The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. – George Bernard Shaw
This is one of my favourite quotes as I think it encapsulates the very essence of the challenges and opportunities around communication – don’t rely on assumptions, instead make your communication practice intentional.
Communication is a key competency influencing all we do throughout our lives and our leadership.
That’s why I want to share these 7 important communication skills with you.
We all know that effective listening is vital in developing trust and feelings of safety in people; for showing respect, and for intelligence-gathering. It’s also invaluable in the workplace – for relationship-building, leading staff and managing up. You can glean a great deal about your manager’s expectations, leadership style, and preferences, enabling you to establish good working relationships. However, for all its value, we know through research (starting with Ralph G. Nichols), that people listen ineffectually – with only about 25% efficiency.
How can we improve on this invaluable skill?
It’s helpful to appreciate the 3 levels of listening, which I talk about in my Forbes article, Leveling Up Your Listening: Whole-Body Listening:
- Level 1 Listening: this is when we listen to our inner voice/ thoughts/ internal monologue – e.g. “What shall I say next?” Or “Hmmm – I’m hungry.”
- Level 2 Listening: this is when we focus our attention on someone else – the person talking. We aren’t just listening to the words they say – we also pay attention to their body language and voice (i.e. non-verbal communication).
- Level 3 Listening: is when we pay attention also to the context we’re listening in – noticing the energy and environment of the space in which we’re having the conversation. E.g. that other people are listening, or the atmosphere is hostile.
Think about a recent encounter with someone or conversation you have had. How much time did you spend in each level? And, how can you listen more effectively?
I would like to highlight two perhaps less obvious practices that will help your listening powers to grow:
i) Set your listening intention
Intend to listen. This helps focus your attention and gives you motivation to do it. Setting an intention focuses your mind on showing up to fulfil that intention. You can specify how you intend to listen, for example:
“In this conversation, I will give my full attention to the speaker until they stop talking.” Or: “(X really annoys me – but…) I will listen carefully to their whole explanation with no judgements, keeping an open mind.”
By setting an intention, you are also creating new neural pathways to enable new behaviours to become habitual, then natural – so that listening well becomes your modus operandi.
This leads to the second intervention that I’d like to stress:
It is important to treat listening as a generative skill. It gets better with practice. We are aiming to build our listening muscles by using them regularly.
In my Psychology Today article : Deeply generous listening takes practice, I introduce you to the LISTEN acronym, which is, in brief:
- L List your listening strengths and growth areas. Listen to learn.
- I Set an intention to strengthen your listening practice.
- Senses and situation. Listen with your head, heart, and body. Consider the context or situation.
- Tend to others. Adopt an other-focus, demonstrate curiosity, and ask questions.
- Explore your Restate, paraphrase, summarize the other person’s message. Check for understanding.
- Noise reduction. Quiet your internal voice. Create space for silence, reflection and processing.
This is a way to develop your listening practice, and the mnemonic helps to remind you of its tips for listening. And remember – listening isn’t just about the words that are spoken.
2. Non-verbal cues and communication
Communication doesn’t simply involve listening and talking. There are important non-verbal cues you can see – and that you give out. Even when no words are spoken, you – and others – are still constantly communicating and conveying information.
The two main components to non-verbal communication are –
This is about the various qualities of our voice and how we use it: our tone of voice or intonation; our vocal pitch; the speed, tempo or cadence of our speech; the volume level and the length of pauses and use of silence.
The ability to exercise variety in our paralingual elements in a controlled and effective way helps you to have more impact as a communicator, making you a more interesting and engaging speaker. Consider:
- What do you want your voice to convey or do? (e.g. to influence or persuade)
- Think about a recent encounter/ conversation. How far did the person’s paralingual qualities align with their spoken message?
- How could you use intonation, speed, pauses or silence to convey your message?
ii) Body language
Our body language is a critical component of how well we connect (or do not connect) with other people. And, like any means of communication, body language applies both to ourselves and to others. Think about how someone uses their body as they talk. Pay attention to the 3 main body language areas:
- Posture – this is the stance, position or movement of the whole body. Without us even speaking, our posture is already communicating. Slumping, crossed arms, crossed legs, standing to attention – all of these (and more) convey a message.
- Gestures – clenched fists, glancing at one’s phone, pointing, shrugging – every gesture says something that endorses or undermines any words that are spoken.
- Facial expressions – a smile, grimace, frown, eye roll, wink – all say something.
Use your body language with consciousness, and communicating congruently between words and body will soon become a habit. When you’re giving a presentation or training, or trying to sell an idea, if you don’t look passionate or excited about what you’re delivering, you won’t be able to get your audience excited or passionate, either. No matter what the words say, a fitting facial expression, congruent posture and appropriate gestures are also needed to make the whole component of body language connect with your message – and with the audience.
Think about your ‘go-to’ body language or vocal habits.
- What do you habitually do? What message does it give people?
- What should you do, to better convey your message?
- What about other people you meet? Is their body language congruent with their words?
It’s all about alignment and congruence. Make sure that the message you’re giving with your non-verbal communication is the same as the message you’re speaking with your words.
3. Being Inclusive
Aim to be inclusive in your communications. How can you engage a range of individuals of different ages, cultures, backgrounds, personalities, abilities, career roles and grades.
We don’t necessarily know people’s stories, but for many women and introverts, and for people from certain cultures, speaking out, especially in public, can be far outside their comfort zone. (See Three Lessons Women Learned In School That Could Be Holding Them Back In The Workplace).
