Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a miscommunication blow up in your face (we’re all raising our hands). If you’re anything like us and are tired of trying to see eye-to-eye over and over again, you’re going to want to take notes on this post. Neha Sangwan, M.D. is the author of TalkRx, which empowers us to strengthen our relationships, decrease our stress levels, and improve our health all through the power of connection. We’ve asked Dr. Sangwan to share her five no-fail steps to having honest, healthy conversations – and what she had to say  has completely shifted the way we talk for life. Put down them fightin’ words, and try a little tenderness… 

We notice our style of communication about as much as fish notice the water in which they swim. The only time communication becomes an issue is when our relationships start to break down or become painful. You might be thinking, communication? That’s easy. I know how to communicate. Don’t be fooled. Communication is essentially simple, but it’s not always easy. Many of us learn from an early age to be guarded about what and how we communicate. Few of us learn how to pay attention to our own inner voice and speak from the heart.

How many times have we complained to a co-worker, spouse, or best friend about our boss or our stressful day at work? We speak about each other rather than to each other. We often try to avoid uncomfortable feelings and gain allies to prove we’re right. Not speaking directly to one another ultimately results in mistrust and toxic work environments. This doesn’t have to be you. Here are five secrets to communicate directly and authentically that you’ll wish you had learned decades ago.

1. Know When to Say When.
Have you ever hesitated to have a conversation with someone because you doubted if it was the right time? Or maybe you weren’t sure if your concern was legitimate? Two easy rules will help you ensure it’s the right time to say, “Can we talk?”

  • Three-time rule: The first time you feel confused, annoyed or upset, pay attention to your own reaction. The second time, store it in your mental filing cabinet and ask yourself, “Am I noticing a pattern?” The third time, ask for a conversation. 
  • Sunrise rule: If a topic keeps you up at night or is on your mind first thing in the morning, it’s time to talk about it. You have clear evidence that it’s occupying too much of your mental real estate.

2. Prep for Success.
Now that you know you need to have a conversation, it’s crucial to set it up for success. Three questions will provide clarity about what you’d like to express while also getting buy-in from the other person. It’s a small investment upfront that will provide the greatest chance of effective communication. All you have to do is describe the topic you’d like to talk about, let the other person know how long you think it will take and ask when is a good time for them.

  • Topic: What do you want to talk about?
  • Time: How much time will you need? 
  • Schedule: When is a good time for the other person?

3. Choose Your Method Wisely.
People often ask me questions like, “Should I email or text? Or should I get on the phone? Do you think she’ll be mad if I don’t tell her in person?” Don’t underestimate the method you use. The amount of information you give or receive drastically changes depending on the mode of your communication:

  • Text/E-mail: This only conveys the black and white words on the page. Words-only communication works best when the content is purely factual or a question requires a simple yes or no. Using this method of communication leaves the interpretation of your tone up to the reader of the message.
  • Phone: When you’re on the phone, you get to use words and tone, which adds an animated, auditory dimension to words, allowing you to convey your message with emotion and personality. Spoken communication creates a dynamic personal connection between two or more people in real time.
  • In person: Everything from a firm handshake to slouched shoulders or folded arms speaks volumes beyond words and tone. 

Since the presence or absence of body language, tone and words play a big role in clarifying communication, the key to successfully conveying your message and its significance is to match the level of communication with the level of importance:

  • Level 1: text, e-mail or tweet = low importance
  • Level 2: phone or voicemail = medium importance
  • Level 3: in-person or video = high importance

While a quick text can seem efficient up front, it may lead to additional work on the back end to clear up misunderstandings. At the same time, a sit-down conversation, while thorough, isn’t necessary for making dinner plans – unless you’re asking someone on a first date (be classy and do it in person).

4. Respond Rather than React.
The belief that answers must be given immediately is a misperception. For example, you may react by saying yes to a request to go out on a Friday night because you want your friend to be happy (even though you’re exhausted from the work week). When you answer yes without pausing, you’ll soon find yourself overextended and resentful. That’s when you’ll hear yourself making nonsensical statements like “I hate Friday nights.”A response, on the other hand, takes into account the other person’s desires as well as your own needs. So your response to a Friday night invitation may sound more like “I would love to spend time with you, but I am so exhausted. How about Saturday?”

When you physically pause, your brain has a moment to re-engage its critical thinking capabilities and gain additional perspective. This allows you to come up with creative options as you navigate daily interactions. When someone makes a request, if you pause, you’ll realize there are many options. You can ask for time. You can ask for resources. You can ask for additional information. You can say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t make it.” Yes, it’s that easy.

5. Get Curious, not Furious.
In any conversation, if you’re surprised by someone’s behavior or feel hurt, instead of getting defensive or launching an attack, just get curious. It’s your best chance to build a bridge of understanding. Here’s how: Pay attention to the objective data—the other person’s body language, tone and words. Figure out what changed that triggered you. Then ask about those details.

  • State what you observed: Stick to external data – body language, tone or words.
  • Ask a question: Show curiosity.

For example, have you ever been with someone who raises her voice as she exclaims, “I am not angry!”? Before reading this, you might have been irritated and been inclined to say something along the lines of, “You are angry! You just never admit it.”

However, now that you’re aware of how the other person is communicating, through body language, tone and words, you could respond with something like this: “I saw your face turn red [body language] and heard your voice get louder [tone] as you said, ‘I’m not angry’ [words]. What happened?” [curiosity]

As you put these tips into practice, you’ll reduce your stress, build stronger connections and save time. I call it preventative communication because you’ll be clear up front rather than cleaning up miscommunication on the back end.

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