Communication Skills

It is impossible to avoid conflict but it does not have to be a major dramatic event either.  By using some basic skills, you can often arrive at a solution that is agreeable to everyone involved.  Communication can only be effective when both parties are willing to listen and also willing to present their own sides in a way that does not cause either person to close themselves off from the conversation. 

Keeping the discussion moving toward a reasonable decision involves both listening and clearly and appropriately expressing yourself.   The first section of this module will help you to present your ideas to others by being more assertive.  Next we will work on listening skills, which are important to any conversation.  Listening skills help you to understand why someone has the opinion that they do, even if you do not agree with it.  In the last part of this module you will use what you have learned to negotiate solutions to a variety of simulated conflicts. 

Three Ways of Behaving In any Situation:


Being assertive means that you express yourself appropriately without stepping on others.  You act assertively when you spontaneously, openly and directly express your feelings, opinions, and needs.  When you act assertively you value yourself equal to others and don’t act to hurt either yourself or others.


You are acting passively when you don’t state your feelings, opinions, or needs.  It shows that you do not value yourself equal to others.  You just take it as it comes.


You act aggressively when you value yourself above others and look to meet only your needs in a situation.  It’s aggressive when you attack people rather than simply stating your own opinions and feelings in a non-judgmental way.  Aggressive people often do a lot of yelling, threatening and putting down, although you can also be aggressively sneaky and manipulative. 

Example:  You go into a restaurant and order a veggie burger.  When your order arrives, you notice that the waitress brings you a hamburger.

o    If you say nothing and eat the hamburger even though it’s not what you wanted and you feel badly about it, that’s acting passively.

o    If you yell at the waitress, and tell her she is stupid, that’s acting aggressively.

o    If you politely call the waitress over and explain that there has been a mistake, that you ordered and really would prefer a veggie burger, and arrange to get what you wanted, that’s being assertive.

Think - When have you acted aggressively?  passively?  assertively?

Payoffs of being assertive:


Acting Assertively

Three tips for acting assertively:

Use an assertive body position

An assertive position is a lot like a good listening position, which we will learn about later.  Sit or stand up straight, with an open body posture, maintain good eye contact, and use strong, even voice tones.  Show that you value yourself, what you have to say, as well as the person you’re saying it to.

Make an appointment

A good way to approach a person who you want to deal with assertively is to begin by making an appointment.  Try something like this: “is this a good time to talk?”  If the person says “yes”, then you can begin to state the problem.  If the person says “no”, then you can make an appointment for a better time. 

Use “I” messages

The basic idea behind “I” messages is really quite simple.  By using “I” rather than “you” when talking about problems, you are taking responsibility for your own feelings and you sound far less threatening.  You are much more likely to get help and cooperation rather than anger and resistance.  As an overall rule, try reducing the times you use the word “you” when dealing with a problem with another person.  It’s hard to do, but it will help you to focus on your own feelings, actions and needs, and stop you from accusing or putting down. 

Forming a good “I” message:

·         State clearly what the issue is that is upsetting you.

·         Express how you feel about it.

·         Describe the consequences that occurred.

Examples of “I” messages:

“When I find the door unlocked, I feel worried because we might be robbed.”

“When my tapes come back thrashed, I feel frustrated because they mean a lot to me.”

 Have you ever used ‘I’ messages?

Listening Skills

Listening is one of the most important, as well as most misunderstood of the communication skills. One of the things that makes listening a challenge is that it requires your complete undivided attention as well as your complete involvement with the speaker. Giving someone your undivided attention and being a efficient listener is not a simple task. Good listening requires concentration, self-discipline and openness. This is not a simple task because many of us were not trained to be efficient listeners but everyone can learn this skill. Here are several techniques that will help you improve your listening skills, so that you can build bridges of communication and understanding in your life.

Listen with Energy. Put energy into your listening by concentrating. Adjust your attitude to the talker’s purpose- what is their purpose? Is it to advise, inform, make plans, persuade, ask for something or entertain? Knowing the intent of your conversation will allow you to concentrate on what is being said.

Listen Responsively. Don’t just sit there so focused on what you plan to say next that you can’t hear what is being said. Actually try to figure out what the other person is saying. Look at them, lean toward them and show them they are important to you. Good listeners make it easy for the speaker; they make it clear that they are interested in what the other person has to say.

Acknowledge the Other Persons Thoughts and Feelings. Listen first and acknowledge what you hear. Acknowledging the other persons thoughts and feelings does not mean that you agree or disagree with their way of experiencing the situation or that you will do whatever they ask. It simply means that you are willing to try to hear and understand their point of view. As you listen, repeat back in your own words the essence and the feelings of what you heard the speaker say from their frame of reference. Put yourself in the speakers place and listen from their perspective. This allows the speaker the satisfaction of being heard and understood.

