The art of communication is really one of connecting and engaging. It’s one of the most important skills we can learn, because in today’s complex world even the most talented person cannot accomplish very much by themselves. For example, we may look at a CEO or a doctor and think they are very powerful because of their position in society. To a certain extent this is true, but that power is dependent on other people. In order to become a doctor, that person had to get licensed by the medical board, perform well at interviews to even get in to medical school, and so on. The successful business person probably had to network or gain favor in his/her company to get a good job in the first place, and will need to continue to maintain good relationships in order to keep that position.
By mastering the art of communication we can gain the trust of others and make them feel good about working with us. We all instinctively chase good feelings and shy away from the negative ones, so if we want to work with talented people and gain people’s confidence, we can do so by making them feel validated and understood.
We’ve all heard about how listening is a vital part of communication. So why do so few of us practice it effectively? Throughout most of the day we are occupied with our interior monologue, and studies estimate that we think at the rate of 600-800 words per minute, while we speak at a rate of 120-150 words per minute. So in effect, the act of listening requires us to slow down and really pay attention.
You can take listening to the next level by practicing active listening. A simple verbal acknowledgement of some type such as “yea,” or “I see what you’re saying,” or “absolutely,” goes a long way to let people know you are listening, and encourages them to continue. On a more advanced level, you can throw in the occasional reflection. Simple reflections merely paraphrase what a person has said, while complex reflections summarize what has been said and add emphasis or meaning. This technique is commonly used by clinical psychologists.
Be mindful of your body language. Use open body language, not closed. In Western countries, eye contact is important and signifies confidence, openness and honesty. But you don’t have to stare the other person in the eyes constantly. You can look away occasionally, or look at a point near their eyes such as on their cheekbone, so that they know you are paying attention but you don’t come across as too intense. Use gestures, especially when addressing a group, to liven up your presentation.
Give People Your Full Attention
If you want to make a good impression, don’t look at your phone while conversing with someone, or answer or send a text. And don’t try to carry on two conversations at once, or look away to see who else is in the room. Make the person feel valued, even if they are your subordinate.
Questions are important because they unearth information that otherwise would not have been revealed. By asking questions, you are being proactive in understanding the other person and what they want from you. Try to think of one or two meaningful questions in every important business or social interaction. This will help to break up formality and lead to new and interesting avenues of exploration.
Respond in a Timely Fashion
This varies from person to person, but typically it is considered professional courtesy to respond to an email and/or phone call within 24 hours. Come on, we all check our email regularly, we know you’re not off in the woods somewhere. Responding promptly makes you come across as accountable and responsible. If you are going to be out for vacation or other extended time, have your email send a response that tells people that when they email you.
Close the Loop
Silence implies consent, but it is better to be proactive and let people know that they have been heard, for their own peace of mind. For example, if your boss sends out plans for a new sales initiative, instead of just assuming she knows that you’ve read it, you can send back a quick two-word email just so that she knows you’re on board. Of course this also varies from person to person. Some people do not like to receive a lot of emails.
That last point about email brings me to one last important point. Everyone is different, so it’s important to use social cues and active listening to quickly learn what will work best for each person, and calibrate our approach accordingly.
Communication works best when it is spontaneous and genuine, just like a trained pro athlete plays best on game day after thousands of hours in practice. We cannot all be super smooth, entertaining and calibrated on the fly, but with practice we can get there. If there is one principle that everyone can practice that will give the best returns, it is empathy. Make your employees/friends/loved ones feel appreciated, and they will lasso the moon for you.