Language in the News

The Return of Thursday Thoughts! (Thursday Thoughts, August 8th, 2013)

After a hiatus of over a year, I’m restarting the blog that I began as part of my final class project for my Professional Seminar class. I look forward to once again sharing my thoughts on how linguistic concepts are applicable to real world situations. And to start us off, I’m going to discuss an article from PR Daily, “Listening facts you never knew.” Or rather, I’d like to address a comment that asked “how does one improve their communication skills…”

One of my favorite quotes ever is a movie quote, from Fight Club:

“When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just waiting for their turn to speak”

Too often in a conversation, I catch myself thinking of something I want to say, while my conversation partner has the floor. Suddenly, I’m no longer paying attention to them; I’m consumed with thinking of how to express my own thoughts, and waiting for that cue that says it’s my turn to talk.


I’ll be talking with someone, and suddenly they’re looking away from me—something else has caught their eye, or they turn to their phone, and I find myself pausing more often, seeking eye contact, or using more tag questions (“you know?), seeking back-channel responses that tell me I still have their attention.

Conversations are fraught with misunderstandings. Whenever you have two or more people with different experiences, different backgrounds, or different conversational goals, problems are going to arise. Luckily, humans have developed plenty of coping mechanisms. We have ways of seeking repairs, by asking questions like, “what?” or “which guy was that?” We’ve gotten very good at taking in all the available information we can from paralinguistic cues like intonation, or body language. And we try to use everything we know about our conversation partner(s) to figure out what they’re saying, and how they want us to interpret what they’re communicating.

Simply stated, we all want to be heard and understood.

So, to answer the commenter’s question about how to improve communication skills, the best advice I can give is:

Be attentive to how your conversation partner is choosing to communicate.

That means, being open to all the information they’re providing, their tone of voice, their pause lengths, the types of back-channeling they give you. Do they say “um hmm” or nod their heads? Do they do these things a lot when you’re speaking? Or just when you finish a phrase? Do they enthusiastically interrupt, sharing their own story? Or do they pause when you’ve finished speaking, being extra careful not to interrupt you?

Once you’ve identified a few of these communicative tactics, try to match one or two in your own turns at talk. Some will be easier than others (like volume or how they’re standing) while others are a bit more difficult, because they’re subtle or unconscious (like pause lengths). Hopefully some will match your own natural style, so they won’t feel awkward to adopt.

Finally, try not to impose negative value judgments on communicative style. All communicative styles are valid and not inherently good or bad, but strategically adjusting our styles to suit our audiences is something we all do, in the hope that we’ll minimize misunderstandings and make a positive impression.


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