Improve listening and speaking skills

Tips and strategies to communicate when someone is emotional.

It can be challenging to communicate effectively when emotions are involved. Communication can be more complex and demanding than in calmer or more neutral situations. A few basic techniques or tips can improve your communication style when speaking and listening to someone with negative emotions. They’re easy to understand but need practice until you feel you’re mastering them. 

Speaker tips

When speaking to someone, choose your words carefully so they express your intention without unnecessarily causing further distress. It may help to keep the following tips in mind: 

  • Speak intentionally: it’s important to listen and speak with intent. Maintain appropriate eye contact and look for body signals (facial or posture) that tell you if the other person is engaged. If the person seems distracted or not listening, you may need to modify your approach – and pause to ask if you’re making sense. 
  • Ask meaningful questions: asking questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no” can shorten a conversation, making it unproductive. Instead, ask open-ended questions to encourage the person to share their perspective.   
  • Avoid monologues: stick to the point and avoid lengthy or repetitive statements. Sometimes we repeat ourselves when we feel we haven’t been understood. It may come across as condescending if you say something more than once. Try to pause and allow the person to clarify and reflect on what they heard from you. 
  • Accept silence: sometimes one of the best ways to make a point is to pause or leave a period of silence after speaking. This allows you and the person to digest what’s been said. 
  • Don’t cross-examine: avoid firing questions at the person when you’re trying to gather information. Tact and diplomacy show respect and may be a better way to learn what you need to know. 

Listener tips

Many people listen to others, but only in the narrowest sense – they may hear the words without really hearing what others are saying. Good listening skills involve gaining a clear understanding of what the speaker intends, rather than just the words they’ve said. The following tips may be helpful: 

  • Listen attentively: maintain good eye contact with the person and acknowledge you’re hearing them. 
  • Don’t interrupt: it’s difficult to hear when you’re talking. It’s natural to want to ‘fix’ things or give an effective answer. The problem is if you haven’t heard all of what the person needs to say, your ‘fix’ may be for the wrong issue. 
  • Clarify what you hear: regularly summarize or clarify your understanding of what’s being said. This may help make sure you’re getting the correct message. It’s also important to admit if you don’t understand something. 
  • Reflect on what you hear: this differs from clarification. Reflection involves showing the person you’re aware of or understand what they’re feeling. You hold up a metaphorical mirror so the person can see more clearly what they’re saying and how you’re reacting. 
  • Listening to understand goes beyond hearing the words, to ensure you understand their intention or perspective. When people are distressed, they may not always say exactly what they mean. Giving someone the safety and space to articulate – and then clarify or correct what they say – can give you a much better chance of understanding their perspective. 

It can be helpful for both parties to try to summarize their conversation to tie up loose ends. The summary also gives both a clear understanding of what’s been discussed. It also allows you to set a direction for constructive follow-up.