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January 14, 2016
Communication is the base for all that happens. Think about it. Teaching and learning, decisions, solutions, laws, relationships – all occur with the realm of communication. Even though we live in a world of texting, email, Twitter, and such, we do still have to communicate effectively. We need to make sure that what we are saying is exactly what we mean to say and that the receivers of our communication understand what we are saying. If communication skills are not mastered, both sending and receiving, then an individual’s personal and professional life can suffer. Wars have been fought because parties have refused to communicate; a leading cause of divorce is failure in communication; businesses fail because the key players don’t communicate effectively with one another or with their clients/customers.
You don’t want “wars,” either professional or personal. They are not pretty. This guide has been put together so that you may review, enhance, and fine tune your communication skills and avoid the bad things that happen when communication goes awry.
Everyone as a child has played this listening game. We sat in a large circle. A secret was whispered into the ear of the first person. That person then whispered the secret to the next, and so on around the entire circle. The last person to receive the message then publicly announced the secret. Everyone always laughed, because of the startling difference between the original message and how it had changed as it made its way around the circle. This is used to demonstrate that our listening skills are just not that good. Learning to listen takes a commitment of time and attention. We tend not to have a lot of time. But taking the time to really listen prevents misunderstandings, conflicts, mistakes, frustrations, and hurt feelings. It can prevent waste, loss and harm. There are ten techniques that you can implement easily and right now to become a better listener.
It has happened to everyone at some point. A teenager is rolling his/her eyes and looking anywhere but at his/her parent while that parent is trying to explain or correct; a co-worker, boss, or supervisor is focused on something else while you are talking to them; a spouse or partner does not look up from his/her computer screen while you are trying to make a point or get some input. Remember how you felt? Angry? Frustrated? Discounted? Unimportant? Don’t let someone talking to you feel that way. Even if the speaker doesn’t always look you in the eye (sometimes that speaker may be shy or embarrassed) you be certain to look at that person, stop what you’re doing, and give that speaker your full attention. It not only shows the speaker that s/he has value to you, but it ensures that you are focused and going to actually hear what is being said.
To really be attentive, you have to be mentally “present,” that is, you cannot be thinking about other things, daydreaming, or letting other issues, problems or background activity/noise distract you. In your attentiveness, don’t sit or stand rigidly and stare. This is a conversation, and the speaker will feel more comfortable if you present a moderately relaxed persona.
When we have strong opinions or beliefs and someone is speaking to us from another position, it is easy to discount what is being said with such thoughts as, “He is wrong about that,” or “I don’t agree at all,” or “That is a stupid move.” You are not a good listener when you criticize or judge – you are having a conversation with yourself not with the speaker.
By the same token, don’t jump in and try to finish the speaker’s thought – coming to conclusions ahead of time tells the speaker that you have no interest in what s/he has to offer. And you may not know where the speaker is “headed” at all if you do this – you are only following where your train of thought it taking you. This is a hard habit to break, but if you continue to do this, speakers will stop trying to communicate with you in person. They will just send you emails and texts instead.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make, especially when a conversation involves a discussion, heated or not, in which both speaker and listener have points to make and want their points to be heard. They don’t want to forget them. So, as they are supposed to be listening, instead, they are planning in their heads what they are going to say next. No meaningful discussion can occur in these circumstances.
When you interrupt, the speaker loses his/her train of thought. As well, it sends a signal that what s/he has to say is just not important enough for you to listen all the way through. This is such a common occurrence on TV today, and children grow up thinking it is normal and okay. It’s not. Interrupting sends the following messages to the speaker:
You may be a more agile thinker and speaker. You may be listening to someone who is not. You need to slow down and allow that speaker to formulate his/her thoughts and get those thoughts out.
Sometimes, people just need to verbalize problems and issues, because it helps think them through and come up with solutions. Unless you are asked for your solutions, don’t give them. If you are asked or if you believe you have a great solution, wait. Hear the speaker out first. You may not have every angle of the issue or problem until it is fully explained.
It’s a good thing to ask questions. It shows the speaker that you are listening and you either need clarification or more information. But be careful not to interrupt the speaker’s train of thought by asking them right in the middle of the speaking. Wait for a break or a pause. Then as for them to repeat or to clarify. And, once that has been done, repeat what was said in your own words and look for confirmation that you “heard” the person correctly.
