Tips for Talking

One of the most important skills a professional can have is communication. But it’s also one of the most neglected. Here are ways to get better at getting your point across.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is a former Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.8, November 2003,

Anyone who has spent time around infants and toddlers knows that one of the most amazing things about them is their ability to effectively communicate their wants, needs, and expectations without saying a word. If they need a nap, the head goes down and thumb goes in. When they want a story, they give you the book and force their way onto your lap. They are direct, concise, and somehow manage to leave little room for misinterpretation without ever uttering a syllable.

Unfortunately, most of us adults bear a striking contrast to this. We have decades of learned vocabulary at our command, yet few of us are able to be as concise as our diapered counterparts. We have mastered the mechanical ability to form words and construct sentences, but are we as effective at communicating as we could be? And if not, what can we do to improve?

Why It’s Important
Poor verbal communication can be a problem in any profession, but for athletic trainers, particularly so. Athletic training is extremely detail-oriented as well as responsibility-intensive. You can’t afford vague communication when the care for hundreds of student-athletes, the performance of dozens of teams and staff, and the education of impressionable student athletic trainers is in your hands.

One reason is that good verbal communication is vital to the department’s effectiveness. “Any time you work with people, good communication is the key to success,” says Chuck Kimmel, MA, ATC, Assistant Athletic Director and Head Athletic Trainer at Austin Peay State University. “Without it, you won’t achieve the goals you seek.”

Donna Wisely, MA, LATC, ATC, Athletic Trainer at Hoffman Estates (Ill.) High School and Vice President of the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association, is also discovering the importance of verbal communication in her department. “For the past 15 years, there have been just two of us on staff,” she says. “In that time, we reached the point where we were very non-verbal in our communication. We could finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, and if he left an injury report blank, I could usually figure out what needed to be filled in. But we just added a third person to the staff, and she’s looking at the two of us saying, ‘I have no clue what you’re talking about? How did you know that? Why did you know that? I don’t understand what you want me to do.’ And it has become very apparent that we need to change our communication style in order to help her help us.”

Poor verbal communication can also lead people to conclude that you’re less competent than you are. In fact, research shows that patients judge the quality of a healthcare provider’s work more according to that provider’s interpersonal skills than by his or her technical competence.

“If I hear you speak slang all the time, talk down to student-athletes, and not use the proper terminology, I’m going to think you’re unprofessional,” says Vince O’Brien, LATC, ATC, Athletic Trainer for Men’s Basketball at Ohio State University and the Ohio Athletic Trainers Association’s 2003 Athletic Trainer of the Year. “You could know everything in the world about athletic training, but I’m not going to trust you or really believe you.”

And maybe the most persuasive fact: “Poor communication creates problems and more work daily,” says Robb Williams, MEd, ATC, CSCS, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Wyoming. “And the person who won’t admit it is not evaluating his or her communication. I recently used the phrase ‘Get in the whirlpool,’ to an athlete. I didn’t, however, specify the cold whirlpool, and the athlete ended up in the hot whirlpool because the hot whirlpool is the one that feels good. And to him, a whirlpool is a whirlpool.”

So what exactly characterizes great verbal communication? According to the experts, it’s precision, confidence, and top-notch listening skills.

Precisely Put
Your boss tells you the injury reports are due Friday. He means he wants them Friday morning so he can review them before the weekend. You think as long as they’re in before the end of the day on Friday, you’ve met his deadline. He hasn’t been precise in his request. And what results from the minor misunderstanding is frustration, resentment, maybe a little temporary hostility between the two of you, and one person’s work schedule being thrown off. Now, how many times today have you been as imprecise with others? It’s easy to see how quickly imprecision in verbal communication can disrupt rehab timelines, camaraderie, and administration in the training room.

“We make vague statements all the time and then wonder why the other person didn’t understand us,” says Meryl Runion, a corporate speaker and trainer on verbal communication based in Cascade, Colo., and author of Power Phrases! The Perfect Words to Say It Right and Get the Results You Want. “The more specific you can be, the better the result.”

Kimmel agrees. “If staff, coaches, or student-athletes are given the opportunity to interpret my words or meaning loosely, then that’s what they’re going to do,” he says.

