If you consider the many hundreds of conversations you have each week, some long, some short, some business related, some not, then it will become clear to you that this is a vital part of our business and social lives. We can do little without becoming involved in a conversation, whether collecting an order from a client, or ordering lunch in a restaurant. Therefore by turning our attention to these conversations and improving their content, you will be able to improve the standard of your conversations.
In a business context, this means improved relationships with your clients, prospects, peers, staff and management. In your personal life you will also have the opportunity to improve your relationships and persuade others to your point of view without browbeating them. The basic rules that you should follow are as follows:
- Think of a chess clock. This is two clocks in one. Only one of which is running at any one time. When one player has made his move, he presses the button on his side. This stops his clock and starts his opponents. When his opponent has finished his move, he presses the button on his side. This stops his clock and re-starts the first player’s clock. If you view your conversations in this way, giving your “opponent” a chance to talk then when she has finished, she will give you the chance to talk. Apply the “two ears to one mouth” rule so that if they “overrun”, you can gently interrupt with a closed question (one that required only a one word answer) and then start talking. Shining the light on the other person in this way will help her to open up and give far more information than you would have received otherwise.
- Maintain eye contact. If you keep looking at the other person while he is talking, not only will you pick up all of the non-verbal signals he is giving off (unintentionally), but you will also reassure him that you are paying attention and listening.
- Make notes. I am not blessed with a photographic memory and unless you are, you need to make notes. This also re-assures the other person that what she is saying is so important to you that you want to write it down!
- Don’t finish other’s sentences. This ranks as number one most annoying habit with many people. Tempting as it may be, let him finish – you may be surprised! This point is particularly important when listening to someone with a stutter. Let him finish on his own. He will be extremely grateful and you will build great rapport, as most people automatically finish his sentences for him.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. This goes hand in hand with finishing others sentences. Give them time to finish and elaborate. They may well reveal more information than you were expecting.
- Do respond. There is nothing worse than talking to a person who sits with a blank face not saying or doing anything. We all need the verbal and non-verbal responses to reassure us that we are being listened to and appreciated! Nodding, smiling, “hmm” and leaning forward in our seat are all reassuring gestures to keep the other person talking.
- Watch your speech habits. The moment you meet someone, they are judging you. By the time you have spoken a dozen words they will have decided in which “box” you belong. People will judge you as much by how you say something as by what you say. If you have a weak ineffectual style then no matter how positive and upbeat your words, you will be judged weak and ineffective. Watch how you judge other people!
- Use Questions. Questions are great! You can use them for clarification, to show interest, to voice objection, to show support and many other uses.
- Watch body language. Be aware that your body language speaks far louder that your voice. If there is a conflict between what you are saying and how you feel about it (maybe you are uncomfortable giving the information) an astute observer will spot the conflict and probably either ask highly penetrating questions or dismiss the information she is receiving. Where there is a choice, people tend to accept the non-verbal communication (body language, posture, etc.) as accurate and the verbal as false.
- Ask “Why?”. In many situations, this simple three letter word can extract more information than any other approach. The simple act of asking “Why?” after someone has made a statement and then sitting quietly, leaning forward slightly in your seat, pen poised, will cause most people to gush forth with information. When repeated (“Yes but why?”) it can be even more revealing. It also demonstrates that you are interested in what the speaker is saying.
- Take a pause. There are two good uses of a well-placed pause in conversation. The first is when the speaker has finished. If you pause and look as if you expect him to continue, he may well do so and give you more information. A variation of this is to pause and if he does not continue say simply “…and?”. This may prompt further where the pause on its own did not. The second use of a pause is when answering a question. Just before you answer a question pause and take a small breath. This does two things: first, it gives you a chance to think before replying; and second, it shows that you are considering the question carefully. This will add weight to your answer in the other person’s eyes.
- Remember what she said. If you are able to demonstrate your complete recall of previous conversations with a person, they will be impressed. Active listening helps you to remember, making notes will also aid your memory. A useful technique that you can use is to repeat back to yourself everything that the other person says. As she is talking simply repeat the words to yourself (don’t move your lips!). You will find that this helps your concentration as well as improving your memory as you are hearing everything twice.
During your conversation ask questions about topics that you have discussed previously. She will be impressed that you remembered and you will be able to build rapport. I have found that jotting down keywords in meetings and then writing up the meeting notes afterwards is the best way of ensuring complete recall. Review your notes before the next meeting and pick on a few points to raise at this meeting.