Whether it’s a job interview, a team meeting or a project update, we all work much better if we cooperate with each other. To do that, we need to understand clearly what the others are saying as well as make sure that we are understood. This style of communication doesn’t come natural to all of us, and if we skip checking for understanding or make assumptions, we might be contributing to the failure of what we were communicating about.
Fortunately, there are five basic skills you can practice to improve your communication style, improve your chances of being understood and contributing to your success. I consider these key interpersonal skills for anyone, but as your career matures, they become the cornerstone of a much wider palette of communication tools.
Listen more than you talk
Suppress the urge to interrupt others and have your say. You might believe they are wrong, or you might have information they do not. You may feel that you’re being targeted or singled out, or you may believe you can sidestep the entire conversation with your conclusion. But interrupting others means antagonizing them, and reducing their feeling of contribution. If you won’t listen to them, how will you take their opinions into account? Once that thought settles, they will be hesitant to give you their opinion, because you might discard it offhand.
Rather, remember the key points they said and wait for the right time to respond. If you feel you might not remember all, make sure to always carry a small notebook with you so you can take notes, or use a notepad app on your phone. Other people might give clues that it’s gone on long enough, like looking away or sitting up straighter as if they want to jump in. A silence falls, or they end their sentence with a key question word. “right?”, “don’t you think so?”, “am I wrong?”
At this point, reference what they said, and tie it with your own opinion or findings. “You said we lost money last quarter, but I have data here that said we broke even. I think we’re better off than you might think”. “I agree that we need a better brand of coffee in our coffee machines, but we need to follow the acquisitions process to get it.”
Spending more time listening – really listening, not just letting people speak and having the words glide past you – means you get a better understanding of people. Take the time to study them, their body language and facial expressions. Find out how they show you if they are passionate about something, when they disapprove of something. Those visual clues will come in handy later when you need to gauge their reactions to your own words, and you can’t learn them unless you take the time to listen and observe the people you interact with.
Check for understanding
Too often we can make a long speech and the only check for understanding at the end is “any questions?”
Communication is not a one-way street, where you keep moving on until you hit a toll booth. It is your responsibility to check if your audience understood what you were saying. In a project meeting, you might say “so that will end phase one. Any questions or comments before I proceed?” and then repeat that for each phase before recapping at the end. In a job interview you might ask a question instead like “That is how I see my previous experience being relevant for the job. Do you agree with that, or have I missed something important?” not just to gauge understanding but take control of the conversation while apparently taking another’s lead.
The key steps here are to ask if people understood, perhaps after a short one or two sentence recap of what you said. If someone does not, find out where the understanding went awry by asking them what they understood from what you said and find out where they’re moving off track. Perhaps they have a valid argument and there is a snag in your statements (see “Listen more than you talk”) and you might benefit from their insight. Otherwise, you’ve got an opportunity to tweak their understanding a bit.
Key is to present yourself as an expert, that you know your stuff, without sounding like you scold others for not understanding. If they didn’t get it, often the problem lies with you. Be patient and take the effort to get everyone at the same level of understanding before proceeding.
Ask questions to make a statement
Sometimes what you say is less important than how you say it. If you have people who disagree or can’t finalize an agreement, it often pays to speak with each separately and – with a clear goal in mind – ask questions in such a way that they lead to a single, shared set of conclusions from which to work.
For example, two co-workers cannot agree on a process because one believes it to be too expensive and without return on investment, and the other knows that there are other sources of revenue that open up as a result of implementing this process. They have difficulty explaining to each other their worries and opportunities, and as such get stuck in their project at the first step.
You could ask the following kinds of questions to ensure understanding, and lead to one conclusion:
Colleague 1: “You are concerned about the return on investment on a big project, correct?” “Would it help to make sure we have a project plan include the opportunities for revenue that are associated with it?” “So if we can show that we come out ahead – including some worst- and best-case scenarios, you’d be on board?”
Colleague 2: “You believe there are opportunities for revenue not shown in the project, correct?” “How big would estimate the chances of us being able to make those opportunities a reality?” “Can you make an analysis of these opportunities, and give me a worst- and best-case scenario, so we can include it in the project plan?”
