In response to a recent column about managing a negative employee (March 19), reader Florence Steichen commented on the use of "but" in the phrase "Start positive, but lay out your expectations."

As she noted, "I learned that 'but' often weakens the phrase before it. AND is usually the better choice, i.e. Start positive and be sure to lay out your expectations." I agree with this perspective; in fact, I have posted the phrase "Yes ... and ..." in my office as a reminder.

Florence's comment got me thinking about other conversational show stoppers, as well as ways to promote richer dialogue.

Consider the word "why." While innocent enough in some cases, when paired with the word "you" it can immediately put one on the defensive, as in "why did you ... " or "why haven't you ...." If you want to achieve joint problem solving, you'll have more luck with phrases such as "tell me more about ... " or "what was the rationale for ... ?"

Closed-ended questions can also limit communication by eliciting a simple yes/no response. More expansive questions such as "What was that new restaurant like?" will be more effective in opening up a conversation and helping build a connection.

And then there are Toppers -- people who always try to outdo someone else's story, whether it's good or bad. A better vacation, a worse illness; we have all met that person. If this strikes close to home, catch yourself in the act. You may be trying to relate to the other person, but ask questions instead to show your interest and then share your own experience.

Underdeveloped listening skills pose a major threat to effective communication. This takes many forms: interrupting, distraction by smartphone, thinking about what you want to say next, etc. If you have any of these habits, try making eye contact and focusing completely on what the other person is saying. Don't worry about having a chance to make your point or being able to express yourself well. That'll all work out, and the person you're speaking with will feel genuinely heard.

Some barriers to communication come from inside. Anxiety or insecurity can make it harder to focus on the other person. Also, it can be hard to listen openly to someone with whom you have a contentious relationship. Make a point of having an open mind to what people are saying so that you don't automatically discount their perspective.

The good news is that communication skills can be improved through awareness and practice. In fact, even effective communicators can always be improving. Here are some steps to follow.

Get feedback. Your friends, family, and co-workers will be able to let you know how your communication skills rate, and help you identify ways to improve.

Set goals. Identify a specific way that you'd like to improve, and then practice it.

Assess your progress. Notice when you're successful, and reflect on barriers you may have encountered.

Celebrate success. Find small but meaningful ways to acknowledge the progress you're making.

It's well worth the effort to focus on communication skills; it'll have a big payoff in both professional and personal aspects of life.