Validate for Them That You Understand Them. When you are listening to someone they may not automatically know how well you understand them, plus they may not be good at seeking validation that they are understood. So show them that you understand them and are interested in what they are saying by giving them cues such as nodding your head, giving a smile or remark about what is being said, “I see,” “That sounds frustrating.” Listening carefully and responsively will encourage them to continue to respond to you, which will increase their confidence and encourage them to improve the quality of their expression, which in turn will activate your thinking process and responses.

Improve Your Chances of Being Heard in Emotionally Charged Conversations. During emotionally charged conversations it may be important for you to listen and acknowledge what you hear, so your chances of being heard by the other person are improved. Otherwise your chances of being heard by the other person may be very poor. Because when a person is upset and wants to talk, their capacity to listen is greatly decreased. Trying to get your point across to a person who is attempting to express a strong emotion will usually cause them to try harder to get their point across or that emotion validated. However, once a person feels like their message has been heard and their feelings understood. They become more relaxed, more reasonable and willing to listen.

Listening may be the most important and most ignored of all the social skills.  Using good listening skills increases your ability to really hear what people are saying to you and open communication is enhanced.  These simple skills are powerful aids for making friends and influencing people.  They can also be very healing.  When a person is hurting, they often want someone who listens well, not someone who just gives advice.

Basic listening skills: 

Use the listening position

The listening position is a body position and attitude that says, “I’m listening.”  Here are some tips for assuming the listening position:

Listen for and give feed back about content

Concentrate and listen.  Try not to make snap judgments about what you’re hearing right away.  Try to figure what is really being said.  Pay attention to the person’s words, watch their facial expressions and body posture.  When you feed back the content, it lets the other person know you’re listening, and it gives them the chance to clarify if you haven’t got it quite right.  Feeding back content encourages the speaker to continue.  Some good ways to start feeding back content:

Examples of feedback:

“So you’re saying that …”

“It sounds like you are worried about …”

Think - What words do you use to give feedback?

Focus on the speaker

Focus on what someone is saying instead of thinking of what you are going to say when they are finished speaking. The tennis coach is always saying, "Watch the ball." Focusing on the speaker is equivalent to becoming a good listener. Your responses will be more helpful and natural if you focus on the other person fully while they are speaking.

You should listen FOR things when people share instead of merely listening TO them. There are so many things that you can listen for, such as the speaker's values, feelings, needs, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

Remember that your attitude as a listener is always more important and more obvious than anything that you say in response to someone. An attitude of respect and of trying to understand another person is much more important than what you say to them.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

Humans are hard-wired for communication. There is literally nothing we can do to NOT communicate.
By the age of four all normally developing children have acquired the rules of their native language with literally no formal instruction beyond day-to-day interaction. As a matter of fact, infants and toddlers in all cultures acquire language at the same rate, and no matter what the language, all of them make exactly the same grammatical mistakes. One goose -- two gooses -- in Mandarin, Swahili and American Sign Language. All humans communicate. Naturally.

We learn to communicate by osmosis, literally soaking up the environmental cues necessary to get our needs met. Our brains grow explosively, associating certain sounds, sights, actions and feelings with our experiences. This muscular contraction on my face gets me picked up. That particular scream gets me fed. And by the time we're four years old, we can string a comprehensive sentence together and express our wants and needs more directly.


Some psychologists tell us that we have learned literally all we need to know about how to survive in our culture by the time we're four years old. That's good news.  The bad news is those early experiences of learning through trial, error, and association harden into rules that, if we don't consciously think about, are never broken.  In other words, most adults communicate based on rules they acquired as toddlers, completely unaware of how profoundly they are communicating -- all the time; everywhere; with everyone.

Look at people's faces. Notice how they walk, sit, stand and move. Eavesdrop. Listen to conversations. Watch people interact at work, in the grocery store, at the bank. Start paying attention to non-verbal cues; there are all kinds of human responses not expressed in words.  Nonverbal communication has a significant impact on how you perceive and are perceived by others.  The following is a partial list of nonverbal cues that you should watch for in others and yourself.

Shaking hands


Facial expressions

Voice tones



The expression in your eyes

Your speaking style

Your speech volume

The words you choose

How close you stand

How you listen

Your breathing

The way you move

How confident you appear


Negotiation and Compromise

Make sure to use your assertiveness and listening skills before moving into the negotiation process, and then continue to use them as you negotiate.  In negotiating assertively, each person should feel that she/he wins. Each person should get some of what he/she wants.

The seven steps to assertive negotiation.

Step 1:  IDENTIFY the problem
State clearly what you see the problem to be, and what you would like out of the situation.  Listen carefully to your partner’s solution.  Each person states what seems to be the problem using "I" statements. Sometimes the negotiation gets bogged down here as the people involved may disagree about what the real problem is.