Don’t ask questions that will get the speaker off track. This is something that occurs so commonly. A friend is filling you in on a new restaurant he has found and is describing the great food and atmosphere. All of a sudden you ask if he has been to another new restaurant that you know about. Immediately, the conversation has been changed, and it now has nothing to do with the original intent of the speaker.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – to understand his/her joy, frustration, sadness, fears etc. You may not be able to muster up those same feelings (e.g., it may be difficult for you to experience the same fear if you don’t actually have it), but you have to dignify that person’s emotions in the responses that you have. While that person is speaking, try to show your empathy with non-verbal cues – facial expressions, nodding your head, and so forth. A speaker is far more willing to be totally honest and open when s/eh feels that the listener “gets it.”
You don’t have to interrupt to give feedback. You can nod your head, say things like, “uh-huh,” and give other non-verbal messages that you understand. If you are not understanding what is begin said, wait for a pause. Then engage in what is called “active listening.” Say things like “What I hear you saying is…” and make sure that you have “heard” correctly. A lot of misunderstanding can be avoided if you do this as a listener. Often, a speaker won’t be clear. S/he understands something so well that important detail may be left out – detail that creates confusion for the listener. As a listener, you do have an obligation to make sure that you have really understood what is said.
Tone of voice is often a “dead giveaway.” You can pick up anger, frustration, fear, sarcasm, happiness and more just from that. And when you are in the physical presence of the speaker, watch for body language. Arms crossed is usually a sign of rigidity; slumped shoulders may be sending a message of unhappiness or disinterest; fidgeting is a sign of nervousness or anxiety; hands and arms are used to signify importance; sitting up and leaning forward is generally a sign of enthusiasm. You can learn a lot by watching for these things.
A Final Note: when you finish a conversation with someone, and you have done a lot of listening, it helps to give a verbal summary at the end. If there have been mis-understandings or if some important information has been forgotten, this is the time when it can be clarified or repeated again.
Most people have formal coursework that involves verbal communication. College require an oral communications class; in many major fields of study, there are courses that require oral presentations. The more experience someone has with oral presentations, speeches, debates, and panel discussions, the better communicator they become. What is not usually “covered” in this coursework is the less formal verbal communication situations that occur commonly in the workplace, in semi-social situations, and in our personal lives – meetings, phone calls, discussions, etc. We want to be clear and articulate; we want to make ourselves understood; and we want to fine tune our listening skills, so that we really “hear” what others are saying. Here are 8 tips for getting better at this whole communication thing.
There are lots of other things you can do to improve your verbal communication skills. Do some research on your own and find some activities that you personally find valuable.
Our bodies speak volumes when we communicate verbally. We use different tones of voice; we use facial expressions, we use our arms and hands in gesturing; we use our eyes and our posture. All of these things make what we are saying more meaningful to the listener.
And as we listen, still the non-verbal communication continues. We are watching the body of the speaker for messages; and we are still sending non-verbal messages as we listen.
Non-verbal cues can either reinforce what is being said or belie it, and it is those cues that a listener believes. They are natural and truthful, no matter what is being said. When your non-verbal messages match the words, all is well. When they do not, the listener loses trust or becomes confused. So, if you really want to improve your verbal communication skills (speaking or listening), you need to become more aware of those non-verbal communicators. In fact, they can do 5 things:
When you speak or listen, there are 7 non-verbal cues you are continuously relaying to others.
Your non-verbal messages are quite automatic. You have developed habits of non-verbal communication over the years. They are now a part of your almost unconscious, natural communication, and, as you communicate, they just naturally assert themselves. This is why non-verbal cues are far more truthful than what may be coming out of your mouth.
Non-verbal cues impact how others perceive you and what they think of you. People will learn to trust or not to trust, to respect or not to, based upon whether your non-verbal behaviors match your words or not. As well, non-verbal communication can demonstrate aggression, fear, lack of confidence, or dishonesty.
Part of fine-tuning your non-verbal communication is knowing your audience. The other part is practice, to change habits that are quite ingrained.
Knowing Your Audience
Sometimes, it is not possible to have a full understanding of your listener. You may not know the person or people with whom you are communicating. But when you do know your listener, what you say and the non-verbal communication you present as a speaker or listener is critical. If your listener is a bit timid and lacking in confidence, for example, coming on with aggressive communication and body language will destroy the communication event. By the same token, if you know that your listener is aggressive, energetic and confident, then your non-verbal communication can also reflect that.
You will need to practice the non-verbal cues you give, so that you become more of a “situational” communicator. This is not an easy skill to master, and it will take time. However, if you can become sensitive to the needs of those with whom you communicate, you are more apt to get what you need out of a communication event. And those needs involve your non-verbal behaviors and cues, not just what you say or what you hear.
Changing Your Habits
Very smart and very dedicated people often struggle in their communication efforts. And sometimes, they do not even realize that their non-verbal cues are sending the wrong messages. You have to dump old habits and practice using and interpreting non-verbal messages. Here are some important tips to help you do that.
