5 Ways You Can Improve Your Communication – And Why That Matters

Jeb Stuart Johnston

Coach's Corner

I like to think of myself as a pretty good communicator (regardless of what my wife says). My storied career has run from that of songwriter/bartender to fashion industry hairstylist to fitness and nutrition coach. I have chosen a path in life that requires both the gift of gab and a sympathetic ear. Yet there are times I miss the mark completely. It’s usually simple mistakes such as not clarifying which number is sets and which is reps but at times it has been more calamitous due to my lack of understanding context.

Just last week I had a conversation with a client who told me she had stopped lifting weights because she was now eating for fat loss. As my brain attempted to abort from it’s impending self-destruct mode, I immediately ran down a laundry list of why lifting weights is beneficial and how the person who gave her that advice was bonkers. I backed up my stance with studies and references and lyrical lines of logic. I sat back and bathed in my eloquence. Once I had finished congratulating myself for yet another lost soul saved by my knowledge of nutrition and strength and conditioning I started to see what was an epic failure.

What I failed to do (and thus why I failed in this communication exchange) was to ask her why she thought that. As it turns out, she read in the Stronger U Getting Started PDF that it is close to impossible to build muscle while in a caloric deficit. A categorically true statement. I castigated her for doing what we inadvertently told her to do. When I was able to look at the matter through her eyes and understand that she was simply trying to do her best to succeed, not undermine the program I realized just how far off base I had been. She saw competing interests in what was perceived to be a pursuit to build muscle (resistance training) vs a pursuit to lose fat (diet). From a logical standpoint, it makes perfect sense and if I had taken the time to be a better communicator I could have saved the lifting diatribe for some random person on the internet.

Communication- 1: a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior

Conflict in life is rarely the result of differing views but rather an inability to empathize with that opposing viewpoint. Have you ever had that feeling that even though you are speaking English it is like each of you is speaking another language? We simply fail to communicate. We fail to exchange our information through a common system.

Such an important distinction when discussing communication is that it is an exchange of information, not a one-way street. Communicating effectively is not talking at people, it is not just listening to people, it is the continuous flow of information from one person to another and back again. In order to be great communicators, we need to be better listeners and better articulators. As a Coach at Stronger U, this is a constant practice. We can’t just read a check-in email and respond, we must read between the lines and use our comprehensive knowledge of the person on the other end of that email and not just rely on the words on the page. It is as much art as it is science.

How Can I Benefit From Improved Communication?

Better communication is something that will permeate all aspects of your life, bettering every possible connection you have. From your understanding of global issues to the most minute detail of your Uber driver’s life, it is a simple way to be a better citizen. It will also make you a better friend, coworker, boss, employee, coach, athlete, and client.

If it is something that is so important to our lives, why are we so bad at it? Why are we so poor at that which is the fundamental basis for how we relate to one another? Well, for one, we are never taught to be good communicators. We are taught “communication” but in the realm of delivering and receiving information. We are taught to make speeches. We are taught to give and follow directions. But we are never directly taught the best way to engage others. We are simply left to fend for ourselves and the assumption becomes: those who excel at communication are just born with a gift. While it is true that some people have a knack for communication, it is still a skill that can be taught and learned. Here are ways that you, too, can become a better communicator.

1. Be Direct

There is nothing more simple in communication than being direct. It also seems to be one of the most difficult things for many people to grasp. Whether it be through excessive politeness or an inability to articulate what they truly want, there is a tendency among many people to dance around an issue rather than address it directly. They see being blunt or direct as being aggressive when it is anything but. In fact, being direct usually alleviates any aggressive behavior because aggression comes from fear of the unknown. If everything is known there is no fear. But that is a whole other post…

And for all things holy, stop being passive-aggressive. The only thing anyone ever got from being passive-aggressive is a smack in the mouth. Take, for instance, the line at Whole Foods. I stepped into line as a woman who was clearly in a rush jumped in front of me. No big deal, it was Saturday and I have no social life to speak of. I saw her looking around and that’s when I heard the chatter behind me. A grown man, older than me (and mind you, I am 40) was muttering to his toddler how they were trying to get in line with Mommy but this man got in front of them. Instead of asking if they could just step in front of me to be with the woman the man employed this passive-aggressive attempt to get his way. Of course, I turned to him and asked if he would like to step in front of me, hopefully teaching the toddler the proper way to address another adult. My directness was not aggressive, although due to his actions there was a lot of me that wanted to be.

If you are guilty of being indirect recognize that you cannot blame someone else for not hearing you out. You must be direct, even blunt, in order to get what you want. No one else bears responsibility for deciphering your hieroglyphs for clues to your intent. Just lay it out there. I promise, people will respond and you will be better for it.

2. Stop Apologizing

One of the quickest ways to end constructive communication is to constantly apologize. We all know this person, perhaps we are one. Constantly apologizing for every little action or misstep. It cheapens the intent of their apologies to the point where they become “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. It also closes off communication because it is a form of passive-aggression (it’s pretty clear how I feel about that) and an attempt to take control of the situation/conversation.

