How to improve your verbal communication skills?

Do you struggle with verbal communication skills?

My previous lack of verbal communication skills

How to talk to someone

I was terribly shy in my teens and if I met someone new I’d blush bright red. I’d become anxious, start to panic and feel faint. That made me feel even less confident in making conversation. I never knew what to say as an introduction or how to end a conversation effectively. If I was asked a question I couldn’t think of an appropriate response and my silences might have appeared rude. Job interviews were a nightmare as I giggled nervously (hysterically) throughout.

However, fifteen years in Human Resource Management and fifteen more in mental health management hugely improved my verbal communication.

In a recent post we looked at good Listening Skills and today, we’ll address verbal communication skills.

What is verbal communication skills?

The ability to convey or share ideas and feelings effectively during conversation; to be able to talk and be understood. Therefore developing good verbal communication is necessary for both our personal and work life. Learning this skill will enable you to cultivate healthy relationships with loved one, friends, families, colleagues and even our boss.

Effective verbal communication skills include more than just talking. Verbal communication encompasses both how you deliver messages and how you receive them.

4 main types of verbal communication skills

NHS Leadership Academy’s 1st annual
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  1. Public Communication is normally where one person holds the stage, addressing larger groups of people i.e. Annual conferences or election campaigns.
  2. Small-Group Communication takes place when there are more than two people. This is where everyone participates and interacts with the others in the group i.e. team meeting or group therapy.
  3. Intrapersonal Communication is private and restricted to yourself. It’s like your self-talk, using your imagination or visualisation. Imagine talking to mum on the phone and she tells you she’s cooking your favourite meal, the aroma might come to mind.
  4. Interpersonal Communication takes place between two people like a one-to-one chat between nurse and patient or you and your boss, in order to communicate your needs or any actions required.

For now we’re going to address Interpersonal Communication; a one-to-one chat or simply a conversation between two people, as that’s what occurs most often for us, like talking to the cashier in your local shop or a neighbour.

The importance of verbal communication skills

Would you believe that approximately 65% of our communication is nonverbal?

However, while only 35% of our communication is verbal (conversation), it is still the basis of all communication so we mustn’t neglect its importance.

The classic words of John Donne in 1624 ‘No man is an island’; roughly translated means no one is truly self-sufficient and we need the company and closeness of others in order to grow. While you may know of a recluse who functions solely alone, the rest of us generally have to be around people. Working and living in harmony, ‘fitting in’ and engaging with others is basic human need.

One of the best ways to fit in, engage with new people and build good relationships is via a two-way conversation. Developing rapport, which sometimes happens naturally, is essential and one of the first steps to relationship building. You can start building rapport by finding common ground or creating shared experiences with the other person.

From my professional experience, I know that nurses are expected to display empathy, compassion, kindness, genuineness (being authentic), self-awareness and a non-judgemental attitude when building relationships with patients.

However, these skills are easily transferable to all areas of work and personal life and can quickly be achieved by non-professionals. If you can be authentic, warm, open and friendly you’ll be able to verbally communicate with just about anyone.

Socratic Questioning skills you might find useful

Another achievable verbal communication skill (which might be used by nurses) is displaying a quiet curiosity and asking gentle probing questions. This technique is called Socratic Questioning (469 BC–399 BC). It’s a form of cooperative, argumentative dialogue between individuals and is based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking (Wikipedia). Being curious, acting a little bit dumb and getting people to think of the answers to their questions or problems for themselves.

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  1. Questions for clarification — Perhaps in response to someone crying, “I know he’s cheating on me.” You’d question “Why do you say that?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions — In response to a friend saying “He’s out late, he must be cheating.” You might ask “What could we assume instead?” or “You seem to be assuming.”
  3. Socratic questions that probe reasons and evidence — In response to a person saying “You’re always letting me down.” You could ask “What would be an example?” or “Tell me on how many occasions I’ve done that.” or “When did I last do that?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives — Replying to someone saying “I’m not going back into hospital, I hate it” You could ask “What would be an alternative?” or “What would your Care Team think about that?”
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences — In response to a friend explaining “The staff are a bit………, you know…. so I can’t go back into hospital.” You could gently probe, “What are you implying? What will happen if you don’t go back?
  6. Questions about the question — Perhaps in response to a patient/friend saying “I’m so miserable all the time, do you think they’re all fed up with me.” You might respond “How would somebody else/ you mum/ your answer this question? And “Why?” or “Why is this issue important?