One way to improve your verbal precision is through accurate and specific word choice. “One day I asked my friend Barbara how she was,” says Runion. “She said, ‘Grumpy!’ She could have said, ‘I’m angry. I’m irritated. I’m annoyed.’ But each of these carries its own meaning that is slightly different from the nuances of grumpy. Grumpy suggests no blame and takes full responsibility for the mood. When Barbara said she was grumpy, I did not immediately assume I had done something wrong. Had she said angry, irritated, or annoyed, I might have wondered if I had caused her mood in some way.”

Remember, however, that when it comes to medical terminology and jargon, it’s important to be precise without being overly technical. With student-athletes, Wisely does this by partnering concise verbal communication with visual aids.

“I try to break information down into terms that they can relate to,” she says. “And because it is sometimes hard to put all of the message into terms they understand, we use a lot of pictures in books to illustrate what we’re saying as we say it.”

“If you are too technical and talk down to people, then you’ve lost them,” adds O’Brien. “Then they think, ‘I can’t communicate with this person, so why would I bother going to them for treatment?’”

While using medical jargon can impede communication with coaches and athletes, knowing the lingo of the particular sport or culture can substantially enhance the verbal communication process. “Our men’s ice hockey team works out in our athletic training room,” O’Brien says, “and if I say, ‘Put an Ace bandage on that,’ they look at me like I’m crazy, because these athletes are mainly from Canada and they know it as a tensor bandage.

“So I’ve made a point of saying tensor bandage with them, and they now smile and laugh when I do,” O’Brien continues. “It helps my communication with them, because they think, ‘This guy knows where I’m from.’ That increases trust, and if they can trust me, they’re going to hear me a little bit better when I ask things of them.”

Another way to improve verbal precision is to eliminate waffling and muttering. “It happens more than you’d think,” says O’Brien. “I hear it a lot from our physicians. They’ll be conversing with an athlete and say, ‘I didn’t see anything on the x-ray, so I doubt it’s bone. We’re going to treat it like a soft tissue injury. Though sometimes it shows up as bone later. But I think we’re okay.’ And the athlete leaves thinking, ‘So, is it the bone or not?’

Thinking out loud can also lead to problems. “For instance, we had a staff meeting today,” says O’Brien, “and someone said, ‘Why don’t we pick a day and time to meet every week?’ One of the supervisors said, ‘That’s a really good idea. Tuesdays might work.’ Now I heard ‘He’s considering doing this on Tuesdays. He’s going to let us know.’ Another staff member heard, ‘Next Tuesday, we’re meeting.’ So you have to really avoid thinking out loud or muttering under your breath, because a lot of people will take what you say in those moments literally.”

Confidence Counts
Effective verbal communication also requires self-assurance, because a listener is not going to follow your direction or take your message seriously if you don’t appear to trust your own judgement. The most important technique for developing confidence is preparation, and the best way to start is by defining your communication goal.

“Most of us start conversations without considering the results we seek,” says Runion. “But if your conscious mind doesn’t choose goals for the conversation, then your unconscious mind will, and most times those unconscious goals are misdirected. The most common unconscious goals are proving ourselves right and others wrong, getting even, and showing the other person how smart you are. These goals are counter-productive.”

O’Brien has found goal-setting useful in athletic training both for the confidence it creates and the clarity it provides the listener. For example, when an athlete gets hurt in a game, O’Brien sets his communication goals according to what information is going to be most immediately important to the coach.

“If an athlete suffers a knee injury in the game’s first half, and you evaluate him in the training room, there are key facts you need to discern,” he says. “You need to diagnose the injury, figure out what the game plan is for the next hour or two, and then what your game plan is for the next day. So those are the three things I want to tell the coach in about 30 seconds. And I need to sound sure and definitive.

“If I can say, ‘Brandon has a medial meniscus tear in his left knee, he’s out for the rest of the day, we’ll re-evaluate him tomorrow, and I’ll let you know his status by noon,’ the coach has sound knowledge to act upon. The coach can easily translate that to his needs: ‘So Brandon’s not a factor in my substitutions for the rest of this game. They have a plan for treatment tonight, and they’ll let me know tomorrow if he’s going on the road trip.’”

For Wisely, preparation also includes note taking. “I gather all my thoughts in writing,” she says. “Then I take those notes with me to the discussion, so I don’t eliminate key pieces of information.”

