Communication Is a People Skill

Our people skills are getting flabby. It’s time to loosen the grip on the smartphone and strengthen the communication skills that are essential for productive and meaningful relationships.
by Geoffrey Tumlin, Ph.D.

communicationIn the always-on digital age, we’re all guilty of indulging in communication shortcuts. These shortcuts save time, but they are costing us something valuable: Our overwhelming preference for quick and easy communication is causing our more difficult communication skills to erode from lack of use. It’s easy to email a client, but far more difficult to persuade the same person in real-time that our product is best. Telling squabbling colleagues to “grow up” might make us feel better momentarily, but helping them resolve their conflict might improve their relationship forever.

To keep our more difficult, but essential, communication skills limber in an environment where quick and easy communication is the norm, it’s essential to regularly exercise our higher-order communication skills. The kinds of productive and meaningful relationships we want can’t be sustained by emails and texts alone. When we reach for our more difficult higher-order communication skills, we need them to be up to the challenge.

Here are seven ways to strengthen our vital higher-order communication skills.

Offer praise. 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.

Delivering praise in real time (that is, face-to-face or by phone) is a higher-order communication exercise because it forces us to push through the awkward moment that often accompanies a compliment for a job well done. And persevering past awkward conversational moments without abandoning an interaction helps inoculate us against giving up too easily.

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. Giving timely and relevant negative feedback is a true test of our higher-order communication skills because it forces us to do something we’d rather not do, and it forces us to continue past the resistance to our message.

Persuade. Trying to land a client? Negotiating a deadline with a colleague? 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 one’s ability to think on one’s feet and adapt a persuasive message in real time. No matter how good one is at organizing a persuasive email, some of the important influence attempts will happen face to face. Instead of being caught flatfooted — especially when the stakes are high — we need to exercise our real-time persuasion skills with enough frequency to stay quick on our feet.

Argue. 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.

Offer support. Sometimes, posting a condolence note on Facebook or sending a supportive email to a struggling colleague 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 comfort.

Face-to-face messages of support are just plain 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. A good rule of thumb when providing support is, the less certain you are about what to say, the simpler your message should be. Tell a colleague who’s just received a career setback that you believe in her. Tell your grieving boss that she’s in your thoughts. Tell your upset friend that you’re there for her. That’s enough to show that you care and to make a connection.

And if your support happens to cause an outpouring of emotion, perfect words still aren’t necessary. When comforting, you never have to worry about finding just the right words. Your expression of support and your presence are what really matter.

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 is 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 hypercommunicating 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 co-worker 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.

Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, an organizational development company; the 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; and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. He currently serves as trustee of the National Communication Association’s Mark L. Knapp Award Individual Endowment, the most prestigious interpersonal communication honor bestowed annually by the National Communication Association in recognition of career contributions to the academic study of interpersonal communication. 

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