The ability to communicate is a valuable asset. Good communicators make more money. Studies show that oral communication is one of the most important competencies for college grads entering the workforce. Successful entrepreneurs are more likely to be excellent communicators, and that’s no coincidence.
A family member of mine once had an amazing idea for a gadget. In fact, it was such a good idea that he worked on perfecting it until he was able to secure a U.S. patent. We were all convinced his invention was a winner. In fact, it seemed to have a lot of intriguing applications. What a goldmine!
But, as it turns out, the invention never reached its potential, and the inventor is not rich. Why? There are multiple reasons, but a large part of the problem was that he wasn’t able to communicate his idea to manufacturers effectively. No one seemed to understand why they should pick up this brilliant gadget and put it into production.
For contrast, let’s consider Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century English scientist who discovered many of the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry. Although he had little formal education, he was a great communicator. He could simplify complex scientific explanations so that even a child could understand them. Between 1827 and 1860, Faraday gave a series of nineteen Christmas lectures for young people at the Royal Institution in London, a series which continues today. His efforts to communicate clearly made him one of the most influential voices in scientific history.
Communication matters. Here are a few of the most important communication skills to hone.
You might not think of listening as a communication skill, but it’s at the top of this list for a reason. Have you ever chatted with a person who rattled on and never gave you the chance to get a word in edgewise? That person might be a world class talker, but they’re certainly not a good communicator.
Listening to a person teaches us how to communicate with them. Their contributions to the conversation provide important insights and context. It’s a good rule of thumb to listen more than you talk. When you find common ground, speak up and share your own thoughts and stories. Just resist going on too long. If you want to be interesting to others, you have to be interested in them.
Don’t forget to ask clarifying questions. When someone offloads a lot of information at once, you might simply say “Okay, let me run this back to be sure I have it straight” and then reiterate what the speaker said. Repeating pertinent parts of a conversation shows that you were listening. It also helps you get things clear in your own head so you’re less likely to misunderstand or forget what was said. This skill is especially valuable when it comes to technical matters or instructions.
Clarity is huge. It’s important—it prevents your listener from having to ask “Say what, now?” (And it’s critical in writing, where the reader can’t interrupt to ask for clarification.) Often, what we say makes sense in our own heads but we fail to consider that our listener doesn’t have the same context. Every time you use a pronoun like he, she, or they, make certain the listener knows who that pronoun refers to. Ditto for other nonspecific words like it and this.
This phrase might leave the listener asking, “Get a better handle on what?”
The correct example gets specific, so we don’t have to ask what. That’s clarity in action. Use it in speaking and perfect it in writing and you’ll be far less likely to be misunderstood.
Have you ever encountered a person who kept their arms folded and didn’t make eye contact when you approached? That person may have simply been distracted or preoccupied, but odds are you read their body language as unfriendly and you didn’t make an effort to talk.
If you want to communicate, you have to look open to it. Uncross those arms! Make eye contact. Smile. Although I tend to be on the quiet side until I get to know a person, I became great friends with someone in a singing group I belong to all because he took a moment to shoot me a smile and a friendly nod, which made me feel he was someone I could approach and say hello to. You never know where a little openness might lead!
One of my favorite fictional characters, Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
That’s what empathy is, and it’s essential to good communication. We all walk around in our own little worlds, but to make a connection with someone requires the ability to put yourself in that person’s place and try to understand their point of view. When you do that, the snippy sales clerk becomes a person who might be slogging through a difficult day, the bratty toddler in the next line becomes a tired and overstimulated child, and his wheedling parent becomes an exhausted mom at the end of her tether.
When you’re able to empathize, you can approach conversations calmly and rationally. You might wish the sales clerk a good day and offer the weary mom a smile, or even a helping hand, when everyone else is glaring daggers. Whether you’re at work, at home, or hanging out with friends, empathy skills can help you defuse emotionally charged situations.
Think of some of your favorite people to talk with. Odds are, they’re usually upbeat and full of life. We’re naturally drawn to people who lift our moods. If you’re capable of it, try to be just a little more energetic than the person you’re speaking with. It’s possible to show enthusiasm for a topic even if it happens to be difficult. Be engaged. Lean in. Listen intently. We naturally like people who can elevate a conversation rather than bring it down.
Communicating effectively doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some of us have to work at it. And working at it means being conscious of the things we can do to improve. Communication didn’t come naturally to Michael Faraday—he took notes and observed other lecturers and worked hard to improve. But he proved that developing good communication skills enables a person’s intelligence and ideas to shine through. It’s worth the effort.