If you have a bad habit of apologizing for everything whether you mean it or not, find words to use instead of I’m sorry. Stop applying blame and instead talk about the situation at hand and how it has been affected.

3. Simplify Your Message

The best way to assure your message is well understood is to present it in a way even a child could understand. This is true in writing, in public speaking, and in personal relationships. In fact, when great works of American authors are analyzed for readability they often come in at a 6th grade, or below, reading level. Even the heady New York Times tops out around 9th grade. So if the greatest authors and writers in American history write for middle schoolers why are you writing or speaking for graduate students? (The great exceptions are academic texts and, interestingly, fitness articles due to the necessary inclusion of technical information.)

If you are having trouble getting your point across; be it to your significant other, your boss, or your Coach; try simplifying everything to a grade school level. This would be a good place to reference a popular children’s book but I don’t have kids and Lord of The Flies and Beowulf were my two favorite books as a child so I was clearly a weirdo. Do kids read Harry Potter still? I digress. When in doubt, keep it simple.

Another thing to avoid is jargon. If you are communicating with your Coach about nutrition and you are really excited about learning more about the process ask about it in simple terms. Don’t try to repeat the stuff you read in an article on T-Nation or some other blog that uses lots of big words. Instead of asking about the Krebs Cycle or ATP storage maybe just ask why you should have carbs near your workout. Many times when people use jargon they unintentionally misuse it and it takes the conversation down an unnecessary path that could have been avoided.

As Coaches, a large part of our job is to find the stillness in the noise. We constantly sift through all of the competing misinformation, the extemporaneous bursts, the stifling emotion just to get at the heart of what is driving behaviors. When we find it we have a huge advantage in helping our people succeed. Just think how much better your chances of success become when you give your Coach that gift by communicating it to them.

Simplify your message. Be direct. The two go hand in hand. If you can ask for what you need, in simple and direct terms, your chances of getting it are exponentially higher.

4. Show Respect and Support

Communication requires a modicum of respect from all parties involved in order to be effective. Just the act of giving someone a forum to be heard is one of the greatest shows of respect that I can think of. It is both an act of giving and also one of receiving. Just like communication, it runs both ways.

As a great communicator, we strive to get the most out of our partners, our audience. We want them to feel safe, comfortable, and supported. This is done through constructive words, open body language, and affirmation. If we try to build our partners up we give them the confidence to trust us. Once that occurs we can have an open dialog that really leads somewhere.

Being supportive means no judgment, both to your audience (be that your Coach, boss, or significant other) and for yourself. We might think things or say things or hear things that conflict with our values but we must allow those things to exist, observe them, and allow them to pass us by without judgment. It is hard, I know. This is something I struggle with daily, especially my inner dialog. It is very easy to judge my own thoughts and actions but many times it is best to just let them go.

It also means avoiding sarcasm. Again, this is my battle. I have always been a cynical, sarcastic guy and to let that go is a constant struggle. But sarcasm only lends itself to feeding the ego at the expense of someone else. It has no place in the toolbox of a great communicator.

5. Practice Active Listening

In my mind the most important tool of a great communicator; active listening is the concept of fully immersing oneself in the act of listening to another. In order to practice active listening, you must shift your mindset from that of waiting to speak to one of comprehension. You must attempt to fully understand what the speaker is saying and then commit it to memory conceptually rather than verbatim. From there you respond appropriately, cognizant of their intent.

While it might sound easy, active listening is extremely difficult. We have been conditioned to “wait to speak” since we began talking. And in a debate, we tend to listen only for things that weaken the speaker’s position rather than looking for commonality. It also becomes a physical task. You will actually tire while listening from the focus required to truly listen with intent.

Much of active listening is in timing and patience. We must resist the urge to get a word in or to have our voice heard. We must sit and listen to all that is being said, sometimes sitting in silence to allow it to sink in. This is about really hearing another person’s words, reading their body language, and listening to the timbre of their voice. All of the nuance that exists in conversation adds up to the whole. Try to identify with all of it.

Comprehend their words. Take the time to understand them not just on a superficial level but also the meaning and intent placed behind them. Speech is never just about the words. It is so much more. If we communicated through words alone then we would always understand intent through text, and we all know how interpreting text (messages) goes…

So take your time, pay attention, comprehend, and only when all of that is done, respond. It will take a long time to become proficient and will always be a work in progress but the knowledge you will gain will be priceless. It is something I practice hundreds of times per day yet I still missed a golden opportunity when my client presented me with her question about resistance training. Instead of taking the time to comprehend what she was saying I made assumptions and could easily have damaged our relationship as a result. Luckily, we continued our communications, we got to the bottom of it, and now a blind spot I had previously is exposed. But I could have saved a lot of time and frustration on both our parts by having dug a little deeper, listened a little harder, and practiced a bit more patience before responding.

One thing we all have in common is a desire to be heard. It seems like such a simple request yet how often do you feel like someone is actually hearing you? Really listening to you? Not just the words but the emotion, the intent. It is a rare thing to be a great communicator, to listen with as much passion as we speak. Or vice-versa. Becoming great at this skill will help you to get what you want out of life be it in work, play or relationships. Can you afford not to?

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