Communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. A lack of healthy communication causes marriages to fail, creates distance between parents and children and can destroy the culture of any organization.

Effective communication involves not only hearing what others say, but understanding them--and vice-versa. But this is easier said than done. As individuals we each have a unique world view influenced by the way we were raised, our personal experiences and our environment. Further, we communicate with the benefit of knowing our own motives and intentions, while the recipients of our message don't have that luxury.

So, how can we do better?

Better communication is one of the topics covered in my forthcoming book, EQ, Applied: The Real World Guide to Emotional Intelligence. As a preview, consider how heeding the following "10 commandments" can improve your personal communication style.

I. Thou shalt listen first.

To communicate in a way that others understand, you have to learn what's on their minds, first. That's why listening is so important.

Active listening involves asking questions, along with concentrated effort to understand your partner's answers--all while resisting the urge to judge. When you regularly and skillfully listen to others, you stay in touch with their reality. You become quickly aware of the other person's highs and lows, and how they are dealing with them. Further, you send the message that what's important to them is important to you.

Your opinion then carries more weight, because it's based on reality--your partner's reality.

II. Thou shalt show empathy.

When others tell you their story, endeavor to understand their thought process and see the world from their perspective. (This is called cognitive empathy.)

Sometimes, you'll think: "Well, that's not such a big deal. I wouldn't feel the same way if I faced those circumstances." When this happens, try to think of a time when you did feel like your partner. (This is called affective or emotional empathy.) Then, think of what might help you in that scenario--or even better, what would help your partner, based on what you know about them.

III. Thou shalt focus on the positive.

Dwelling on the negative in others is a surefire way to breed contempt and close someone's ears to your own message. Therefore, focus on the positive in others by:

  • Telling them what you appreciate about them
  • Finding common ground, even if you disagree

Laying this foundation first makes your partners more willing to hear dissenting or (constructively) critical opinions later.

IV. Thou shalt be sincere.

When praising, don't flatter or praise superficial qualities. Be genuine regarding what you appreciate about others. When sharing negative feedback, don't beat around the bush or water it down. Rather, communicate out of a desire to help--and that motive will become obvious to your partner.

In addition, be willing to sincerely apologize. As the saying goes: 

Apologizing doesn't always mean you're wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.

V. Thou shalt be specific.

People aren't mind-readers. Therefore, don't just tell others you appreciate them or that something bothers you; tell them specifically what you appreciate, or what needs to change--and why. (Of course, if it's negative, communicating with tact and grace will make your message easier to accept.)

VI. Thou shalt be respectful.

You earn respect when you show it to others, first.

Acknowledge others when you see them by giving a smile and nod of the head, or a simple hello. When speaking, avoid sarcasm and cutting remarks, which beg for negative emotional reactions. Instead, speak to others the way you want them to speak to you.

VII. Thou shalt pause.

"The pause" is as simple as taking a moment to stop and think before you speak, especially if you're in a highly emotional state. It may sound simple, but while easy in theory, it's highly difficult to practice consistently.

But if you learn from mistakes and continue to improve, the pause will help you avoid embarrassment, prevent regrets, and save countless relationships.

VIII. Thou shalt be transparent.

There's nothing worse than the feeling that someone is keeping a secret from you.

Transparency doesn't mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time.

But it does mean saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and sticking to your values and principles above all else.

IX. Thou shalt know when to yield.

Resist the urge to attack every opinion or statement you don't agree with.

Remember that people are emotionally attached to their beliefs. If you mercilessly expose every flaw in your partner's reasoning, even if you're right, he will feel attacked and close his mind to whatever you have to say.

This doesn't mean agreeing with views you're opposed to. Rather, it's about learning to choose which battles are worth fighting.

X. Thou shalt be consistent.

To be effective, communication must continue to flow. Make time for your partners by communicating in various forms, such as in person, telephone, or through written messages (electronic and traditional).

Everyone's busy, so make sure you schedule time to simply talk and catch up with others. The more important the relationship, the more often you should be having those one-on-one conversations.