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Communication skills 101: How to stay cool when things heat up


Two workers showing good communication skills
When each party is careful to communicate their intent and criteria—making sure to understand each person’s criteria—the result is usually positive.

The fourth essential factor is process. Many are unaware of this factor as it deals with how each party is communicating with one another. It involves body language, facial expressions, tone, and choice of words. Should a conversation take a turn for the worse, both parties can be at fault for any one of these. In fact, these are what the amygdala reacts to should someone lose his/her temper.

According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian—in his book, Silent Messages—if communication is incongruent, people will rely on what they see to decrypt the message they receive. Take for instance, a scowling face or the rolling of the eyes… when someone communicates in this manner, 55 per cent of the message the other party receives will be based on facial expressions and body language.

Then it comes down to what the person hears. Depending on the type of conversation, the tone, volume, pace, and pitch of someone’s voice is what gets many people extremely angry—especially when someone is using sarcasm combined with dirty looks. People depend on what they hear for 38 per cent of the message they receive. This leaves the words, which many often worry about the most, for a mere seven per cent of the message.

These statistics refer to face-to-face conversations where communication is incongruent. If the message is incomprehensible, people will look beyond the words for meaning. Therefore, it is important to make sure tone and body language are in agreement with the message.

Employ active listening

One way to avoid a heated conversation is to practice active listening skills. This involves far more than just being a party to the conversation. Active listening includes three key elements: clarifying, pacing, and backtracking. These can be used to make sure both parties are in sync with one another, making it easier to empathize. Concentrating on these also helps keep the conversation on track, staying out of the “yeah, but” mode, while also serving to prevent any overreactions.


This involves asking open-ended questions—who, when, where, what, how and why—to gain a better understanding of someone’s position to move toward a solution. Information that is more valuable can be gained using open-ended questions, as they cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” It is a good idea to avoid “why” questions because they can be perceived as accusatory, making someone become defensive.


Pacing happens naturally when each party is comfortable with one another. When someone is uneasy in a particular situation, he/she will rear backwards and do the opposite of the other person. When pacing, subtly mirror the communication style the other person is using, not only their posture, facial expressions and gestures, but also the pace, volume, and energy of their voice. Be careful not to mimic them, however.

A junior high school cafeteria is a great example of this. When someone leans in and starts to talk in a low voice, what does everyone else do? They lean in and start whispering. It looks like a huddle. Now, if the kid who loves to spread gossip walks by what does everyone in the huddle do? They all rear back and start talking in a loud voice about something innocuous. This type of pacing, with respect to communication, can be seen every day.

This type of communication is also often found in the service and/or sales industry, as it can be beneficial to mirror a customer’s sense of urgency. For example, if a service technician remains too calm, the customer may sense they have not been heard. Further, if a customer is speaking too quickly, a sales rep will have the tendency to slow the conversation down to get them to do the same. Unfortunately, this tactic, in some cases, can upset some people.

Instead, start the conversation at the customer’s pace by offering them a benefit for doing whatever is needed in the specific situation, and then slow the discussion down. For example, a service technician would start at the customer’s rapid pace and say, “I want to make sure we get your hot tub fixed as quickly as possible.” Then, he/she would gradually slowdown as they say something like, “May I ask you to show me where the shutoff valve is? Then, I can get the process going.”

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