How to Improve Communication Skills

One of the goals of individual and couple's psychotherapy is to improve your ability to know what you want to say and how to have it be heard and understood. If you can improve your ability to communicate success can follow in so many areas of your life.

It may surprise you that your message is not heard the way you intended. You may remember as a child playing telephone. In that game, you sat in a circle and started a message by whispering it to the person next to you, until the message reached the last person, who then said it out loud, and everyone rolled with laughter at how much the message had changed. You may not always roll with laughter now when your message becomes distorted. So here is your chance to observe how communication is sent and received.

There are two parts to communication:

1. The message that is sent
2. How the message is received

A message tip: Listen to the type of words the other person is using and try to match them, they will feel heard and understood.

Our five senses come in handy here: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. We use our five senses for gathering information from our world. You can listen to the words others use and guess what sense they favor and then try and use those kinds of words in your messages. How do you know which of the five senses you favor? Here’s a little game to figure it out.

You can’t find your keys and you know you’ve placed them somewhere in your house. How do you search for them?

§ Do you start walking through the house retracing your steps, trying to feel for where they last where?
§ Do you retrace your steps in your mind and watch yourself as you came into the house?
§ Do you listen for where you last heard them?
§ In this scenario, smell and taste would be not be used.

If you retraced your steps, you are more inclined to use physical means of learning. Kinesthetic people speak the slowest. They are feeling their way through life and often cannot learn unless they are doing something. They say, “I get it” when they understand, and “That doesn't fit” when they don't.

As infants, we are all pretty much kinesthetic/gustatory; we learn by putting things in our mouth. When this is violently discouraged by adults, we quickly begin learning through our eyes and ears. We put less faith in our feelings or the tastes left in our mouths as ways of learning or judging.

If you made pictures in your head of where you were, you are visual. Visual people think in pictures. They are likely to accompany their speech with visuals. They may talk fast and use words like “picture”, “see”, “glimpse” , “shape” , “looks”etc. You'll do well to look for and create pictures, charts, maps, and diagrams. To review, close your eyes and see what you remember.

Did you listen for where you last heard the keys? Auditory people tune into rhythm, pace, tone and pitch. They remember how things sound and may translate learning into rap or poetry. They are often musical and speak in more modulated tones. They will tend towards phrases like “I hear what you are saying” and “That sounds strange to me”.

How to Listen More Effectively

Active Listening is the ability to listen with the sole purpose of understanding what the other person is saying; No comment, defense, reply or explanation.

“This is what I hear you saying…”

This gives the message-sender a chance to say:
“Yes that is what I am saying.” or “No let me try again.”

Sender: “Let’ s get together this Friday night for dinner, say about 7 pm.”

Receiver: “I would love to Friday at 7 pm. should we meet at the restaurant or…”

You are agreeing to the evening as well as making sure that you have the correct information. You probably don’t realize that you already doing some active listening.

With more Emotional Topics

Sender: “I want you to know that I feel forgotten about when you make plans and don’t let me know about them until the last minute.”

Receiver: “You feel forgotten about when I don’t inform you of my plans. I don’t want you to feel that way. I feel the exact opposite, that I am always trying to think about you.”

Sender: “I feel guilty for making plans and it seems the only way I can deal with my guilt is to deny I am doing it until the last minute or get angry with you in my mind so I can feel entitled.”

Receiver: “You feel guilty for making plans, so you make up in your head that I am stopping you. It does not feel like you are thinking about me. It feels like you are just thinking about yourself. I don’t mind if you make plans at all. I just like to know so I am free to make my own plans.”

Realize that at first talking in this way will feel awkward and cumbersome. Like any new task you will soon learn to feel more comfortable and find communicating more fluid.


As the listener it is important you let the sender know you understand what they are saying. It helps if you check out with them what you have heard.
You can do it by:
Paraphrasing - restate in your words what you heard
Clarifying - ask questions that will have the sender expand upon what they have said.
Feedback (which is not correcting, debating or making counterpoints) - In a non-judgmental way you can respond to what you felt, thought or sensed about what they said.


As you listen, take into consideration that we are all trying to get through life and it;s not easy. Not that you have to agree with everyone, but understand that sharing information is a vulnerable behavior and we can be kind.


Often when we get scared we defend ourselves with judgments and criticisms. Listening with openness means trying to listen and understand the other person without finding fault. You can disagree with what they are saying and again kindness is important.


Do the words and body language match up? You are looking to see if there is consistency with the message being given. Listening with awareness means words and body language match up. It also means that you have taken the information and matched it up with your knowledge and history and have compared it for accuracy.

Blocks to Listening

§ Comparing
§ Mind reading
§ Rehearsing
§ Filtering
§ Judging
§ Dreaming
§ Identifying
§ Advising
§ Sparring - arguing and debating
§ Being right
§ Derailing - changing the subject
§ Placating

Tips to Consider in sending your message

§ Preparing your message:

§ Think about what you want to say.

§ Don’t ask questions when you want to make a statement.

§ Keep your messages congruent - The content, your tone of voice and your body language should all fit together.

§ Avoid double messages.

§ Be clear about your wants and feelings.

§ Distinguish between observations and thoughts - Separate what you see and hear from your judgments, theories, beliefs, and opinions.

§ Focus on one thing at a time.

Author's Bio: 

Licia Ginne, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in individual and couples psychotherapy. Areas of expertise addiction treatment and recovery, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, stress, co-dependency, adults abused as children. Providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Santa Monica, California.