How often do we have problems understanding and being understood in our important verbal communication? Far too often! I’ve recently been reminded of some core principles of effective communication that are worth passing on, because we all can do better.
Let’s start with being the listener. Keep in mind that in almost any situation the best thing to do is spend more time listening than talking. Primarily talk only when you have a question or need clarification, preferably towards the end of the exchange. Follow these guidelines for effective listening:
- Devote all of your attention to, and make direct eye contact with, the other person.
- Do not interrupt.
- Listen for content AND meaning (the latter is crucial).
- Do not judge.
- Be courteous.
After the speaker is finished, in many circumstances it really helps to tentatively restate/paraphrase what was said and get confirmation that this is what the speaker intended (if not, continue the dialog to get to that point). Then discuss any needed follow up.
What about when you are the speaker? To some extent, you just need to turn the above guidelines around, but there are other key things to keep in mind:
- Be prepared; be knowledgeable about your content and the purpose of the interaction.
- Be clear about what you mean.
- Use plain, understandable language.
- Start with simpler concepts and build toward more complex concepts.
- Be courteous.
- Use active voice.
- Avoid distractions and focus your attention on the other person.
- Allow the other person opportunities to interject (e.g., ask for clarification and add content).
- Be flexible and non-judgmentally respond to the point of view of the other person.
One area of verbal communication that often presents problems is raising and responding to difficult issues, especially criticisms. This is particularly true during performance evaluations. Communication experts Susan and Peter Glaser (check them out at www.theglasers.com) presented one of the best education seminars I ever attended, focusing on raising and responding to difficult issues. The methodology they taught really helped me over the years.[i] Here is a summary of what I learned.
If you have to raise a difficult issue:
- Ensure the setting is appropriate (e.g., confidential and quiet).
- Apply the regular communication guidelines (be prepared, clear, etc.).
- Use an opening statement that is not threatening (e.g., “I asked for this meeting because I think we can work together to solve some issues that the team is facing.”)
- Do not use accusatives and focus on “I” statements.
- Be clear and concise about the specific facts that support why you are raising this issue.
- State how the situation makes you feel, expressing empathy (“…when this happens, I feel left out/unhappy/upset/discriminated against/etc.”).
- Ensure the other person has opportunities to speak.
- Acknowledge any contribution that you may have made to the issue.
- Propose how you can help improve the situation.
- Express what you want the other person to do to improve the situation.
- Make an agreement on the who/what/how/when of following up, including fine-tuning the agreement when necessary.
What if the other person is criticizing or conveying other negative comments towards you? This is similar to raising issues in some respects, but adds some key elements:
- Apply the regular listening guidelines (don’t interrupt, listen for content and meaning, etc.)
- State how you feel about the situation, expressing empathy for the position of the other person.
- Use “I” statements (and not “You” statements).
- Ask for specifics that help explain the criticism.
- If no specifics are offered, offer your own thoughts about why.
- It is important to express your agreement as much as you can on the underlying facts/reasons for the criticism.
- Express your understanding of why the person is being critical (e.g., “Given the facts, I can understand why you would think this way/make this conclusion”).
- Offer what you can do to help improve the situation.
It is important to also pay attention to nonverbal communication when speaking with others (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonverbal_communication). Studies have shown that one’s gestures, body positioning and distance, clothing, facial expressions and eye contact, etc. can comprise over half of the message you give to others. So, pay attention to these factors as well!
Effective interpersonal communication is critical to our success in our professional lives. We all struggle to do our best. Please share your thoughts on the subject by making a comment below. Thank you for your help!
[i] I highly recommend the Glasers if you have a need for great training on effective communication. They also have a great blog and an annual training course.