If You Want To Be a Better Communicator Stop Talking
Ask people what the characteristics of a good communicator are and they’ll probably say people who have a good vocabulary, a nice voice, charisma, have good body language and maybe even somebody who has “the gift of gab”.
They’d be right, as all of these traits are important to communication. It’s quite likely though nobody would mention somebody who’s a good listener, or asks questions. Being a good listener and asking great questions are the two most important characteristics of being a great communicator. Isn’t it strange though that they’re rarely mentioned?
Here’s why they are so important and how you can be a better communicator and perhaps become more successful at the same time.
It’s not all about you. When I speak about communication or do workshops on the topic I tell my audiences to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the other person, because it’s not all about you. There are far too many people who think if they’re doing all the talking then they’re great communicators. After all, they’re speaking and others are listening. Maybe not.
My wife related the following story to me last week. There was big news about one of our children and she mentioned it to somebody she works with. Almost as soon as she got the words out of her mouth the other person changed the conversation to something that she wanted to talk about. It was related to what my wife was talking about, but not closely. The other person was simply looking for the chance to get to what she wanted to talk about. My wife wasn’t finished with her story when the other person interjected. When that happened though my wife had no desire to finish her story because she knew the other person had little interest in what she was talking about. Why bother finishing the story if the other person wasn’t listening and didn’t seem to care?
Good Listening Isn’t Just Waiting for Your Turn to Talk
Far too often people who are poor communicators want to do all the talking and aren’t really listening to what the other person is saying, or are listening for a different reason. They only want to find a spot where they can jump into the conversation and start talking. When this happens, the reaction of the other person is much the same as my wife’s.
Although that person is the one who does most of the talking I certainly wouldn’t call them a good communicator. A good communicator understands it’s not all about them. The more they make the conversation about the other person, the more the other person wants to talk and feels good about being listened to.
There’s a big difference between proper listening and waiting for your turn to talk. Stop thinking about you and start thinking about the other person talking to you. Be an active listener, which means stop thinking about what you can say to add to the conversation and listen closely to what the other person is saying. Stop letting your mind wander to other things in your life such as emails you need to send, or chores that you need to do when you get home. Stay in the moment and listen to what the other person is saying. You won’t write that email or take care of those chores any sooner, so really listen to what the other person is saying.
If You Want to Control the Conversation Ask Questions
Most people think if they do most of the talking they’re controlling the conversation. Not true. While they’re doing the talking, they’re not in control if the person who’s listening is also asking great questions. The questions lead the chatty person to speak about what the listener wants them to talk about.
Here’s an example of how this might work in a normal conversation:
Susan – “This is the first time I’ve been back to Kingston since I moved away from here when I was a kid.”
Jennifer – “Why did you move?”
Susan – “My Dad was in the military. We moved all over the country. It was really hard on my family.”
Jennifer – “How so?”
Susan – Well, it never seemed we put down roots anywhere. My parents split up when I was 18 and I haven’t seen my brother for years.”
Jennifer – “That sounds really tough. Why haven’t you seen your brother?”
Susan – “He got into drugs and spent some time in prison.”
Jennifer asked three questions, none of them more than a handful of words but not only did she control the conversation, but also found out a tremendous amount of interesting information about Susan.
I often wonder why so many people want to talk so much about themselves when there’s nothing to learn from what they say. They know it already or they wouldn’t be talking about it. Isn’t it better to find out something you don’t know about somebody else? The best way to do that is to listen to what the other person is saying and at the right times ask questions that provide more information and steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go.
Try this exercise the next time you are speaking to somebody. Tell yourself you aren’t going to tell the other person anything unless asked. Instead, listen to what the other person is saying and ask questions to keep the conversation going as long as possible. When you get the chance think about that conversation and what you learned. You’ll be amazed at how much more you know about the other person and you never know when that information will come in handy. Perhaps months or even years later the person will be exactly the type of client that you do business with. Wouldn’t it be great to recall your conversation as an ice breaker before you make a sales pitch? Maybe that same person can provide some other help you need, all because of the conversation you had; the one where you asked good questions.
It’s Better to Give Than Receive
When I do my Talk Like a Leader presentation or workshop I get one person to tell their life story to the person next to them. The other person is directed to listen. I then ask some of the listeners to stand up and let others in the audience know what the person has told them. It’s very interesting to see how some people remember a lot of details while others are very vague in their recaps, but that also could be because of what they were told.
I then ask the other person (the one who listened the first time) to tell their life story, but this time there’s an important difference. The second person is directed to ask questions of the person telling their story. When that person relates the story to the rest of the group there’s normally much more information.
The other thing that I always find interesting is when people say they tend to remember what people told them in response to the questions they asked better than the rest of the conversation. That’s an important point. I believe that when you ask a question you remember the answer better because you’re more interested in the response, or perhaps you feel more obligated to listen properly to the answer because you asked the question.
When people understand communication is a two-way street, they’ll be able to drive down that road much easier.