Planning your communication can help avoid poor word choice and using too many non-essential words that make you seem unsure of your message. “For example, sometimes people will say, ‘I just have one little question,’” says Runion. “But ‘one little question’ makes it sound insignificant. Just go ahead and ask the question.

“Avoid fillers like, ‘Ugh, Um, I think I’m going to try to,’” she continues. “They take away from the point you’re making. When we speak more strongly, people take our recommendations more seriously.”

Tuning In
The final talent upon which the most exceptional verbal communicators rely is listening, and there is a definite difference between hearing and listening. For verbal communication to be most effective, listening has to be about understanding both the words, and the non-verbal cues that go with them.

But being a good listener is a challenge for almost everyone. “It’s much easier to talk than to listen,” says Kimmel. “But listening is a skill that everyone should work at, because if you don’t hear what the coach, patient, or supervisor is saying, then you get sidetracked and you won’t achieve the goals both parties want to work towards.”

Athletic trainers face special challenges when it comes to effective listening. “ATCs are constantly multi-tasking,” Wisely explains. “Whether it’s supervising 12 kids while talking to another athlete or listening to kids walk by while trying to get the scoop on someone else, there’s constantly something else going on in our brains, and that makes it hard to listen well.”

In addition, your multi-tasking can affect how well others perceive you are listening to them. “I feel very comfortable taping an ankle and holding two conversations at once,” says O’Brien. “But I think sometimes if you aren’t talking only to the athlete or only to the coach, then they don’t hear you.”

To combat this, Kimmel tries to look people in the eye. “I find even when I’m in a room of people, if I lock eyes with the person, I’m not as easily distracted,” he says. “Also, if I stand close to them, it sends signals that I’m listening.”

O’Brien asks himself whether he’s in the right environment before starting a conversation. “When needed, I bring the person into a different area within the training room, into the doctor’s office, or out in the hallway, just to make sure they can hear what I’m saying,” he explains.

Experts also recommend a communication technique called “active listening.” It comprises four parts and facilitates deeper understanding of both spoken and unspoken messages.

“The first active listening skill is paraphrasing,” says Patrick Cohn, PhD, mental game coach and Owner of Peak Performance Sports, in Orlando, Fla. “This is an excellent technique to make sure you are both talking about the same thing. You paraphrase by telling the person what he or she said in your own words. The second [skill] is reflection. Here, you simply restate what the person has said [using] their words. Use this skill when you are not sure what the person meant, almost with a questioning tone to your voice.

“The third skill is summarizing,” continues Cohn. “You summarize by giving the key points the person has said to you in the conversation. This is used for long conversations to help tie many ideas together. The fourth skill is empathy. This is an advanced listening skill because it requires that you pick up on what the person is feeling at that moment and reflect it back to him or her. This is a good technique for developing trust and bonding with your [speaker].”

“Active listening can seem like overkill, and like you’re really overextending the conversation,” says Williams. “But if the communication really needs to be crisp, clear, and shared, then you have to use those techniques.”

Runion points out, though, that when it comes to the empathy aspect of active listening, the information isn’t going to be verbal, but non-verbal. People rarely say outright, “I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m upset.”

Another component of listening entails understanding that different people respond to different styles. “To be most successful, you have to role play to some degree and meet the other person’s communication standards, preferences, and experience,” says Williams.

“You can pay attention to the words they use as clues to what communication type they are,” says Runion. “For example, if they say, ‘I don’t get the picture,’ then they are probably a visual type. Draw a diagram and use imagery for this type of person.”

If they use a lot of pauses in their own speech, then slow down your end of the conversation, too. If they easily get distracted, consider jotting down an agenda you both can see to stay on course. If they are smiling but describing something negative, ask questions to find out how they are truly feeling.

Brushing Up
So how do you determine how strong or weak your verbal communication skills are? One way is to simply measure your results. “Either people do what I ask them, or they don’t,” says Kimmel.

“If a day later, someone doesn’t remember an instruction or request I gave them, then I put the onus on me,” adds O’Brien. “Even if I’m sure I said it, if they didn’t hear it, maybe I didn’t communicate it correctly or in a way that was understandable to them.”

