Fifteen years and at least two careers ago, I was in the cafeteria of a huge warehouse for one of this country’s largest retailers. They had numerous small screens scattered around, broadcasting messages of inspiration and motivation.
I hate stuff like that. One particular one drew me up tall and got my knickers in a bunch:
“How you say something is more important than what you say.”
"Like hell it is," I snorted.
Fifteen years later I can confidently say, "You bet it is."
If you want people to understand you or you want to be appreciated, if you desire to sway or influence someone, or if you hope to make a connection that is more than merely transactional, then how you say something — in other words, communicating effectively — is absolutely at least as important as what you say. Any great communicator who has a good understanding of the communication process knows how to get her point across and will also build stronger, more functional relationships.
But how do you communicate effectively? Good communication may not be your strong suit, but the good news is that even if you don't feel like a natural at interpersonal communication, there are skills you can master (including body language and non-verbal communication skills) that will ensure that you're engaging your listener(s):
1. Ask questions of curiosity, not validation. You know when someone uses a question as a trick or device to prove you wrong? Don’t do it. It’s okay to dig deeper, but do it because you’re truly interested in what they have to say or in listening to the other point of view; don't merely do it to play gotcha’. Ask an open-ended question to signal that you're genuinely interested in whomever you're conversing with.
2. Listen with your eyes. I sometimes suffer from MEGO (my eyes glaze over). If you want to be an effective communicator, demonstrate that you care and that you're listening by making eye contact and by giving someone your full attention. Good communication is a two-way street that involves a whole lot of nonverbal communication. That means using physical cues to communicate your point as well as verbal ones.
3. Don’t speak like a robot. Mechanical objects drone, human bores drone on and on and on. Monotones put people to sleep, so punch up your comments by varying pitch and your tone of voice. Demonstrate that you're confident (an important quality of communication) by speaking clearly while using an engaging tone.
4. Slow down! Most people speak so quickly that your ears are two sentences behind. One key to being a good communicator is remembering that there is no race against the clock, and talking so rapidly that no one can follow guarantees your audience will tune you out before you’re past the third stop sign in that sentence.
5. No need to shout. Passion and excitement are great, but the decibel level won’t make people cozy up to hear what you have to say.
6. Speak in clear and concise sentences. Pause between thoughts so the listener can absorb all your ideas, and maybe sneak in a thought or open-ended question of their own.
7. Great conversation is like a beach ball. You speak and pass the baton to them; they comment and pass it back. Think of dialogue as a shared experience not like a lecture.
8. Smile. Sounds basic, but not only can it signal to the other person that you like what they’re saying, it also relaxes your face. A lot of ineffective communication restuls from a misinterpreted facial expression or body language. Be mindful of your facial expression both while you're speaking and while you're listening.
9. Avoid jargon. Those fancy pants SAT words can turn people off, besides ensuring that no one will understand anything you’re saying. To avoid ineffective communications, use clear and concise words that feel natural to you.
10. Include everyone in the conversation. If you’re in a group, help the wallflowers feel like part of the crowd by including them too. Not only will you be pegged as a great communicator, you’ll earn their undying gratitude for being so gracious. You're also demonstrating empathy and open-mindedness.
11. Brevity is best. Less is more in both modern architecture and effective communications. If you keep rambling on the only thing you’ve accomplished is drowning your message and conquering your listener’s insomnia.
Nancy Halpern is an executive coach with a proven track record in helping senior leaders and their teams reach their full potential. She's been quoted in The Financial Times, The New York Times and other publications, as well as appearing on both NPR and the PBS NewsHour.
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