The Essentials: Your Communications Toolkit

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 2: Communicating, subscribe and buy here

On a daily basis, how many of your language choices are deliberate and how many are unconscious?

Every day we make language choices that determine how we are perceived as individuals and how successfully we influence the outcomes of every interaction.

Being more mindful about saying the right thing at the right time can significantly improve the impact of your communications. Even something as simple as phrase selection can have a substantial effect on the final message you deliver.

For example, do you want to say:

What’s your problem?

or

What do you need help with? 

You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to

We each use language differently, and it’s easy to overlook its significance. Try and remember the last time someone inspired you to help out with something—what language did they use? Did they:

Entreat with you? I really need your help with this.

Sell you the benefit? You’re really going to get a lot out of this.

Describe a vision or outcome? This project will take hundreds of homeless people off the streets.

The objective in each case is to enlist your support, but the choice of language could significantly affect both the outcome* (e.g., whether you help or not) and also how you feel afterward, whether that’s excitement about the project or annoyance about being pressured to help.

Language selection isn’t all about saying the right thing.  It’s equally about communicating in a way that resonates with your values and those of the people you’re communicating with.  Taking a “sales pitch” approach to something you’re not passionate about isn’t likely to succeed, nor will it succeed if the other person isn’t already warm to the prospect. If you understand your own motivations and what motivates your audience, you can tailor your communications to fit better.”Language selection isn’t all about saying the right thing.  It’s equally about communicating in a way that resonates with your values and those of the people you’re communicating with.”

Language selection isn’t all about saying the right thing.  It’s equally about communicating in a way that resonates with your values and those of the people you’re communicating with.

Silence is Golden – There Are Times When it’s Wise to Say Nothing at All

How do you understand someone enough to communicate effectively with them?  The answer is blindingly obvious: listen to them. Effective influencers the world over aren’t necessarily great speakers; they’re great listeners.  Listening to people will tell you what their priorities are, how they feel about the subject, how they feel about *you*.  Through their words and body language, the speaker will telegraph all sorts of signals to you that will help you intuit the right things to say in response.

The art of good listening is having a repository of killer questions.  The options vary, but key question types include:

  • The basic open question: Why do you think that is?
  • The provoking question: What should we be doing about this?
  • The suggestive question: How would you feel about this?

In addition to asking the right questions, it’s important that you listen to the answer.In the past, I have found that I’ve been busy formulating my response or thinking about the next question, rather than listening properly to what the other person is saying.

These days I force myself to listen more attentively by focusing on a technique called mirroring.

Mirroring is where you play back certain key words or phrases to demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood the other person.

For example, Person A might say:

This project’s going to hell. The budgets are way off and morale is low.

To which person B might say:

Is morale low?  How’s that affecting your productivity?

By repeating the keyword or phrase “morale is low”, Person B is demonstrating that they have heard and understood what Person A is saying. This will reduce the number of situations where you find the other person saying, “No, that’s not what I mean, let me try again.”

Mirroring is quite a difficult thing to do. It requires you to listen intently to the other person, which is why I find it so useful to help me be a better listener.  If I’m thinking, “What are the key phrases this person is using that I should be playing back?” I’m intuitively more focused on hearing what they have to say, even if I don’t end up playing back all (or any) of those phrases.

Put These Phrases in Your Communication “Toolkit”

Language and communication aren’t just about empathy and intuition, but also about the application of learned behavior. A good example of this is in having a “toolkit” of effective words and phrases that you can use in certain situations. Like any skill, with practice, you’ll become adept at identifying opportunities where certain phrases can be deployed effectively.  Develop a stock of phrases you’re comfortable using the following categories:

Flagging: Phrases that signals to others what you’re trying to do – *I’d like to suggest an alternative to Kevin’s proposal.  I think we should be putting in more resources, not less.*

Building: Phrases that develop someone else’s contribution – *I think Kevin might have something there. Perhaps if we put some extra resources in, we could even deliver the whole thing on schedule.”*

Pursuance: This is a good way of challenging someone where you don’t want to explicitly disagree –  *That’s an interesting idea. How would you propose to fund it?*

“Language and communication isn’t just about empathy and intuition, but also about the application of learned behavior.”

How to Sidestep the Dreaded “But”

As soon as people hear the “but” in a phrase (I’m not against the idea, but …) they immediately know you’re going to contradict them and brace themselves for an argument.  There are a couple of ways to deal with this:

  • Build and redirect: If you don’t want people to hear the verbal brick wall of the “but”, you can move the conversation forward with purpose by making a positive statement of concern or challenge – I’m not against the idea.  What concerns me is how long it will take to implement.
  • Use a fancy But: There’s a handy phrase that does the same job as “but” in a way that tends to be less obvious and jarring in the course of normal conversation – I can see the merit of this and at the same time I’m wondering how we’ll be able to implement it in time.

Although the phrase “and at the same time” is just a fancy “but”, it can be very powerful.

Communicate with Commitment And Reliability

Good communicators intuit the words and phrases that will resonate with their audience; they have a repertoire of effective words and phrases at their disposal and deploy them in an eloquent and timely way.  The most crucial aspect of effective communication, however, is to act with honesty and integrity.  If your communications are sincere, however crudely executed, they will serve you better than trying to deliver a message that you’re uncomfortable with or not committed to. People will quickly see through a person that overpromises and underdelivers, but if you remain true to your words and promises they will carry greater weight in the future.