More difficult is determining what specific areas of your communication need improvement. Athletic trainers can actually help each other with this.

“Ask colleagues to help you critique your communication skills, especially after you’ve made a presentation,” says Wisely. “Or say, ‘I’m about to call a parent. Listen to my end of the conversation.’ Or, ‘Can you come listen to me while I have this conversation with the doctor?’”

Cohn suggests the observer look for listening skills, clarity of the message, eye contact, posture, tone, inflection, agenda, manner, pace, attitude and confidence, and concentration. If you’re a one-person athletic training department, remembering these components can help you evaluate your own communication throughout the day.

“Reflecting back on a conversation that just occurred is one way I improve my communication skills,” says Wisely. “Part of that comes from noting what questions I was asked after I presented my information. Was I not clear? Did I cover that area, but not clearly enough? Did I omit the information completely? And since most of the time we’re not in a position to pull out a Palm Pilot or piece of paper to write it down, I make a mental note and store it so I can process it later.”

“I call them THPs, Take Home Points,” explains Williams. “You sit back at night and say, ‘I was clearly misunderstood at this meeting, and this is what I didn’t understand from them.’ And I’ll write them down in my diary or daily planner, because you have to seek to understand those instances. Then I’ll go back, revisit those issues, and say, ‘Per our conversation yesterday, this is what I was led to believe. Am I off base here?’ And you take the time to go back and be both the speaker and receiver, assess the task, and get back to specifics.”

Also consider taking advantage of technology to help you analyze and improve your verbal communication. By videotaping and reviewing presentations, meetings, or rehab sessions, you have the opportunity to both hear what you say and how you say it as well as observe the messages you are sending non-verbally. If you don’t have access to video equipment, consider using a simple cassette recorder to study how you come across.

Tough Talks
The true test of any speaker’s verbal communication skills is listening and making themselves heard in difficult situations. It’s one thing to deliver a short, precise, targeted, and empathetic message over lunch with a friend in an empty cafeteria. It’s another to stick to the rules of good verbal communication when the situation is contentious, emotional, or heated. Here, athletic trainers and experts provide tips on how to communicate well in tough situations.

Dealing with a hostile party. The first rule is to remain calm. “You need to avoid matching their intensity,” says O’Brien. “Just because he or she is being loud doesn’t mean you need to be.”

Second, work to diffuse the intensity. “When someone is hostile or angry, there’s usually a lot of frustration about not being heard,” says Runion. “So your best approach is to first listen and let them vent. If they don’t meet with resistance while they vent, the hostility usually winds down.”

O’Brien also emphasizes the importance of moving these situations to somewhere private. “I’ll deal with it in a relatively private area, because what you don’t want is for others to see that person yelling at you, and you not yelling back,” he says. “You might be perceived as weak, or a doormat.”

Delivering bad news. When an athletic trainer faces the painful task of telling an athlete that he or she has suffered a serious injury, it’s important to remain calm and confident, says Wisely. “Whether I am actually confident or not is not the issue,” she says, “but I have to appear that way.”

To this end, Kimmel finds silence useful on two fronts. “I don’t talk more than I need to,” he says, “and when I do, my message is clear and concise, so I don’t overwhelm them. Also, when an athlete is told they need surgery, or that it’s serious, it’s important to give them a few minutes to process that so they can then ask questions and get answers.”

When relaying a painful message, your non-verbal signals are just as important. “The tone of your voice has to soften,” says O’Brien. “And if someone is lying down on the table, I will bend down to get to their eye level, because it’s much more comforting for them. In fact, I’ve seen physicians sit patients up before they begin talking to them, and the doctor will sit down on a stool so the athlete is actually sitting higher than the doctor. That gives the athlete a feeling of much more control of the situation. Also, something as simple as placing your hand on their shoulder or hand provides comfort.”

Communicating Displeasure. “Take a step back,” suggests Wisely. “First, evaluate what your message is, the exact words you’re going to use, the tone it’s going to need, and how to phrase the message so it’s not accusatory or aggressive. Then take that person aside—don’t put on a big show in front of others—and state your case.

“But I also feel I have to take responsibility as well,” she continues. “I’ll say, ‘These are my feelings. How are we going to work together to resolve this now and prevent it from becoming an issue next time?’”

