Good communication skills are essential for personal and professional success. At its core, effective communication is about making sure what we want to say is interpreted correctly by the recipient of the message. While this concept may sound easy to achieve, it’s actually quite rare. It’s a process that is typically filled with errors thanks to human differences in perspectives and experiences.

Precise communication is difficult, both verbally and in written form. As a result, we often struggle to communicate thoughts and ideas in the way we intend, which leads recipients to misinterpret or misunderstand. As a matter of fact, even when we agree with another party, miscommunication can lead to the feeling of confusion or frustration, even when it really isn’t there.

Next time you head into an important conversation, whether at home or in the workplace, consider these tips:

  • Do: Listen first, speak last. First and foremost, in order to be an effective communicator, you have to be an effective listener. Don’t just react or respond to appear you’re listening. There is a very big difference between listening and waiting to speak. Remember this: Pause, and take a minute to think about how you want to respond. Be willing to be comfortable with the silence that comes with processing what the other party has said. And, when you decide to respond, remember that simple language is usually more effective and to keep a positive tone and attitude. While your pauses may feel long, the recipient will appreciate your thorough listening and the time you took to gather your thoughts. This patience is particularly critical during difficult or sensitive conversations. Whenever possible, bring a notepad with you to jot down your thoughts. This will allow you to write down what you want to say and continue to fully listen, rather than waiting for the other party to finish so that you can respond, before you forget what you want to say. Yes, these are obvious and easy things to consider and do, but do any of us do it on a regular basis?
  • Do: Communicate with a confident and clear voice. Confidence comes with experience. However, one can also develop confidence through preparation. Next time you have a difficult or sensitive message to communicate, script it out. Write down what you want to say. Take a step away from your notes and then return with a fresh perspective to edit. Try role-playing in your head, out loud or with a friend/colleague. This process will help fine tune your message, increase your confidence and, ultimately, help you deliver your message with more conviction.
  • Do: Maintain a positive attitude. Your mindset going into a conversation is more important than you think. Before getting into a conversation, try to do something you enjoy, for instance, listen to a song you like or go for a brief walk to clear your head. These exercises will put you in a better mindset, which will make you more patient, improve your tone, etc. Then during the meeting, try to maintain that positive attitude by giving the other party the benefit of the doubt, and don’t forget to smile — it’s contagious.
  • Don’t: Assume. Never assume that the other side thinks the same way you do or will approach the situation the same way you do. Empathy is one of the most important skills of any strong communicator. It starts with being aware of your own emotions and biases and progresses to being aware of the other parties. Empathy ultimately leads you to adjust your communication — in both content and delivery — based on the people involved in the conversation. If you think of communication as a message sent and message received, this begins to demonstrate the importance of empathy. How the recipient receives your message is just as important as your intentions to communicate what you say and how you say it. This does not mean you have to agree with the other parties’ viewpoints or reactions, but it does mean you need to think about how they will receive your message and how it makes them feel.
  • Don’t: Have one-sided conversations. Whenever possible, engage the other side. Epecticus, a stoic philosopher from thousands of years ago, reportedly once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This is naturally very difficult for most of us, but remember to listen, ask questions and demonstrate genuine curiosity. Those are the key pillars of effective communication. If you think about the best conversations you’ve been involved in, it is when you feel heard and in-tune with one another. This can only occur when it’s two sided – both sides are engaged and interested. Keep this in mind next time you are approaching any conversation, especially a challenging one.

By considering the do’s and don’ts of communication, you’re one step closer to being an effective communicator. Remember to always listen before you speak, maintain a positive attitude and script out your argument ahead of time. Also, never assume what the other person is thinking and engage the recipient whenever possible.