Being a skilful communicator takes thoughtfulness. So much of our communication has become transactional – a word here, a sentence there – that we forget communication, at its essence, is relational. It’s about connection.

It sounds simple, but in reality there is nothing simple about communicating, especially when emotions are involved. I – and you, I am sure – see this kind of clumsy communication all the time. Situations like this should encourage us to step back and commit to a clear, straightforward, easy-to-follow framework for communicating powerfully in any situation.

For starters, always plan your communication. As you do, remember that organisations are complex, people make mistakes, and what looks like political backstabbing may be a simple oversight. In difficult situations it helps to ask instead of demand, to stay curious, and to open up conversation rather than shut it down. Give the other person some benefit of the doubt. Your thoughtfulness conveys trustworthiness.

Here are four questions to ask yourself before communicating.

1. What outcome do I want? 

It seems obvious, but in reality it’s unusual that we ask this question. Often we react to what other people are saying, to our own emotions, or to a particular situation. But those reactions lead to haphazard outcomes. Start by thinking about the outcome you’re aiming for, and then respond in a way that will achieve that outcome. 

2. What should I communicate to achieve that outcome? 

Once you know your outcome, identifying what you want to say is much easier. If I want to be closer to someone, “I’m hurt that you didn’t include me” is clearly a better choice than “I can’t believe you didn’t include me!” That small word difference represents a huge shift in meaning. Of course, for many of us it’s emotionally much easier to say “I’m angry” than to say “I’m hurt.” One feels powerful, the other vulnerable. But I’m hurt is more true, more clear, and therefore, more trustworthy. This is one reason why emotional courage is so critical to being an effective communicator and a powerful leader.

3. How should I communicate to achieve that outcome? 

Your goal here should be to increase your chances of being heard. So instead of considering how you can most clearly articulate your point, think about how you can predispose the other person to listen. Ironically, you don’t do this by speaking

at all. Instead, be curious and ask questions. Recap what you’re hearing. Then, before sharing your perspective, ask if you’ve understood the other person’s. If not, ask what you missed. If you hear a yes, ask, “Can I share my perspective?” A yes to this last question is an agreement to listen. And since you just gave a great example of listening, the other person is far more likely to return the favour.

4. When should I communicate to achieve that outcome? 

For many of us, communication is a gut reaction. The rule here is simple: Don’t communicate just because you feel like it. Communicate when you are most likely to be received well. Ask yourself when you are most likely to approach the communication with curiosity, compassion, and clarity, and when the other person is likely to be generous and calm.

The problem with most communication is that it’s easy. Anyone can thoughtlessly type out a 20-second text or a three-sentence e-mail. But communication is a direct line into a complex web of emotion that explodes easily. 

Remember, an explosion can be avoided with a few simple questions that, in most cases, take just seconds to answer. And, in those cases when you slip up and communicate unskilfully, there’s actually a very simple, straightforward way out of the jam…

This is an edited extract from Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work, by Peter Bregman 

Further reading

How couples can improve communication

How to communicate when you're angry

Face-to-face connection in a Facebook world

Email anxiety: how to get the right message across