Verbal communication: Is it a learnable skill?

Written by Rachel Massey

My people skills are fine; it’s others who are difficult.'

You’ve undoubtedly heard statements like this many times and, I suspect, mostly disagreed with them - though you are, of course, too polite to say so.

So why is it so difficult? What makes the simple day-to-day task of dealing with other people so full of traps and obstacles that turn a straightforward conversation into a tedious, confused or downright argumentative one?

Verbal communication: The difference between speaking and communicating

We all learn to talk, which, when we are old enough to understand the distinction, we automatically assume means we’ve learned to communicate.

And why shouldn’t we? Surely speaking and communicating are  the same? Broadly speaking, they are, but if we look a little closer, it’s possible to make a distinction.

At its simplest, speaking can be defined as the ‘utterance of words’ whereas communicating always involves a transfer of information, knowledge, thoughts or feelings.

So it’s theoretically possible to speak without communicating and it’s most definitely possible to speak without communicating effectively.

That’s the heart of the matter.

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How to improve verbal communication

We confuse strong speaking skills with strong communication skills. How many of us have  listened to the most elegant, refined speaker and found ourselves utterly confused or bored witless?

Being good at speaking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always good at communicating.

It’s a paradox we’ve been working with here at Huthwaite International for almost fifty years. We listen to what people say and measure it objectively and accurately using Verbal Behaviour Analysis. Then, we look at the outcome of the interaction to see how effective it’s been. We assess both speaking and communicating and identify how the two correlate, so we know what good communication skills look like.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Effective verbal communication is context-dependent. What works well in one scenario may be useless in another and it’s complicated by the relationship between the people having the conversation.

We address this by looking at effective communication in different scenarios, for example:

  • informal meetings,
  • sales conversations,
  • negotiations,
  • coaching sessions

Verbal communication: Key things to consider

Let’s start at the top of this discussion: Verbal communication skills are just common sense. However, the problem is, common sense is very rarely common.

Take selling, for example. It’s obvious that the most persuasive thing you can do is tell the customer how you can get them what they’ve told you they want. Yet, our research shows salespeople spend only 5% of their time doing it, spending far more time talking about their solution, which isn’t persuasive at all. And they’re doing it for a living!


So what about 'it’s other people who are difficult'? This may or may not be true, but in either event, there’s only one way to make them easier to deal with, by modifying your own verbal behaviours.

The next time your creative but over-enthusiastic colleague comes up with an off-the-wall idea, don’t respond with an attack, 'What a typical stupid idea'. Instead, try seeking information, 'tell me more about that'; testing understanding 'so what you’re saying is…' or building 'yes and we could…' By modifying your own response you maintain a positive dialogue and, who knows, you might end up with a really good idea you can do something with.

Across countless scenarios, we have found clear differences between how effective communicators use verbal behaviour more effectively than their less skilled colleagues. 

Often it’s, on reflection, common sense, though sometimes the best response isn’t the intuitive one. I’m sure, for example, we’ve all been confronted with someone expressing a concern and responded with 'don’t worry about it'. When did telling someone not to worry ever work?

It’s completely unpersuasive and belittles and dismisses the other person’s concern. Far better to acknowledge the concern, ask questions to fully understand it, and then help the other person reach their own course of action for resolving it. It’s not as easy, and it’s not as obvious, but it’s the only thing that will work – it's effective verbal communication.

So the next time you find yourself in that tricky situation, ask yourself; Am I communicating or am I only speaking?


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