You fiddle with your smartphone under the table during an important meeting. You type an (error-ridden) email to a client while talking (distractedly) on the phone. You interrupt a sensitive discussion with your spouse to respond to a trivial text message. You use a social media platform to reconnect with an old friend, only to offend her (and others) with an ill-advised attempt at humor. And really, you’re not some clueless boor: Everyone you know operates this way. In our device-dominated world, it’s what passes for communication.
Here are ten surprising tips to help you shake off counterproductive communication behaviors and get better results personally and professionally.
The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s just too much “chatter clutter” getting in the way. To make the most of our conversations, we need to implement three guiding habits—listen like every sentence matters, talk like every word counts, and act like every interaction is important.
Because technology does a lot for us, it’s no surprise that we’ve collectively fallen in love with it. But in our enthusiasm for what our tools can do, we’ve lost sight of the people behind the tools. It’s time to turn that around. Our devices don’t possess the communication abilities we think they do. Until we restore a more people-centered approach, we will continue to feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled by our digitally mediated interactions.
These days, it’s not unusual to be superficially connected to large numbers of people. And it’s way too easy to send hundreds of marginally important messages, chat with distant acquaintances, and spend hours surfing the web, leaving no time to talk to the people who matter most. In other words, meaningful relationships are being trumped by people you barely know.
Prioritize the people in your life—actual and digital—in a four-tier pyramid. The top of the pyramid—Tier A—should be composed of a small number of the most important people in your life with access to you. Residents of Tier B also have good access to you, but you monitor the time you give them. Tiers C and D don’t have open access to you. You might return a voicemail from a C within 24 hours, and Ds will just have to wait until you can get around to them.
While words can build relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless Tweet, or a hasty remark can—and does—land people in hot water all the time.
“I was just being myself” sounds harmless, but it’s often an excuse to indulge in destructive behavior. Smart communicators realize that one single action—not allowing your feelings to dictate your words—will impact your quality of life profoundly: You will get what you want more often. By focusing on what you want to accomplish instead of what you want to say, you’ll keep your conversational goal in its rightful place—above your feelings in terms of priority.
Questions are not always neutral. They make some of your conversations better, but as you’ve probably noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even “simple” inquiries can go awry. “Is your mother coming over for dinner again?” or “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.
Our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary collaboration, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. That’s why smart communicators, like smart doctors, have a good triage system to focus on the most pressing issues, while delaying or ignoring less important matters.
At the end of a conversation with a very challenging individual, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your desire to “win” by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.
We all too often use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering email when a more restrained reply would suffice, or issue an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would do. Conflicts that start or escalate with excessive force frequently cause a destructive cycle—attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.
Modern culture promotes the false notion that communication should be as flashy, stimulating, and entertaining as the sleek devices that facilitate it. We assume that the best conversations are also the most exciting ones. But exciting conversations are relatively rare and often don’t go our way. In reality, good, meaningful communication usually looks plain, unremarkable, and boring. ■
About the Author:
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations.
Modern Contractor Solutions, January 2014
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