Paying attention to all of these things will drive what you ultimately say and your own non-verbal behaviors.
People who practice assertion in communication are those who confront issues and problems in a direct manner. Assertiveness is not to be confused with aggression and is certainly the opposite of passive-aggressive behavior as well. It is healthy communication in that it neither “runs over” others nor does it allow others to “run over” you. Here are the many benefits of being assertive in your communication:
We tend to communicate in a style that we have learned over time, and if that style is not assertive, then we have re-learning to do. For example, if we have learned a passive-aggressive style, we tend to say “yes” when we do not want to; we tend not to express our opinions and feelings openly, but then we find ourselves resentful and angry. To become more assertive, you may want to look at the following strategies for doing so:
Becoming assertive in communication takes time and practice. Allow yourself time to develop this skill, just as you allowed yourself time to learn anything else. Consider yourself as a student with a curriculum to master. You’ll get there. If you are not making good progress, there are assertiveness training classes that will help.
Good teachers and actors are, first and foremost, good public speakers. They can capture an audience, keep interest, and “sell” their products. Public speaking actually occurs in a wide variety of environments. Thus, a job interview is a type of public speaking; presenting a proposal to investors is public speaking; even a presentation at work in which the audience may include superiors whom you do not know well is public speaking.
To make your speaking dreads less dreadful and perhaps enjoyable, here are 9 strategies and tips that will help you do your best and impress your audience.
Good teachers do not go into a classroom without great preparation for the lesson they will teach. Likewise, no actor goes onto stage without hours upon hours of preparation for his role. You have to look at public speaking in the same light. You have an audience waiting to be informed, inspired, or entertained, and you are the main act.
As you prepare your speech or presentation, divide it into sections. Inexperienced speech makers will probably want to write out everything that they plan to say; more experienced speakers who know their subject really well usually prepare and outline with bullet points that need to be covered. However you need to do it, make sure that the notes you take with you are divided with sections clearly marked. This way, if you should lose your train of thought you at least can find the section. The key, of course, is to know your material so well that you can get yourself back on track easily.
The most important reason for practicing is to make yourself as comfortable with your content, your intonations, your body language, and more. You want to appear natural with your gestures, your pauses, your points of emphasis. You also want to practice speaking a bit slower than normal – in front of a real audience you will naturally speed up, due to some nervousness. Enlist the help of a friend to listen to your speech and give you feedback.
“Dry mouth” is a common condition when people are nervous and trying to speak. And it’s something you definitely don’t want. Your mouth will not let you enunciate well. So, drink before you go on, and keep a bottle of water close by. There is nothing wrong with taking short break for a bit of water during a speech. It is common and expected.
Before your speech, the worst thing you can do is go over and over that speech. You have rehearsed and you know it. Before the speech, you need to do what relaxes you best – read a book, play a game, do some Yoga, meditate, listen to music. This will keep you from obsessing about your nervousness. And warming up your voice will go a long way to countering nervousness too. Try humming a few bar of your favorite song before you go on, if you are in a place where you can do so.
It goes without saying that you should get a good night’s rest before the day of a speech. If the speech is at night, then take a nap in the afternoon.
If you understand the nature of the event and your audience, you will have no difficulty knowing the style of dress – formal, semi-formal, business casual, or casual. A good rule is to dress suitably for the occasion, but be impeccable no matter what that dress may be. If you dress in something you know you look good in, and you feel good in, you will have greater confidence.
In the nervousness of speaking, it is easy to become a bit mush-mouthed. You’ve heard people speak like this before. It’s really hard to understand them and pretty soon you tune them out. You will not suffer from this if you have practiced and if you slow down as you speak.
Do not be afraid to speak louder than you normally do, especially if you do not have a microphone and the room is a good sized one. Being nervous can make some people speak softly, so simply be mindful. And it is perfectly okay to check at the beginning if those in the back can hear you. You don’t want to waste a perfectly good speech on those who don’t hear what you have to say.
Don’t fill spaces in between words with “ummm’s” and “uh’s.” If you have practiced well, even if you have a tendency to do this in your normal speaking, you should be able to avoid this. A small pause in between words, phrases, or thoughts is perfectly fine. You won’t lose your audience and you certainly won’t irritate them the way those “ummm’s” do.
Many of these techniques and strategies will also work as you prepare for a job interview. For example, you can come up with a list of questions that a typical interview will include. Then, have a friend ask them and practice responding using the tips here. You’ll appear far more confident to any hiring manager.
