This article first appeared on Happify
Communication is an act of courage, especially when it happens in the form of advice and feedback. Even with the best of intentions, we give ourselves over to an unpredictable outcome—to our words blossoming in the mind of another, or being rejected and met with anger or shame.
As a parent, a teacher, an employer, in whatever role we play, this courageous act is one we cannot sweep under the rug. Over and over, we’re called to bring important issues to the attention of a child, a friend, an employee, or a parent. Each time, we sit with the painful uncertainty of, “Did they get what I meant?” Because at the end of the day, it’s not what comes out of our mouths that counts, but what enters their ears.
Luckily, there are ways we can arrive at mutual understanding more often. This begins with the realization that communication is “intersubjective,” as novelist Ursula K. Le Guin has said. It’s an interchange between two minds, two awarenesses, two life stories. We cannot emit words and expect them to land on a passive object. Communication is not “I to it”—it is “I to I” where each word we speak enters the sacred space of the other.
How, then, do we make sure these words are powerful and persuasive? How are we to make sure they land lightly, yet create transformative change? My training as a coach and my research on self-worth has shown me that there are two things we need to keep front and center in our minds in order to turn communication into a magical act.
Show That You Care Deeply
This is easier when the person on the other side is your child, friend, or partner. But in professional settings, where feelings are often expected to be checked in at the door, we need to think of other ways to show we care. Here are a few:
Ask for permission
Before starting off with your advice, show care and respect by asking them if they’re open to receiving it. A simple sentence like “I’ve noticed something and I would like to tell you because I feel it can help you” can open the doors of receptivity.
As easy as it sounds, this is the one where most of us really struggle, not only overtly, but also in our own minds. Even if we don’t cut others off mid-sentence, we are often busy planning our comeback as they’re talking. Listening with the curiosity of a “beginner’s mind” shows that you care about the ideas and opinions of others.
Mind your body language
They say that over half of communication is through body language and facial expressions. When these are not aligned with your words and/or tone, you come across as inauthentic. Show you care by being mindful of your bodily stance—don’t fold your arms across your chest, don’t turn away or backwards, and definitely don’t frown!
Challenge Them Directly
Given that we are social animals, most of us would rather compliment others than challenge them (other things being equal). Women struggle in this area even more, given their relational nature, coupled with the societal expectation to “be nice” and “be polite.” However, it’s important to understand that criticism, much like praise, is an act of kindness when offered at the right time and for the right reasons. Here are a few key ways of offering criticism well:
Make the feedback non-personal
Personal feedback (as in, “I didn’t expect this of you”) carries moral judgment and can lead to shame or anger. But when we focus on the action instead, it provides the other person with actionable steps they can take to make amends or do better in the future. It leads to growth instead of shutdown.
Sometimes people have the best intentions, but require a little direction on what they need to do. When challenging them, make it easier for them by pointing out all the times when they did the right thing. This helps them translate outcome into actions, and empowers them with a personal toolkit to tap into.
Hold them accountable
Almost all of us need accountability when we’re trying to create change or do something differently. Once you’ve made sure they know what needs to be done and how they’ll do it, agree on a day or time by when they’ll deliver—then follow up. If they did take action, show your joy or appreciation. If they didn’t, understand why it was so, and what would ensure action in the future.
When you communicate with empathy and challenge, you not only connect with the other person, but you also help them build feelings of self-worth. And that may be the greatest gift of honest communication.