By: Bob Schmidt
Several weeks ago I posted an article about developing Trust in a work team. One of the principles for developing trust in your team is good communication. This article will discuss our approach to communication skills here at Waymark in more detail.
Communication skills seem to be on every list of essentials for success whether it’s personal relationships, business success, political achievement, etc. Although the term is widely used, in most cases there is an implied assumption that we all know what good communication means. In reality, many of us actually don’t. Here are some of the elements of good interpersonal communication that we spend our time here working on.
Listening is one of the most important elements of good communication, and one of the hardest. Most of us listen to respond instead of listening to understand. As soon as we hear something that we want to react to, we stop listening and start processing our response. This can be a fatal flaw in your communication skill set, but there are some tools that you can employ to be a better listener.
Practice active listening every chance you get. Active listening involves shutting down that “respond” instinct and paying close attention to what the other person is saying until they are finished. Make what they are saying to you important. Then, ask clarifying questions to ensure that you actually understood what was being said. Rephrase what you have heard back in your own words to the other party so that they can confirm that your understanding is accurate.
- Time and Place
You can’t assume that someone else is ready to have a conversation with you just because you're ready to have a conversation with them. You will have no idea what they may be dealing with at that time which could materially affect their ability to focus. Heightened emotional states are generally a bad time to have a quality conversation, so avoid those circumstances for anything other than empathy. Check with the other party first and confirm that it is a good time to have a conversation with them. Have your conversation in a location that will minimize disruption and distraction, giving both parties the opportunity to focus on what is being said.
- Respect (focus)
You will be a much better communicator when you show respect for the other party and what they have to say. Active listening is a great start for this element. Other ways to communicate respect are using the person's name in your response, and making eye contact while both speaking and listening. Most of us tend to look away when we are processing information and that’s OK, but try to maintain eye contact as much as reasonably possible. Avoid distractions like your cell phone or computer or the sunny day outside the window and stay focused on the conversation.
- Open Mind
Go into the conversation with an open mind. You may think you have all the answers, but try to accept the reality that you don’t. Spending all your time trying to convince the other person that you are right and they are wrong is not a conversation; it’s a lecture. Each person has a different perspective on every issue and brings their own unique background, perceptions, and biases to each and every situation. Listen carefully so you can understand the other person’s perspective and point of view, and respect that they have a right to their opinion whether you agree or not. Once you both understand each other’s perspective, you can begin to work on finding the best outcome available under the circumstances.
If you study leadership at all you will know that the best leaders willingly seek out those who hold dissenting opinions with the goal of understanding their perspective and what's on their mind. Have the confidence to listen to opposing views; this will often help you understand a situation better than you otherwise could. These conversations will challenge you and force you to consider other perspectives. Remember that it's not the opinion that matters as much as willingness to hear and understand it.
- Clear and Concise
Learn to communicate clearly. Simple and concise is always better than complicated and confusing or tedious and wandering. Time is often our most scarce resource, so practice getting to the point of the conversation quickly, but not abruptly. It’s OK to open with a personal connection of some kind, however if you take too long to get to the point people will likely tune you out and start thinking about all the other tasks they have waiting for them.
- Nonverbal Communication
How many times have you heard the phrase “It’s not what you say, but how you say it”? Have you taken the time to really think through what that means? Communication is much more about how your message is delivered than what your message is. Your tone of voice, body language, eye contact, hand gestures, all become part of message that you convey. There is lots of research in this area and it all indicates that these non verbal cues account for 70% or more of how your message is received. Imagine being in a conversation and the other person starts looking out the window instead of making eye contact. Or, they lean back in their chair and cross their arms. Regardless of the words being exchanged, your perspective on the quality of the conversation changes materially in both cases. Practice working with all of these elements of your communication style until you get better with them and can consciously manage them when speaking and listening.
The reverse is also true. Learn what these non-verbal cues can tell you and pay attention to other people's nonverbal signals while you are talking. This will help you keep the conversation going in the right direction.
- Be Prepared
When you speak, know what you're talking about. Be careful that you don’t state your opinions as facts, because they aren’t. Make sure that you have an adequate depth of knowledge in your subject matter. If you don't have some subject matter expertise, few people pay any attention to what you have to say. Good communicators address all of the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) necessary in order to properly present the topic under discussion.
- Read Between the Lines
Be conscious of the fact that the person you are speaking to may not feel comfortable being totally honest in your conversation. Many people have become conditioned to fear open and honest conversations. This can be due to the potential for a negative or hostile response, appearing to be uninformed or inadequate, or a variety of other negative outcomes. In some cases it can be a cultural norm to have pleasant and superficial conversations rather than actually address issues that need to be dealt with. Skilled communicators possess a great sense of situational awareness which they can use to draw out comments and thoughts that wouldn’t be volunteered. They know how to watch for the non-verbal cues that someone is uncomfortable, disengaged, or holding back, and they can adapt the conversation to try to get at the underlying cause of this situation and the information that should be discussed. Using some of the tools noted earlier such as clarifying questions and rephrasing can help get at these unspoken views, and showing consistency in respecting the views of others and having an open mind will help you get engaged in more open and honest conversations.