What is communication?
Communication is the way you let other people know about your ideas and feelings. It is much more than just the words you say and includes:
- what you say
- how you say it
- why you say it
- when you say it
- what you don't say
It is also your:
- facial expressions
- vocal tones
Communication is also not always spoken words, especially these days as more and more communication takes place electronically. You can use text messages, social networking sites, web chats and emails to communicate with others and other people can use these channels to communicate with you, sometimes unexpectedly.
Communication styles are often a mix of your own personality combined with what you have learned from those closest to you. Everyone is individual and there is a huge range of personalities when it comes to communication. Some people are naturally much quieter than others are - they may have grown up in families that are generally pretty quiet. At the other end of the scale, there are those who are just born with lots to say and/or they may have grown up around lots of talking or noisy conversations. No one way is better than another. However, it can be difficult when these very different personalities try to communicate with each other!
Communication styles change with age and stages of life. As a child, you probably learned most of what you know about communicating from your immediate family or those who cared for you in an ongoing way. However, as you get older and go to school, you make friends, join sporting clubs and/or get involved with other interest groups. This brings a much wider circle of people to communicate with and helps you learn about different types of communication.
Becoming a teenager brings a whole new dimension to communicating, which often involves expressing feelings. This may be difficult for some young people, especially if you have not grown up with someone who has been able to show you how to express what you're thinking and feeling in a way that feels comfortable to you (and others).
Communication styles can also be influenced by cultural background and ethnicity. For example, some cultures value eye contact while others may consider this disrespectful, and some cultures prefer expressive communicating such as arguing or debating topics or freely expressing certain feelings, while others are more restrained or value modesty. There can also be variations within particular cultural groups and certain rules or norms depending on where each individual fits in. This adds more complexity to communication as it may lead to misinterpretation.
To communicate well with others it's important to be able to listen to and observe what others are really saying. It's also important to find ways to be able to express what is really going on for you, rather than what you think is important for the other person to hear.
Communicating well is about listening and responding to the other person in an ongoing way. While these may all sound like pretty basic skills it's not always that easy, especially if you are in situations where you're feeling unsure of yourself. For example:
- when you're meeting up with new people
- in a new environment
- when you don't feel like you've got much in common with those around you
Some young people feel that they "just don't know what to say" and this can leave them not being able to listen or feel a part of what others are saying, or join in with the conversation.
Below are some skills that you can practice to help you build on or develop your communication skills.
Listen to others - when you listen fully to another person you pay attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it. This helps them feel confident that what they are saying is being heard by you, and that you are trying to understand them. Listening well to another person means that you ask questions if you don't know what they mean
Non-verbal behaviour - non-verbal messages have much more effect on the person you are communicating with than the words you say. Non-verbal messages include your facial expressions and your body language (the way you stand and use your arms and other body parts when you're communicating with others). Using non-verbal language can be a positive way of joining with another when you are communicating with them, e.g. looking at the other person while they talk, and maybe nodding your head if you agree with them.
Non-verbal communication can also demonstrate negative messages. For example, if you are feeling tense, communicating can feel difficult. You can help yourself to look and feel more relaxed by consciously checking your hands and arms. For example, are your hands relaxed, and are your arms gently resting by your sides or are your fists clenched and your arms folded tightly? By consciously relaxing your body and in particular the muscles on either side of your neck, your hands and your arms, you will be supporting yourself to feel more relaxed and this can help you feel more confident communicating naturally
Respond to social cues of another person - non-verbal behaviour is also a part of how others communicate with you. Being aware of their gestures, body language and facial expressions can help you to gain a better understanding of what they are saying and the meaning that underlies their words. This awareness will help you respond to their whole message
Respond to the other person's message - allowing another to feel you're listening by responding to what you've heard can include:
- repeating the feelings (not merely the facts) of what they have just expressed
- asking questions to help you understand the situation (and respecting their need not to tell you more if they don't want to)
- bringing in some of your own thoughts, ideas or experiences that relate to the topic of the conversation
Express authentically what you are thinking and feeling - using your voice in a way that matches the message you are giving is important in helping you to ‘be real’ about what you are saying. This can be a bit tricky if you are feeling anxious or upset! Sometimes, being aware of your speech can make you feel less able to sound confident or feel ok to talk about what's going on for you. If you're feeling nervous or upset, sometimes just slowing down your speech and quietly breathing slowly and deeply while the other person is speaking can be helpful to feel more relaxed. This in turn can help you to express yourself well and authentically
Communicating through text messaging, social networking, web contact or email can be a pretty ‘one sided’ interaction as text allows us to make contact with others anytime, and you can be unprepared for the messages that you receive. Also, when words are not accompanied by a voice, facial expression or body language, it can be really hard to know what is actually being said, because you don't know how it's being said. It can be so easy to read a completely different message into these words, and at times this can be very upsetting.
For this reason, texting about serious issues can sometimes lead to real difficulties and misunderstandings between friends. Although texting can seem easier and quicker at the time, handling tough problems is nearly always better when done in person so you can talk things through. Even though communication like this can be really hard to do, it often leads to stronger understanding and can lead to more meaningful relationships.
To communicate positively with others via electronic communication, it helps to use words that are respectful of the other person and sensitive to the way that they might interpret your words. If you are aware of your own message and how it will be received, hopefully this will influence those you are communicating with to respond to you in a similar way.
Some problem behaviours that can get in the way of communicating well with others include:
- Not listening - by having your mind somewhere else when others are speaking to you and not really responding to their thoughts and feelings about a particular topic
- Looking away when the other person is talking
- Yawning when the other person is talking or during the conversation
- Talking too fast or too slow
- Using a voice tone that's unpleasant and hard to listen to
- Giving unwanted advice - no one likes to be told what to do
- Talking over the top of others - because you're not listening or think your point is much more important than theirs
- Talking about yourself too much
- Changing the topic suddenly and without explanation
While communication is very much a part of our everyday lives, it is not always easy. For lots of reasons young people, particularly teenagers, can experience challenges in their communication with peers, parents, teachers and other important people in their lives. Sometimes, just talking through communication problems is very helpful and can help you to decide how to make some positive changes. At other times, you might need to do some work on changing the way you communicate by deciding on different ways to give messages to others - face-to-face, on the phone or in text.
If you would like to talk some more about communication or just need to talk to someone about what's happening for you, you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or use our web or email counselling services. We will listen to you and help you work out what might help.
Reviewed: February 2015