Improving Interpersonal Communication

Interacting with each other one-on-one, i.e. on an interpersonal level, is some of the most important communicating that we do. What we sometimes forget is that we aren’t communicating TO another person, but WITH them. It isn’t a one-way street. Communication is a process in which both people are sharing meaning, information and feelings.

Good interpersonal communicators must learn to adjust their communication style to the person and/or situation. What works in one situation with one person could be a major catastrophe in another. If you develop a wide variety of powerful communication behaviors, you can then choose the one that will be the most effective in each situation. For example, finding a way to calm an angry employee requires different skills than motivating an apathetic one.

So, it’s important to remember that the meaning someone else takes away from your interaction with them, isn’t in the words you say or your tone of voice or gestures. Meaning is in the way they perceive all of those things. You know this. Not a whole lot that’s new here. However, there are many issues surrounding perceptions that you may not know.


Other’s Perceptions of You

Did you know that you can influence other people’s perceptions, but you can’t control them? No matter how hard you try, each individual is going to interpret what they see and hear through the filter of their own experience. For example, think for a moment about the car you drive. Is it a sleek, fast, muscle car or a modestly-priced family sedan? Whatever it is, you’re sending a message. You might think that a dark blue Taurus tells others that you’re trustworthy and have strong family values. However, your neighbor’s perception might be that you’re a very conservatism person who’s afraid to take risks. In the same way, you might think that he’s trying to relive his youth by driving a 1968 Thunderbird. You may both be right, but you may also be wrong.


Accentuate the Positive

Another aspect of perception is that we tend to believe and remember negative impressions over positive ones. Research shows that it doesn’t matter what else you may know about someone, when you get a negative impression, you’re more likely to believe it and remember it.

Although it sounds simplistic, focusing on the positive aspects of a person can help you avoid falling into the trap. As a voice and speech coach, I spend a lot of time uncovering the areas which may be holding someone back from having a better voice and speech. In other words, I’m looking for the negative. However, I’ve learned that it’s equally, or sometimes more, important to look for and point out what my clients did well. It changes the relationship. Once they know that they’re “okay,” they let go of some of their defensiveness and are much more willing to listen my assessment of what needs to be improved. I now make the positives the first things I mention when I’m giving feedback. You can too.

As you’ve seen, interpreting perceptions can be tricky. How do you discover if what you’re observing is true? It’s simple: ask questions! However, make certain that you’re asking them in the right way. For example, if you asked a colleague, “What’s wrong with you today?” you might get the defensive response, “Who said anything was wrong?”


Here’s a tool that can help defuse those kinds of answers.

It’s called a Perception Check. With it, you aren’t accusing and/or assuming that your interpretation of events is correct, you’re showing that you’re trying to understand.

Here’s the process:

  • Describe the behavior you saw
  • Give at least 2 possible interpretations and then ask for clarification. 

For example:

“I noticed that you didn’t smile when you came in this morning and that you haven’t said much all day.” (Behavior) “Aren’t you feeling well or is something bothering you?” (Interpretations) “You want to tell me what’s going on?” (Clarification)

In this way, you’re less likely to put the person on the defensive and you’ve left an opening for a dialogue. At this point, they can accept one of your interpretations, give you one of their own, or tell you to “get lost.” In any event, you’ve given them the opportunity to share their feelings and ideas in a non-threatening way.


When You…   …I Felt

Another, technique is to structure your comments (especially when you have to reprimand someone) into the When You/I Felt model.

Suppose a colleague goes behind your back and shares a confidence that was meant for him/her alone? When you find out about it, what do you do? Accuse them of a lack of ethics? Not a good way to get along with your colleagues! Try this, state:

  • when the behavior occurred
  • the behavior
  • your feelings

For example

“Yesterday (when) when I discovered that you’d told the whole office about my problems with my boss (the behavior), I felt betrayed (your feelings).” Then keep quiet. Let them respond. This will open the way for a discussion of the issue, assuming, of course, that they’re willing to discuss it. But, if you say, “Some friend you are! You told the whole office about my problems with John. How could you?” You automatically put them on the defensive and the likelihood of meaningful communication has almost vanished.

Good interpersonal communication skills can help build bridges between people and tear down walls. They’re good skills to learn.



©2017, Say It Well! Permission is given to reprint this article if the following is included: Reprinted by permission of Dr. Candice M. Coleman. She can be reached at 636-724-3761.