How do we encourage and include people, and ensure that we engage diverse individuals in two-way communications?
- Invite people to participate or contribute; ask them for their opinions, ideas and solutions.
- Acknowledge that contributions can be made in various ways – and introduce diverse means for people to contribute in the way that best suits them (e.g. quiet reflection, individual brainstorming; via email or chats, etc.)
- Encourage and gather great ideas by seeing other people as content providers, innovators and intelligence sources.
- Tell your boss what’s going on – both to inform them and as part of your career development: managing up and marketing yourself.
4. Be clear and keep it concise
Like Goldilocks, communicate ‘just right’ – without saying too little or too much. Talk to people with clarity and conciseness, so that they understand what you want. If you talk for too long and meander around several subjects, your listener is in danger of tuning you out or losing track of precisely what it is that you need them to do, or you want.
To communicate clearly and concisely:
- Keep in mind the words of Brené Brown: “Clear is kind.”
- Give a clear Call to Action – e.g. “I want you to compile the staff newsletter this month.”
You can even have those difficult conversations – such as addressing a staff member’s work performance or behaviour in a clear and concise manner – see my article: How to Navigate Difficult Conversations.
5. Practise Emotional Intelligence
Much has been written on Emotional Intelligence. (See my article on Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, for one!).
Here, I am going to focus on two specific components of this: Emotional Regulation and Empathy as they pertain to communicating.
Emotions are contagious – people tend to ‘catch’ yours; so, think of the emotions you are ‘giving out’. And, it’s important to remember that there is a negative bias to emotions – people are more likely to (negatively) remember a negative encounter with someone than positive ones. Bad feelings stick, and make people feel bad!
Therefore, it is best for us to navigate our emotions effectively – especially those negative feelings – and for us to remain calm under stress and pressure. If you are a leader (or even a parent!), being capable of regulating your emotions is invaluable. It helps you to be a positive role model for others. It also helps you to communicate and deliver feedback in an inclusive way that encourages conversation and change, and avoids people becoming defensive, entrenched and disconnected.
To help you regulate your emotions:
- Recognise and understand your triggers – and how they make you feel
- Do not act (or react) there and then. Take some time and space to give a considered response.
- Keep some ‘calming’ strategies at hand (breathing exercises, counting to 10, go out for some fresh air or a walk).
I would encourage you to think about the practices that work best and are most effective for you whenever you feel triggered. See if you need to add to them or update any of them, to increase the options you have available to you.
Empathy is vital for our communications – it is a way to build psychological safety, trust and connection between people.
Empathy is essential for finding connection and common ground with people, which is critical if you want to persuade or motivate them. If you don’t understand what it will take to shift someone’s beliefs or behaviour, you will have little chance of moving them.
You can think of empathy as intelligence gathering. To do it well, stay out of judgement, and remain open-minded. There are 3 components to empathy:
- The Cognitive: Discover their perspective – or what is their truth.
- The Emotional: Discover how they are feeling and share their feeling.
- The Compassionate: Discover – or help them discover what it is that they need, and where appropriate, act empathically and compassionately.
Remember, you are not assuming that you know what someone thinks or feels. Nor are you projecting your own thoughts or feelings onto them – you are taking the time to ask, find out, understand, feel with them, and help them.
6. Ask questions
Asking effective questions is a powerful communication skill that not only gathers information for you, but also engages other people, and enables them to grow.
- Ask open-ended questions (that don’t allow ‘yes/no’ answers. For example: “What went well?” or “What would you do differently next time?” These open-ended questions invite conversations and discussion, demonstrate curiosity and also signal that you are listening and inviting their thoughts, opinions and ideas.
- A “follow on” question is particularly effective – e.g. “Tell me more…” or “What was it about X that got those results?”
As a leadership coach, I use questions all the time. For more on this, see 10 Powerful Coaching Questions To Get You Started.
And don’t forget if you ask someone a question, you need to LISTEN to their response otherwise the power of the question and trust is lost.
7. Tell Stories
Storytelling is one of the most powerful communication tools we have at our disposal AND we have been hearing and telling them our whole life.
The neuroscience tells us that people remember stories more than facts and that stories are the single best vehicle we have to transfer our ideas to one another. Stories trigger a release of neurochemicals that force us to pay attention to a speaker, empathize with them, understand them, and get excited about their ideas.
So if you want to align your teams’ actions to the vision, or you want buy in for an important initiative, a new donor to come on board, or your counterpart to do something differently – you want to be able to communicate a compelling vision/message in a way that inspires, influences and persuades others to come on board – and storytelling can be a powerful tool to do this
Here are 3 resources that are great for helping you build this skill:
Don’t Just Curate, Create and Narrate Your Story – this is great for getting in the right mindset, helping us to understand why and how stories are important for influence, persuasion and change.
What’s The Moral Of Your Story? The Power Of The Lesson To Move Your Audience – this piece deals with an important aspect of storytelling – the lesson and how we need to focus on making the lesson of the story relevant as part of bringing about change.
7 (+3) Techniques to Effectively Tell Your Story – this piece includes some tips and tools for refining your story both related to content and delivery so you can feel more comfortable as you experiment with this tool.
We all want to be seen, heard and have an impact. Great communication can facilitate this. Powerful communicators do so in a way that connects their team or tribe to a compelling vision; inspire, influence and persuade to affect change; allow others and themselves to be heard and understood, and engage others by sharing their stories and experiences.
If you are interested in exploring your leadership, please feel free to download this comprehensive resource Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to strengthen your leadership.
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