Potential pitfalls during conversation we need to be aware of:

Unfortunately, in our busy worlds, at work or at home, with technology all around us, we’re easily distracted by noises or visual diversions. Is no wonder we make the following errors:

Excellent communication skills —
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  1. Sometimes we talk too much, often waffling or filling space. We feel we need to fill the silence with chatter — we don’t! It’s okay to have 10-15 seconds of silence, just relax and sit with it. This will give you the time to think about what you’re going to say next.
  2. We’re often unable to put our ideas across so that the other person understands – take a breath, exhale slowly then inhale just as slowly and start again. Don’t be afraid to say something like “I’m not sure how to explain this so it makes sense, but I’ll give it a go.” One instance maybe if the other person does not speak the same language and we can’t get our point across. However, we may be able to resort to some sort of non-verbal communication.
  3. We resort to jargon/colloquialism/slang – jargon occurs a lot with doctors, nurses and scientists. The medical/nursing field also use acronyms like ECG, ECT and CBT which can confuse, embarrass and alienate people who are unfamiliar with our medical/scientific/nursing terms. Colloquialisms come in where people speak with local words and phrases which can leave other people out of conversations. Computer language and the technical side of WordPress are completely lost on me – I need plain and simple messages here.
  4. We don’t think before we speak, we just dive straight in. When your words are negative, demeaning, harsh or inconsiderate you may be seen as a miserable, angry and mean spirited person who sees only the bad and not the good in life or people. Take a breath and a couple of seconds to think about what you’re going to say. You are what you say — your words hint at your thoughts, values and beliefs and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time might hurt or anger others.
  5. We don’t talk enough; If you’re unsure what the other person is talking about, ask them to repeat or rephrase it or tell them you don’t understand what they’ve just said. Most people don’t actually mind – they get the opportunity to hear themselves speak again….. If you’re short on things to say, try bringing up topics that you enjoy and are somewhat knowledgeable about. Open up and say what you think, share how you feel or share one of your own experiences i.e. if the other person tells you about their golf trip that weekend and you know nothing about golf, you could say “Ah, yes, the weather was good wasn’t it. We took advantage of it and went fishing/paddling in rock pools,” — don’t just stand there nodding and smiling.
  6. Going off on a tangent (and not being able to get back on track). Apologise and stop for a second. Tell them “Ooops, I’ve gone off track, what was I/you saying?”
  7. Being unable to give the other person the information they need to join in the conversation or to respond i.e. by giving yes or no or even one-word answers, you’re not inviting the other person to respond. Try to expand on a ‘yes‘ when asked something like “Do you work for Smith & Smyths?” You could say “Yes, I work in the post room and I’ve been there for almost a year now. What about you?”
  8. Not listening enough. Ernest Hemingway once said: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Don’t be like most people. Actively listen and don’t just wait impatiently for your turn to speak. When you listen, you might find something of interest that you can discuss further — when it’s your turn to speak.
How to improve your communication
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Whatever you are doing, the way you use your verbal communication skills, sets the emotional tone for any future relationships. Just think; chatting with a new person might lead to a great friendship, a brilliant new partner, a friendly colleague or an amazing business lead.

Do you recognise any of the pitfalls in verbal communication? Anyone got any hints or tips for effective verbal communication with new people? I really enjoy reading about your experiences.


Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

22 thoughts on “How to improve your verbal communication skills?”

  1. I suck at job interviews because of my panic attacks. Even if I can express myself clearly, my body reacts with excess sweat, twitchiness, fidgeting.

    Small groups of people I’m better with, but I’m introverted so participation depends on my mental state and if I have anything to bring to or add to the conversation.

    Large groups, forget it. I will reply to questions, force the uneasy smiles and laughs, and make an effort to get involved but if people are all talking over each other it is sensory overload and I try to disengage.

    The biggest problem I have-again because of panic attacks- is confronting people, especially if I feel they have done something to hurt me or anger me. I don’t like conflict, I don’t like raised voices, and I really hate trying to come to some sort of peaceful accord with people who just want to keep the argument going and insist it’s all in my head. I tend to shy away from confrontation until it builts up and I blow up. Not a health coping mechanism, I am working on it.

