The true value of communication skills

Written by Armin Hopp on 20 May 2015

In life and business, we’re faced with innumerable potential conflicts and misunderstandings every day, be it face-to-face, on a phone call or in an instant message. Not only do we all have our own individual communication style but our different cultural and professional backgrounds, even our generation, impact on the way we convey and perceive information.

Lost in translation

When communicating across borders in a foreign language, there is bound to be some misunderstanding at some point. If one of the speakers uses a term the other has never heard of, they may be asked to clarify (which isn’t as simple as it sounds) or the other person may just let it go and then miss other important details. Then, you have the many false friends where two words sound similar in two different languages but actually mean something completely different. For example, the word “actual” in Spanish or “aktuell” in German means “current, present, up to date”, whereas in English, “actual” means “existing in fact” or “real”.

As a language and communication skills training provider, we’re constantly dealing with managers who want their workforce to communicate better. One of our customers once reported an extreme case where an employee had been refusing to answer phone calls from abroad for fear of not understanding the person on the other end and subsequent embarrassment. Improving their language skills gave them back the confidence to deal with calls from outside of their country.

So what can we do to ensure that we are on the same page as the people that we are talking to? Here are a couple of ideas for reducing errors in our daily communication with others. This is by no means an all-inclusive list!  

1.Gather information. No, this doesn’t mean we need to become part-time spies. But if we have time to prepare for a conversation in advance, it’s good to find out more about the person we’ll be talking to. What is their background, their working style, what can other people tell you about them? The same goes for the conversation topic itself – try to comprehend it in all its breadth and depth and think of problems it may have caused in the past. This will help the communication to run much more smoothly.

2.Learn to listen actively. How often do we really listen to someone without skipping back and forth in our brains or being distracted by something else altogether? It is very rare for someone to listen with the simple goal of understanding the other person. This isn’t something we’re taught in school either. For the speaker, any form of passive listening is very frustrating because they feel that what they are saying is not being valued at all. Active listening means putting aside distracting thoughts, not mentally preparing a rebuttal, showing the person that you are interested (e.g. through body language) and not judging their words.

3.Paraphrase. This is actually related to active listening but such a key factor that I think it deserves its own bullet point. Paraphrasing, i.e. feeding the information back to the person in your own words is one of the best ways to make your interlocutor feel they are being heard and minimise any room for misunderstandings. It will also help you to become a better listener and put yourself in another person’s position because you will be relaying the information to yourself on an ongoing basis.

4.Assume you will be misunderstood. Yes, it is far safer to go into a conversation assuming you will be misunderstood rather than understood. We’ve seen how quickly misinterpretations can arise and how much room there is for bad communication – so don’t assume everything is crystal clear to others just because it makes sense to you. Monitoring your own words (not just the other person’s) will help to avoid ambiguity and ensure that you are fully understood. You can also check how things are going by simply asking the other person if what you’re saying makes sense every now and again. A nice saying by Anaïs Nin goes: “We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are”.

5.Read between the lines. Is the other person folding their arms, shifting about in their seat, avoiding eye contact or frowning? Chances are, they are not happy about something you’ve just said and you should try to find out what’s going on. Perhaps they have simply misunderstood something or perhaps there is a real conflict. Either way, it is much healthier to deal with problems openly than pretend they do not exist, which will most likely build up an underlying problem between you two.

Communication is the glue holding everything together and it’s what can make or break a situation, a relationship, even a whole company. It will never be perfect, but if we keep a few simple steps in mind, it can definitely be improved.

Armin Hopp is the founder and president of Speexx.



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