In this case, both coworkers are validated and feel listened to. In the case of colleague 1, you have the source of their worries, and address them by giving a set of circumstances under which they would agree to go along with the project. In the case of colleague 2, you acknowledge the opportunities, but show that you want tangible evidence that they could materialize. With the information supplied by colleague 2, you might be able to convince colleague 1, and then move.
The key here is that you let the other person explain their point of view, and then extract the things that have become blockers to the conversation. Seeing opportunities others don’t believe in can be as much a blocker in a conversation as only seeing problems and obstacles!
Repetition as eraser
There’s nothing that derails a conversation as quickly as mixed truths. If two people have heard different management directives, conflicting stories or mismatched information, they won’t be able to agree very quickly on what actions to take. Especially if you’re in charge of the conversation, you need to make sure that a single version is the one you are all working with, to prevent the conclusions at the end of the conversation to be influenced by which “version of the truth” the listener believed in.
You first need to know, for yourself, which version of events or statements is the one you want to proceed with. And then you need to repeat this wherever possible, and correct a person when they reference the “wrong/other” version. By consistently doing this, the repetition will “erase” the old version that you did not want, and replace it with the new, shared version.
Repetition to enforce: “As we agreed…”, “Following from what I said before…”, “Just as X happened, this means that Y will happen…”, “So with X being the basis, we move on to…”
Repetition to correct: “As you remember we…”, “Let’s go back to the basis we agreed upon before”, “Under these circumstances we won’t work with that assumption…”, “Can you repeat for me the agreed steps?”
The core concepts at work here are communality (include all participants in “having agreed” and they will feel included and less inclined to go against the rest), repetition (repeating something often enough will drown out other statements) and questioning (asking people to repeat the statement you were working with to cement it in their memories). This technique is very powerful, but should be used sparingly, in the case of opposing opinions that really hamper a project or cause undue concern. If overused it makes you a manipulative colleague who relies on a technique known as “gaslighting” to override what others believe with their own truth. That is a terribly bad position to be in, so don’t be that person.
Recap the conversation
Meetings can be very long, whether you’re trying to steer a project or get a job at a company. It’s important to recap the key points at the end of the session to cement them in memory but also to reiterate agreements you made. The first step in this is that you recognize what points are important.
On the whole, you find that an entire discussion can often be summarized in a single sentence or call to action. An hour long talk about changing a process between you and Becky might come down to “you will make the alterations we decided on and wrote down, and I will contact management to inform them about it”. A job interview might come down to “It’s been a very good talk and I feel much better informed about your company and the exact contents of the job. You will let me know soon when I can start, right?”
In so doing you not only take some measure of control over the outcomes of the conversation, but you also remain in control of the shared version of the conversation. People who leave a conversation quickly start remembering things differently or might forget key parts. By recapping it at the end you make sure everyone starts at the same point.
This also means it’s often a good idea to send a recap of the conversation by email later on, to reiterate that summary. By repeating those conclusions, they become more and more “real” to people and they stick in memory much better.
Reference previous communication
Starting any meeting with a summary of the last conversation links them together in people’s minds. And people really like it when they can follow their conversations like a string. It also means that the conversation starts at the same level of understanding that the previous one ended with, and that all people involved have the same level of understanding.
Calling back to communication from before is a great way to maintain a narrative without getting sidelined or deviating from previously established lines of conversation. Digressing from a conversation without an ability to return to a previous point is a great danger, ironically, in conversations that are going too well. Relaxation and a feeling of having ironed out the big blockers may lead to anecdotes, wishful thinking and musing on the future, and before you know it, nothing’s agreed upon by the end of the meeting.
Staying on topic and creating a linear narrative helps to alleviate this, and also to “jump over” meetings that went off the rails and resume working on a previous point that was not properly ironed out yet.
Practicing the art of listening and both checking for understanding as well as making sure you’ve understood are key to getting the core of a conversation or meeting right. Ensure that everyone works with a single narrative, and does not each go home with their own version of conclusions and tasks. Make and send recaps so everyone gets reminded of what was discussed and what actions they are supposed to take at what deadline. Collect summaries and use them to prepare the next conversation so that everyone starts at the same level of understanding and you maintain some manner of control over the result.