    1. I’ve learnt how to confront people with saying something calmly and quietly like “I feel/felt really upset/angry when you say/said that”…. If they still choose to pick a fight, I tell them “If you can’t respect my feelings, I’m off!” I grew up listening to fighting and dad beating my mum and I then went thro’ it myself – no more! I also hate shouting and noise 🙁

      1. My parents weren’t violent but they did not have calm conversations. Everything was a shouting match and seeing who could call the other the foulest names.
        I swore I would not raise my kid in that kind of chaos where you have to hide in the closet to muffle the noise.

  2. Yeah, I think I’m good at this form of communication–one-on-one. I’m terrible at groups or public speaking of any kind, although to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever tried it. With one-on-one talking, I think it’s a strength of mine. And, like, for those awkward pauses, I pretend to be thinking deeply. Like, if the other person says, “I’m not sure what to do,” I’ll murmur, “Hmm. Thinking…” and gaze off into the distance while tapping my chin. And then the silence isn’t so awkward.

    I know all about rapport, because my employers at the reading center went around encouraging it all the time. Rapport, rapport, rapport. It means you have to, like, get the kids to trust you, and that sort of thing, I guess.

    But–and this could just be me–if a friend were to say to me, “I know he’s cheating,” my response would be, “Damn that man! He wants a piece of me.” 😀

    1. I think you’d be good at public speaking Meg, you’d have them all in fits lol. I like that you also pointed out your strength in one-to-ones 🙂
      Some people are so uncomfortable with silences and fill the gaps with nonsense.
      And with rapport, growing up I kinda thought everyone had it but being in nursing – now I see they don’t lol.
      And yes, that damn man!!! 😉

  3. I think not listening is a big one that people often don’t realize that they’re doing. Formulating a response to the other person can feel like listening until you realize it’s not.

  4. Interesting when you talk about medical jargon. My own theory is that they use it in order to construct a barrier between them, and the general public. To elevate themselves so that people think, “they must be clever, they are using long words that I don’t understand”.What is worse, you get people trying to mimic them. I know you are an ex-medic so you will probably disagree. But, really, total bs.

    1. Lol 🙂 No, honestly, I would never use that lingo with patients, family or friends. They need to know exactly what everything is and if you just gave them acronyms, then it takes longer to explain it. You’re best to say Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and give them an explanation of what it it, how it might help, what the sessions will include and for how long. Then you can tell them it’s called CBT for short. lol 😉

      1. Even if they say something common like hypertension, that term is a little harder to understand that “high blood pressure”, and doesn’t provide any greater clarity.

  5. I always struggle to get my point across effectively, ending a sentence with “if that makes sense?” is such a regular occurrence for me.
    I get really anxious with meeting new people as well, I get really shaky and you can hear it in my voice as well. I’m getting better but it still makes me feel uncomfortable and I just want to get out of the situation.
    Having said that, I’ve found it easier to talk to people online after meeting them when I’ve been out for drinks and that’s how most of my recent friendships outside of the pub environment have been made.

    1. Hi Stacey, I do understand — so you’re already apologising when you say “if that makes sense”, which is such a shame cos you speak coherently on here 🙂

      Meeting new people can be anxiety provoking and perhaps you can do some of the breathing exercises here You’ll need to start practising soon so that you can use it in certain instances. Whe you do walk into a room, try holding those shoulders back give a great big grin and say “Hello” and believe or not other people will be more or just as anxious as you.
      I’m glad you’re comfortable online 🙂 and that you’ve made some new friends – there’s confidence for you — well done 🙂

  6. Thank you for posting this. I could always use a refresh on verbal communication. I’m very internal in the way I process information, so I have literally had times when I thought I said something out loud only to realize from pointed stares that I never opened my mouth. Thinking about the kinds of questions listed will be helpful, though one of my biggest anxiety spots is when I should ask questions. I don’t want people to think I’m prying, but I also don’t want them to think I’m disinterested in them, and I’m never quite sure where the balance is.

    1. Aaawww, you’re welcome and we could all do with a refresh, even writing about it – reminds me 🙂 When to ask a question? If something excites or interests or even ‘annoys’ you, just say “Can I ask a question?” or “Would you mind if I ask…..?” 🙂

  7. This is a great, all-inclusive, article.

    Clear and effective communication is important to convey intended ideas.
    I love writing about this sort of clarity!

    Thanks for sharing!

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