They often present themselves as roadblocks to good communication. Sometimes you need specific information (i.e. what city do you live in?). Be sure the information you request is relevant to the person's situation. Use fact-finding, limited-response questions sparingly. A closed question allows for a limited response. If too many are used in a row, it may have a 'machine gun effect' (i.e. 'where did you go' 'what time did you leave' what did you do').

Open-Ended Questioning

Open-ended questions encourage the exploration of thoughts and feelings by leaving individuals free to answer in any way they choose. Examples of open-ended questions are:

  • Where would you like to begin?
  • What options have you explored?
  • Which concern would you like to talk about first?
  • Can you tell me about your situation?
  • How are you feeling right now?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • How is it for you when that happens?
  • How long have things been this way?
  • Can you tell me why you are feeling?
  • Can you tell me more about this?
  • Who have you talked to about this in the past?
  • Who is your support network?

Effective communication tools, such as open-ended questions, are important skills for volunteers who are working with the public, and who may be faced with individuals in crisis. It is important for the volunteer program to adequately train individuals for this aspect of the volunteer job, as volunteers not prepared for such events will feel overwhelmed and frightened by the volunteer program - certainly something an agency wants to avoid! Training in effective communication may involve a simple one hour in-service, where individuals learn about effective communication, or an all-day seminar - depending upon the volunteer program needs.

Reflection and Paraphrasing

Reflection is the process of listening for all clues indicating the person's feelings (voice tone, choice of words, sighs, etc.), acknowledging the feelings you hear ("You sound angry about what happened?"), and checking out what you think you understand. Often we are confused by what we hear, or think we hear. You can reflect by paraphrasing what you are hearing. Paraphrasing is not merely repeating what the person has said to you. Parroting does not help the person to fully explore the situation. We need to be careful about using phrases such as "I know just how you feel." We don't know. People will feel much more at ease if they believe we are honestly trying to understand their situation and their feelings.

Round Robin Exercise

This exercise is very useful when facilitating a group on effective communication. It involves role-playing (a very useful tool in practicing effective communication) but in a group, rather than one-on-one. The benefit of this approach is that individuals learn from each other and can receive feedback from each other.

In a "Round Robin" one individual is designated the 'speaker'- the individual who wants to talk about his or her problem, etc. The rest of the group are the helpers. The speaker turns her or his chair around (so that she or he is not facing the group) and begins sharing his or her experience, problem, etc. The members of the group take turns practicing effective communication tools, like rephrasing, reflecting, open-ended questions, etc. Working as a group assists individuals, particularly in the early stages of practicing effective communication, when one may become 'stuck' or unsure of what to do.

Round Robins are a fun way to practice effective communication, as a group. However, I recommend that individuals not be forced to participate. Rather, encourage quieter people by focusing on their strengths, and allowing them a chance to participate in a way they feel comfortable with.

Excerpt from "Volunteer Synchronicity". To order this 400+ page manual please call (250) 762 2355 or e-mail the Kelowna Women's Resource Centre at

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