To keep our more difficult, but essential, communication skills limber in an environment where quick and easy communicating is the norm, it’s important to regularly exercise our more difficult (or higher-order) communication skills. The kinds of productive and meaningful relationships we want at work and at home can’t be sustained by easier and more expedient emails and texts alone. Here are seven ways to strengthen your vital higher-order communication skills:
Praising sounds easy, but it’s harder than it looks because we do it infrequently and because it often creates an awkward moment. A common disconnect in organizations is that supervisors think they give plenty of praise, but subordinates feel like they never get enough. Remedy that by looking for opportunities to provide work-related compliments.
GIVE NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
We may praise infrequently, but our record for providing negative feedback is much worse. Most feedback never gets communicated for a simple reason: We don’t like giving it, and the other person doesn’t like receiving it. And people who claim they like giving negative feedback aren’t giving feedback at all—they’re criticizing. Unfortunately, there’s one small problem with criticism: It never works. The failure to give negative feedback is a major opportunity lost. An enormous amount of organizational learning never happens because it’s easier to sit on important feedback than to give it.
Trying to land a client? Negotiating a deadline with a colleague? Trying to convince your spouse to spend the holidays with your family this year? See how well you do in a real-time conversation instead of hunkering down to write an email.
Sending a computer-mediated message doesn’t test your ability to think on your feet and adapt your persuasive message in real time. No matter how good you are at composing a persuasive email, some of your most important influence attempts will happen face-to-face, so keep those real-time communication skills limber, too.
Few skills have suffered more in the digital age than our ability to argue intelligently. Online comments are filled with ad hominem attacks, invective, and worse; accusatory emails fly back and forth between otherwise rational people; and it often seems like all we are doing online is arguing right past each other. We need to make a concerted effort to shed the counterproductive arguing habits we’ve picked up in the digital age and revitalize our ability to thoughtfully and effectively make our points.
Arguing is an essential communication skill. Knowing how to express ourselves when we disagree is what prevents small issues from becoming large problems. Arguing—sensibly, smartly, and effectively—is a higher-order communication skill we can’t afford to lose. It’s never been easy to keep emotions from seizing control of arguments. But without practice, we won’t stand a chance, and our most important relationships will suffer the damage.
Sometimes, posting a condolence note on Facebook just isn’t enough. When the chips are down for people we care about, we need communication skills that can step up and provide real-time comfort. Face-to-face messages of support are powerful, but they often don’t get delivered because we convince ourselves that we don’t know what to say. But that’s a mistake, because when it comes to comforting messages, it’s not what you say that matters, it’s that you said something that provides the support.
RESOLVE A CONFLICT
What happens when no one at work knows how to effectively defuse a conflict between feuding colleagues? Or when there’s no one around who can deescalate a squabble at home? Offices and homes without an effective peacemaker are minefields of anxiety, grief, and drama.
Conflict resolution is a challenging communication skill. Encouraging people to climb down from entrenched positions and set aside differences requires diplomacy and precision. But it’s the peacemakers who get people talking again and who prevent relational damage from taking a wider toll.
DON’T SAY SOMETHING
For a major communication challenge, try not talking when you really want to. Why’s that so hard?
The clearest signal you shouldn’t say something is usually an overwhelming feeling that you should. But it’s the ability to choke back impulsive and harmful words that distinguishes great communicators from everybody else.
Some of our most significant communication “victories” actually happen when we don’t say a thing. The criticism we let die on the vine, the smart question we don’t ask, the comeback we choke back, and the insult on the tip of our tongue that stays there are unsung communication heroes, silently protecting our most important relationships. Some of the best evidence our higher-order communication skills are strengthening will come from all the things—the fights, the damage, and the relational turmoil—that never happen. Nothing seems more antithetical to the digital age’s “express yourself” ethos than sitting on your words, but not saying something is a skill that’s never been more important in our hyper-communicating era.
Not all of our communication can happen effectively along lower-order channels. Sometimes we need to do difficult things with our communication, like resolve a simmering conflict, persuade a reluctant client, or lend support to a struggling friend.
Even though it takes longer and is more difficult, walk over and talk to a coworker instead of sending an instant message. Call a friend who’s mourning the loss of a parent instead of posting your condolences online. And fire up the car and go visit your client instead of just sending another email. The kinds of deep, productive, and meaningful relationships we want can’t survive on quick and easy communication alone. ■
About The Author Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, an organizational development company; the founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations; and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. www.tumlin.com
Modern Contractor Solutions, September 2014
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