Communication skills are one of the most important professional skills to have no matter what your job or industry is. Look at any survey or article about the most important career skills to have and you will see communication skills are on those lists.
There are lots of resources available on how to improve communication, so I’m not going to restate things that are common knowledge. Instead I simply want to share some of my own thoughts on strengthening your communication skills as a way to improve your career opportunities.
Learn to Listen
Listening effectively is difficult because you must postpone attention to your own immediate concerns. You must delay the gratification of getting your point across. It’s much easier to pause and be patient when you realize that actively listening will actually help get your own point across, when the time for that comes. Here’s how: when you try to listen and comprehend another’s point of view first, it should make them more attentive when it’s your turn to speak. Stephen Covey recommends “seeking first to understand, then seeking to be understood.”
Another important element of listening well is the practice of rehearsing back what the other person has said, but in your own words:
- “Let me see if I understand you correctly…“
- “Is this what you meant…“
- “So what you are saying is…”
Demonstrating that you understand someone else needs to include the emotional aspect of the information they share. If someone describes an emotionally-charged idea or experience, you need to convey that you understand their feelings. Some psychology experts suggest that you shouldn’t reflect someone’s emotion over a heated issue during a conversation, that you should remain calm and indifferent. But if you don’t reflect at least a little of the anger or anxiety people are expressing to you, even if you don’t fully sympathize with them, I believe it minimizes what they feel and communicates indifference on your part.
For example, let’s imagine a friend or coworker came to you and said, “My boss just told me today that I have to complete my project two weeks earlier than we originally agreed to. I’m probably going to have to work over the weekend to get it done on time. Can you believe that?!?”
How could you respond to reflect some of the frustration this friend feels?
Like we already discussed, being a good listener include reflecting not just the information, but also the emotional elements of what people communicate. So if a friend or coworker of mine had said that to me, I would say something like, “That’s very unfair of him to do that to you! It’s going to ruin your weekend!”
In every conversation you have with someone, practice using this reflection skill to improve your listening ability. As you do it consistently, it will enhance your career skills AND your influence in your company and with customers.
Making Your Point
One of the best ways to communicate your ideas or feelings to someone else is through the use of story. Sharing abstract ideas has little effect on people. We don’t remember abstract ideas as well as detailed narratives either. If you want someone to understand, believe, and remember what you say, then give your communication some character. Your narrative doesn’t need to be the “once upon a time” fashion, just a tale or anecdote that reinforces your point.
The story you use to help make your point needs a beginning, middle and ending. More specifically, it needs a person, a problem, the person’s choice or action, and the result. Try developing the habit of using these simple narratives when you’re trying to persuade someone to believe or do something. You will find they are much more effective than just simply stating facts or arguments.
For example, on more than one occasion, and with more than one employer, I got assigned more work than one person should handle. When I complained, I found no sympathy from my managers. In order to communicate to them, how overburdening me would affect their stress levels and workload, I told them the fable about the Goose and the Golden eggs. I said that I feel like I was being cut open so they could get my golden eggs, and that if they persisted, they would be left with no golden eggs and no goose. One manager I shared this with didn’t change anything because of it; I left that job for a better one a few weeks later. Another manager seemed to grasp what I was trying to say better because of that story and reevaluated the timelines for my projects.
One other element that is important to making your point is to verify that other people understand you. Don’t simply ask, “Do you understand.” Many people will nod their heads that they do understand, even when they don’t. Ask an open-ended question that will help verify whether they understand or not. If you shared a story or experience, ask something like, “Why do you think I shared that experience with you?” Their response should tell you if they grasped the point you were trying to make or not.
You want people you talk with to do some of their own reflecting back to you, so invite and encourage them to repeat, in their own words, what you tried to communicate to them. But you want to do this without being condescending. You don’t want to sound or seem like a parent or schoolteacher asking a child to repeat back what they just said to the child. So asking questions that are inviting, which can reveal how much people understand of what you said, without making them feel like they’re being tested.
Some other types questions you can ask to really see if others have understood what you meant to say are:
- What is it that you like most about my plan or idea?
- If you were in the same situation, what would you do differently?
- What experiences have you had that are like mine?
Do you see how asking these types of questions after you said something will help ensure you have communicated effectively? As you develop the habit of asking these types of follow up questions after you’ve said something, people will also develop the habit of listening to you more carefully.
Reading Out Loud
One more practice that I want to share, one that I have learned about from experience, is to consistently read out loud when you have the chance. Reading books, articles, websites, emails, etc. out loud to yourself improves your voice and your dictation. As you do this consistently (you may not be able to while you’re at work), you’ll become a much more clear speaker and be able to communicate much more confidently.
This habit of reading out loud may seem too simple to make that much of a difference, but try it for 20-30 minutes a day for about three weeks, and I promise you and other around you will hear an improved difference in the way you speak. You will sound more professional and self-assured.
Again, It was not my point in this article to discuss all the ways to improve your communication. These suggestions are just a few of my thoughts on what you can do to be an effective communicator and improve your career opportunities.
- Listen more effectively by rehearsing, in your own words, what someone says to you. In addition to reiterating some of the information of what they say, you also want to learn how to reflect some of the emotion that people are trying to convey to you.
- Use stories, metaphors, personal experiences, and case studies to illustration the point of what you are trying to say. This will help people better comprehend and remember what you want them to understand.
- Read out loud regularly to improve your speaking ability. You’ll sound much more articulate, professional, and confident as you practice this habit regularly.