“You also want to speak more about what you want than what you don’t want,” adds Runion. “Instead of saying, ‘Stop coming late,’ say, ‘I need you to be on time.’ Then state what you will do if they don’t meet your expectation.”

Saying No. For most people, hearing “no” is like a slap on the face, says Runion. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Instead of saying ‘No,’ begin by acknowledging the request, and then briefly explain your situation,” says Runion. “Saying something like, ‘That’s an interesting project. I have other priorities, so I won’t be able to help you out with it,’ is short, but it’s a little more sensitive than a straight ‘No.’”

Runion also has advice for those who find telling others ‘No’ particularly difficult. “For chronic yes sayers, I recommend you use the phrase, ‘Let me get back to you on that,’” she says. “Because for people who chronically say ‘Yes,’ it’s a big jump to say ‘No, no, no.’ This buys them time to think about what they really want to do and then get back to the person.”

Are We Finished?
If you’ve ever been talking and had the other party suddenly walk off on you—or wondered why an assistant remains at your office door when you considered the conversation finished—you know that concluding a discussion can sometimes be awkward. So, it’s fitting that the final hallmark of good verbal communication is knowing how to end a conversation.

A good indicator that both parties are finished discussing an issue is when they have asked their last question and had it answered, or you have asked your final question and had it answered. But if you are unsure you just heard the listener’s last question, Wisely recommends employing the same principle that 911 uses. “I let them ‘hang up the phone’ first,” she says. “I let them be the one to walk away first, say thank you, or give a closing statement. I find it works well. It shows I’m still available and open to continuing the conversation, if that’s what they want.”

When you and another party are in disagreement over an issue, have reached an impasse, or you’ve made your decision and they want to keep challenging it, ending the conversation can be harder. But relying on good verbal techniques will get the job done.

“I like hearing from people who disagree with me,” says Kimmel, “because it makes me really re-examine my opinion. But when I need to wrap up with someone I don’t agree with, I try to be empathetic and say, ‘I understand where you are coming from, and I’m sorry you feel that way,’” Kimmel says. “But I can’t agree with you. I’m glad we talked about it, but I have to go now.’ And oftentimes phrasing the closing like that will end it without demeaning or embarrassing the other party.”

In a busy working environment like the athletic training room, adopting sound communication principles and putting new techniques to practice may seem too time consuming. But if you remember to formulate all communication with precision, set goals, speak with confidence, and listen to others carefully, it will begin to come naturally. And the misunderstandings, frustration, and work it alleviates will be worth the effort.

Zip It!

Probably one of the most overlooked characteristics of good verbal communication isn’t verbal at all. It’s silence.

Silence in conversation is generally regarded as wholly undesirable and excruciatingly uncomfortable. And even though many of us do our best to fill those gaps with something, anything, the most confident and effective verbal communicators regard silence as purposeful, and with a host of benefits. Below are just a few of them:

Power and Insight. “When people are not afraid of silence, that gives them a lot of power,” says Meryl Runion, a corporate speaker and trainer on verbal communication. “And many times, when you are silent, the other person will show their hand. That gives you tools and information to work with.”

Creates Emphasis. “Critical pauses are important,” says Vince O’Brien, ATC/L, Athletic Trainer for Men’s Basketball at Ohio State University. “If there is an important point I need to make, I like to pause just before or just after, so the other party is waiting to hear what else I have to say.”

Digestion. “In my work, I use silence to help the athlete ‘catch up’ and make cognitive connections about the message,” says Patrick Cohn, PhD, a mental game coach and Owner of Peak Performance Sports. “This might be at a time when I have hit upon an important association the athlete is discovering and needs time to process.” Silence can also benefit the speaker by providing a few moments to refocus on the message’s topic or goal.

Formulation Time. “If a coach or the director of athletics hits me with a question, I want to make sure I give an accurate answer. So I’m going to think about it and measure my words before I respond,” says Chuck Kimmel, MA, ATC, Assistant Athletic Director and Head Athletic Trainer at Austin Peay State University.

Inclusion. “Some people need to be encouraged into a conversation,” says Donna Wisely, MA, ATC/L, Athletic Trainer at Hoffman Estates (Ill.) High School. “Sometimes, allowing a silence gives them what they need to speak up.”