Verbal Communication Skills
Effective verbal or spoken communication is dependant on a number of factors and cannot be fully isolated from other important interpersonal skills such as non-verbal communication, listening skills and clarification.
Clarity of speech, remaining calm and focused, being polite and following some basic rules of etiquette will all aid the process of verbal communication. See our page: Effective Speaking for more information.
This page is designed to help you think about how you communicate verbally. The page includes information on the processes involved and the steps you can take to help ensure that verbal or spoken messages are received as intended.
In many interpersonal encounters, the first few minutes are extremely important as first impressions have a significant impact on the success of further communication.
Everyone has expectations and norms as to how initial meetings should proceed and people tend to behave according to these expectations. If these expectations are mismatched, communication will not be effective or run smoothly, and some form of negotiation will be needed if relations are to continue.
At a first meeting, formalities and appropriate greetings are usually expected: such formalities could include a handshake, an introduction to yourself, eye contact and discussion around a neutral subject such as the weather or your journey may be useful. A friendly disposition and smiling face are much more likely to encourage communication than a blank face, inattention or disinterested reception.
The use of encouraging words alongside non-verbal gestures such as head nods, a warm facial expression and maintaining eye contact, are more likely to reinforce openness in others.
The use of encouragement and positive reinforcement can:
- Encourage others to participate in discussion (particularly in group work)
- Signify interest in what other people have to say
- Pave the way for development and/or maintenance of a relationship
- Allay fears and give reassurance
- Show warmth and openness.
- Reduce shyness or nervousness in ourselves and others.
Active listening is an important skill and yet, as communicators, people tend to spend far more energy considering what they are going to say rather than listening to what the other person is trying to say.
Although active listening is a skill in itself, covered in depth on our listening pages, it is also vital for effective verbal communication.
The following points are essential for effective and active listening:
- Arrange a comfortable environment conducive to the purpose of the communication, for example a warm and light room with minimal background noise.
- Be prepared to listen.
- Keep an open mind and concentrate on the main direction of the speaker's message.
- Avoid distractions if at all possible.
- Delay judgment until you have heard everything.
- Be objective.
- Do not be trying to think of your next question while the other person is giving information.
- Do not dwell on one or two points at the expense of others.
- The speaker should not be stereotyped. Try not to let prejudices associated with, for example, gender, ethnicity, social class, appearance or dress interfere with what is being said. (See Personal Appearance)
See: Listening Skills for more information.
Effective questioning is an essential skill. Questioning can be used to:
- Obtain information.
- Start a conversation.
- Test understanding.
- Draw someone into a conversation.
- Show interest in a person.
- Seek support or agreement.
Closed questions tend to seek only a one or two word answer (often simply 'yes' or 'no') and, in doing so, limit the scope of the response. Two examples of closed questions are "Did you travel by car today?" and "Did you see the football game yesterday?" These types of question mean control of the communication is maintained by the questioner yet this is often not the desired outcome when trying to encourage verbal communication. Nevertheless, closed questions can be useful for focusing discussion and obtaining clear, concise answers when needed.
Open questions broaden the scope for response since they demand further discussion and elaboration. For example, "What was the traffic like this morning?" or "What do you feel you would like to gain from this discussion?" Open questions will take longer to answer, but they do give the other person far more scope for self-expression and encourage involvement in the conversation.
Reflecting and Clarifying
Reflecting is the process of feeding-back to another person your understanding of what has been said. Although reflecting is a specialised skill used within counselling, it can also be applied to a wide range of communication contexts and is a useful skill to learn.
Reflecting often involves paraphrasing the message communicated to you by the speaker in your own words, capturing the essence of the facts and feelings expressed, and communicating your understanding back to the speaker. It is a useful skill because:
- You can check that you have understood the message clearly.
- The speaker gets feedback as to how the message is received.
- It shows interest in, and respect for, what the other person has to say.
- You are demonstrating that you are considering the other person’s viewpoint.
A summary is an overview of the main points or issues raised. Summarising can also serve the same purpose as 'reflecting'. However, summarising allows both parties to review and agree the communication exchanged between them up to that point in time. When used effectively, summaries may also serve as a guide to the next steps forward.
The way a communication is closed or ended will, at least in part, determine the way a conversation is remembered.
A range of subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, signals are used to end an interaction. For example, some people may avoid eye contact, stand up, turn their body away, or use behaviours such as looking at a watch or closing notepads or books. All of these non-verbal actions indicate to the other person that the initiator wishes to end the communication.
Closing an interaction too abruptly may not allow the other person to 'round off' what he or she is saying so you should ensure there is time for winding-up. The closure of an interaction is a good time to make any future arrangements. Last, but not least, this time will no doubt be accompanied by a number of socially acceptable parting gestures.