Many of today’s executives and hiring managers state that college grads do not have the language skills of their counterparts in previous generations. While business language skills are a small niche within the overall area of communication skills (verbal and written), they are pretty critical for success of business professionals individually and of organizations as a whole. Inadequate or poor communication results in poor conveyance of information, mis-understandings, loss of sales, and internal conflict. It’s a good idea for everyone in or entering business careers to take a look at their communications skills and find ways to improve them. It establishes their credibility and professionalism both within and outside of the organization. Here are some methods for doing just that.
It’s important to stay current on all trends in business and finance, whether they relate to your niche or not. You never know when a name, a piece of news, or event may be discussed at a gathering of business associates or in a discussion with clients. You want to be able to converse on the topic and have the vocabulary and understanding of terms to look intelligent. The term “content marketing,” for example, is a relatively new term (past 15 years). If someone asks what your firm is doing in that respect, you need to know the term and be able to communicate your company’s efforts within this regard.
If your find yourself listening to conversations and not understanding the terminology or “jargon” being used, you have a clear message that you need to “bone up” on your business vocabulary. There are a lot of sources for doing this, in addition to listening/watching business-related programs. Keep a business vocabulary dictionary in your office. When you hear or see a term with which you are unfamiliar, look it up. The Internet is also a great source for business terminology. You can even find crosswords and word searches related to business and finance – playing these will enhance your working vocabulary. When you use the latest terminology in your speaking and writing, you sound smart and relevant.
Every industry has its “gurus.” Who are some in your field? Read their articles, their blogs and their books. Not only will you learn the latest business language but you will see it used correctly in writing. The more you see terms and words used correctly, the more apt you are to use them correctly too
Aside from business language itself, you also have to have a good command of the English language and be able to write and speak correctly. Nothing is a bigger “turn-off” than for a client or potential client to receive an email, a proposal, or other communication that is poorly written. The reputation of the entire organization falls in that client’s eyes. If you know that this is an area of weakness, do some serious self-study. And, in the meantime, have your written stuff proofread by someone whose English skills you trust. Business writing is very different from academic writing and from literature. Clarity, preciseness, and simplicity are valued.
As you learn new vocabulary and as your work to improve your business writing skills, do some practice on your own. Write sample memos, letters and such and have someone provide you with feedback. Is everything clear? Are your thoughts well-organized and logically flowing? Have you used terminology correctly? The more practice you have, the better you will get.
Every organization relies on its team member to be good communicators – both verbally and in writing. And they do not want to be embarrassed or to lose business because career professionals they have hired do not have the vocabulary and communication skills they should. Don’t be an embarrassment to your organization – take the time to get that business language and writing up to date.
Whether in your personal or professional life, you will make mistakes in your conversations with others. That’s a given. The goal is to reduce these mistakes as much as possible, but that goal can be hard to achieve. Some of our mistakes come from habits we have formed over many years. Overcoming them will require some changes that can be as hard as any other bad habit we try to break. Ask a years’ long smoker how tough it is to give up that habit. Poor conversation habits can be just as hard to “break.” Here are some common ones with some suggestions for making changes.
Romeo and Juliet both ended up dead. For those of you who don’t remember or who have never read or seen the play, here is how this all happened. The Montague and the Capulet families were in a long feud – so long in fact, that the current living members couldn’t even remember how it started. Obviously, they lacked basic communication skills. Romeo, a Montague, and Juliet, a Capulet, fell in love and got secretly married. They planned to run away together and live happily ever after. To put this scheme in motion, Juliet and her priest “cooked up” a plan to fake her death, so that her parents would not come looking for her. Unfortunately, Romeo didn’t get the message about all of this. So, he comes to visit the “dead” Juliet and, believing her to be truly dead, kills himself. She then wakes up as the potion wears off, finds Romeo dead, and kills herself. While many hail this play as having many themes, few talk about the fact that a very critical theme is lack of communication.
Our own communication challenges will certainly not end in this horrific a tragedy. However, they can impact our lives – both personal and professional – in negative ways. For this reason, all of us must continually work on improving our communication skills, so that we can be clear and open in what we say and so that we can truly “hear” what others are saying to us.
The same communication skills that you use in the workplace are transferrable and crucial to your personal life.
Early man communicated with grunts and gestures. Life was simple then – it involved eating, finding shelter, making tools, and procreation. Language developed because life became increasingly complex, and man had to find new words and new ways to communicate. Written language came to be, and oral language became more and more important too as division of labor evolved and social relationships became more important. We’re still evolving, and life is still becoming more complex. We’ve adapted through the use of technology, and lots of communication occurs without parties being physically together. There will always be an important place for face-to-face communication, however, and mastering skills for that type of communication is still a required curriculum.