We are fortunate today to have access to a variety of communications media. Our increasing reliance on instant connections through email, texts, and social media allows for quicker delivery of and response to workplace information and questions. That speed of communication is often tempting to rely upon over face-to-face interactions. In spite of the effectiveness of many digitalcommunications, there remains value in the personal, often dynamic, conversations conducted in person.
Successful communications require information to be conveyed and understood. Translating our thoughts into words seems relatively easy; making sure that the recipient of those words fully understands our intended meaning is the greater challenge. We improve our communication opportunities by better understanding the roles of both speaker and listener in a truly effective conversation.
Ask Better Questions. Our tendency, according to technology writer Shane Snow, is to ask poor questions, fear asking “silly” questions, or dominate a conversation so much that there is no room for questions. We may prefer to guide a conversation by progressively asking more specific questions or questions limited to a yes or no answer. Restricting the choice of answers restricts the conversation, and leading questions are often asked in an attempt to inspire a particular answer.
However, as Snow points out, “If you know the answer, why are you asking?”
The best questions leave space for a variety of answers. How do you phrase those questions? This question is a clue—start your question as a journalist would, with who, what, where, when,why, or how. A question started with one of the “5 Ws plus H” may be answered with a single word, but that word shouldn’t be a yes or a no. More often, answers will be longer and more detailed; these responses expand the conversation.
Listen to the Answers. Once you ask a question, learn to be comfortable with silence. Resist the urge to fill a quiet moment with words, especially if those filler words are possible answers to your question. Let the respondent think about their answer and give them the chance to answer in their own words. You’ll rarely learn anything if you offer all the answers.
Listening is more than just hearing. Listening requires non-verbal attention through body language that demonstrates you are listening. For example, look at the speaker. If you are looking around the room or at your smartphone, you are telling that speaker that your focus has been diverted to something else. Acknowledgement of the speaker’s ideas through a head nod or saying “un-huh” is recognition that the ideas have been heard, although not necessarily agreed with.
Listening during a conversation is just as important as speaking. However, politeness only goes so far. Don’t get lulled into a passive role in the conversation. Seeking clarification or more information is a better choice than walking awaywith unanswered questions.
Be Positive. Given the choice between hearing information delivered using positive rather than negative words and phrases, most people would choose positive language. Positive language does not require a positive situation or experience. Even a workplace crisisor customer service breakdown can be explained and resolved with positive words.
According to Mark Robert Waldman and Dr. Andrew Newberg, authors of the book Words Can Change Your Brain,human beings react emotionally to words before completely processing the intended meaning of those words. That emotional reaction or response often appears as a defensive attitude or tone.
Waldman and Newberg’s research proposes that three positive words to one negative word is a helpful ratio to consider when communicating with a co-worker or customer. In practice, that exact ratio is difficult to track in a conversation. A better option is to minimize the negative words used, such as fault, error, mistake, or unable. In general, emphasize what can be done going forward rather than what can’t be done (or wasn’t done).
Our digital society increasingly emphasizes fast, convenient, stream-of-consciousness communication. However, we are still human beings trying to communicate the value of our own ideas and, hopefully, an appreciation for the ideas of others. Effective communications take effort, and it is our willingness to fully participate in a conversation, both as a speaker and as a listener, that determines the successful transfer of meaning from one person to another.
Michael Hansen is an adjunct professor of business at COCC with a background in marketing and communications. You can reach him at 541-383-7710.