Person #1 "I would like to discuss how we share the household tasks."
Person #2 "I think the real problem is how we decide who cleans the kitchen."

Some discussion will be needed before these two go on with the negotiation so that the subject is clear to both. The common saying is that they each need to be "on the same page."

Step 2:  LISTEN assertively

Each person states an opinion. The other person reflects or restates the opinion as they heard it. Then you take turns and the second person states an opinion.

Example: (Assume the kitchen cleaning is the issue)
Person #1 "I am tired at the end of a hard day at work and the last thing I want to do is clean the kitchen. My preference is to leave the dirty dishes until the next morning."
Person #2 "So you are saying that you are tired and would like to leave the dishes in the sink until tomorrow

Hint: Just because you reflect the other person's opinion, you are not agreeing with it. In this part of negotiation, you are simply being a mirror....

Step 3:  BRAINSTORM ideas for the solution

In brainstorming, each person is just throwing ideas onto the table. During a brainstorming time, it is important to
understand that this is not a time for discussion or judgment. This is simply an idea-gathering time.

Hint: State as a rule before the negotiation that all ideas will be respected whether you agree with them or not.

In our example, Person #1 and #2 will sit down together and suggest ideas to each other. Sometimes it helps to write the ideas down on a legal pad or an erasable board.
Person #1 might say, "Maybe we could throw a dishtowel over the dirty dishes so we wouldn't have to look at them."
Person #2 might say, "If we agreed to, then we could each put the glass we drink from or the plate we ate lunch on in the dishwasher when we are through."
Person #1 (inspired by #2) "Well, maybe if we open the dishwasher to take a clean dish out of it, we could then be responsible for emptying the whole dishwasher."



Be willing to compromise.  Remember that any effective negotiation involves a certain amount of compromising on both sides of the issue.  If neither side is willing to compromise, the negotiation process will fail.  Compromising happens when one or both individuals are willing to give in on non-critical issues in order to come to an agreement that is reasonable for all involved.  When you run out of ideas, then it's time to consider all of them and decide together what might work best.  Make assertive statements about each idea until one appears to be the best one.

Person #1 "I like the idea of emptying the dishwasher when we take something out of it. I don't think that
would take too long and it would be one step toward cleaning the kitchen."
Person #2 "I sometimes take my glass out of the kitchen. I would have a hard time remembering to take my dirty dishes back to the kitchen. I don't think that idea will work well."


A contract means that you are stating clearly what the agreement is. A contract needs to be specific and defined in behavioral terms.

Example: (after more discussion back and forth)
Person #1 "So we are agreeing that if we take a glass or anything out of the dishwasher when it is full of clean dishes, then we are obligated to empty the whole dishwasher."
Person #2 "Yes, and emptying the whole dishwasher includes putting away the silverware and any pots and pans in the dishwasher. Right?"

Step 6:  TRY OUT the solution

The try out time should be limited.

Person #1 "OK, let's experiment for two weeks. Then let's get together again and talk about how it worked."

Step 7: GIVE FEEDBACK about how the contract is working

Both parties need to give their view on the way the contract worked. What was good about the contract and what needs changing? Redo the process from the beginning, if necessary.

Person #2 "I seemed to have a hard time emptying the dishwasher. Part of that was because I grabbed a clean
glass for water as I ran out of the door for work. I just didn't have time to get the rest of the dishes. When I came home, planning to empty it at the end of the day, you had already done it and were mad. Maybe we need to rethink how this will work."


In the seven steps to successful negotiation, the most important steps are the first one and the last one.  Identifying the problem clearly is quite a challenge and deserves respectful thought and definition.  Looking for problems in the contract, even if it means going back to step one adds to the win/win feeling. If the contract isn't working, each party has an opportunity to try again to get closer to what he/she wants.

COMPROMISE is what it is all about.


Communication Mod 1 – Worksheet

1.     The three ways you can behave in any situation are:  _________________, __________________, and   __________________.

2.   Listening effectively requires your complete, undivided ________________  as well as your complete ________________ with the speaker.

3.   You should listen ____________ things when people share instead of merely listening ______ them.

4.   List four of the non-verbal cues listed that you should observe when communicating with others.


5.   List the seven steps to assertive negotiation:  ___________________________________________



      Describe how you could respond assertively in each of the following situations

6.   Your friend wants to borrow $20 but you need it to buy groceries.  __________________________



7.   Your parents don’t like the person you are dating. ________________________________________



8.   Your roommate accuses you of taking money from his dresser.  ____________________________



9.   You have been waiting in a restaurant for 30 minutes and haven’t been waited on.  ____________