This year has been one like no other and is certainly one that the majority of us will be keen to say goodbye to! That said, it’s been an interesting one for businesses as we’ve adapted and completely transformed the way in which we communicate.
Here, Rachel Massey highlights the top five key communication lessons from 2020 that we should take on board as we enter the New Year.
1. Be mindful of your online behaviours
One thing that many of us realised quite quickly is that there are a number of behaviours that can be instantly irritating to people during conversations that take place online. Virtual communications themselves provide multiple barriers such as poor connections and technology issues, this means without even having a conversation – the experience can be quite annoying. With virtual communications not disappearing from the agenda anytime soon, it’s crucial that verbal behaviours do not further irritate those you are talking to.
Self-praising declarations are one of these irritators. Using the words ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ (fair and reasonable to whom?) when explaining a point or communicating your opinion, can cause tension as they can undermine the person you’re speaking to and may cause lasting damage to your relationship. There are also other ways of communicating that can indicate a lack of sincerity. Verbal behaviours such as telling someone you’re ‘being honest with them’ or ‘that you’re trying to be frank’, can indicate that you may not have been completely honest in the past, or that you may be suggesting your counterpart is being intentionally dishonest! Leave this use of language where it belongs - back in 2020!
2. Active listening is essential
Listening is what separates skilled communicators from unskilled and using active listening is key to ensuring the conversation goes well. We demonstrate active listening by acknowledging statements. Acknowledging is not the same as supporting, by acknowledging we show we are listening but do not necessarily show agreement. Using phrases such as 'I understand', or paraphrasing statements show that we are aware of their opinion and their thoughts without necessarily agreeing with them.
Taking care to allow people to fully express themselves, especially if they are agitated or excited, is key to defusing a highly emotional or tense conversation .,If we must disagree, we should take care to make a positive statement before and after the disagreement. This means saying things like 'I fully understand what you’re saying, and will do my best to help. However, I will need some time to investigate the situation. Let me come back to you in X time’. Implementing active listening into your communications during 2021 will lead to much more effective and less confrontational conversations.
3. Remember to show emotion
Perhaps surprisingly, skilled communicators show their emotions and indicate how they are feeling more than the average communicator. This skill is particularly important when dealing with a difficult online conversations. For example, phrases including ‘I am pleased we are making progress’ or ‘I’m worried that this won’t work out’, can be used as a substitute for an outright agreement or disagreement as it’s difficult to argue with someone else’s emotions. This verbal behaviour also reveals something personal, which is likely to encourage trust within a conversation. If someone expresses concern that a deadline won’t be achieved – it’s then difficult to retort with ‘no you’re not.’ When used in the right context, showing emotion is a highly effective way of deescalating confrontation.
It can also be difficult to observe someone’s body language over a virtual camera call so tone of voice is more easily interpreted and allows us to show empathy. Listen carefully for clues to how the conversation is going from their tone and note that nerves tend to make the voice higher and this can be very noticeable – a warm drink may help to relax your vocal cords and deepen your voice. Smiling when you speak (if appropriate) will also help to relax you, and the other person. If you need to get it all right first time, practice makes perfect. Practicing with a friend of colleague can help to produce the relaxed tone of voice necessary to sound sympathetic or authentic.
4. Dealing with extreme levels of reaction
People who have an unusually high or low reaction level present characteristic problems, and how you deal with these high or low reactors is a whole communication skills in itself. We've all experienced talking faster or drying up I'm sure, when dealing with a 'low reactor' or perhaps giving away too much information or exaggerating? It's important to stay focused and factual if people appear unresponsive - don't try and fill the communication gap!
Similarly, you need to look out for feedback from high reactors who may be too quick to support or disagree over issues. In a meeting scenario, ensure you check on the views and contributions of ALL participants.
5. Don’t allow discussions to lead to a breakdown in communication
A strong indicator of an effective meeting is how well people respond to one another’s ideas and proposals. When a meeting is working well, people react positively or at least constructively, to what others say. When a meeting is ineffective, the opposite can occur and tensions can rise leading to a potential communication breakdown. An extremely negative discussion can lead to what Huthwaite refer to as ‘Defend/Attack’ behaviours where opinions are expressed more strongly and more directly which can lead to people feeling exposed and becoming overly defensive. Defend/Attack usually involves value judgements and contains emotional overtones.
Avoid these behaviours by responding positively and appropriately and most of all, try to actively listen to what is being said. Really take the time to understand a differing point of view and respect their position before jumping in with a response. Taking the time to listen will give you time and space to fully consider other opinions. If you decide you do disagree with what they’re saying, active listening will leave space around the discussion which offers the opportunity to react in a constructive, rather than an emotional manner.
These, and other communication skills are covered in our Communications in a Virtual World workshop.