We live in a tech world. That is particularly true of people reading this publication.
Tech can be amazing. It brings us software that makes business more efficient and data centers powerful enough for companies to operate seamlessly across the globe. Tech also provides connection and communication tools that give almost limitless freedom of movement. But texts, tweets, emails, and social media also take the “personal” out of “interpersonal” communication.
For all the good technology brings, it causes our conversation muscles to atrophy. We simply don’t have a lot of face to face conversations anymore. The overwhelming majority of interactions happen face to screen. According to Ringcentral, 95% of workers plan to use business communication tools over in-person meetings. While the increased reliance on technology is essential in our fast-paced world, it has an unintended and detrimental consequence – poor conversation skills.
Weakened conversation skills can have a real impact on getting the support, resources, and credit you need at work. That request to fund a new IT asset disposition effort to keep your company’s data secure or updated data center equipment so your days aren’t filled with creating band-aid patches for the old junk are more likely to find support when you can clearly, effectively, and confidently converse with your bosses.
Even seemingly inconsequential daily conversations have an impact. Trial lawyers call it building rapport with a witness. Comfort leads to confidence leads to candor. If you want open, full, and honest answers in court, you have to make the witness feel comfortable. If you want to get approval for a new data center or, perhaps, a new IT assets disposition program, making management feel comfortable can go a long way towards getting what you want.
To that end, here are seven tips that will upgrade your conversations skills and make you a superhero at work:
1. Pre-game: Get Yourself Ready to Talk
At the start of your day, get yourself ready to speak. “Social skills are muscles that you need to stretch before vigorous use,” according to noted conversation guru Patrick King. Talk to the people you live with. Talk to the co-workers you like, or at least the ones at or below your level. Warm up for the conversations ahead.
If the thought of face-to-face interaction makes you nervous, Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, suggests telling yourself it is an absolutely normal emotion (because it is) and move ahead. Once you realize most other people feel nervous having conversations it takes the pressure off. Fox Cabane also recommends limiting distractions beforehand. If you are heading into a conversation, turn off the radio, put away the mobile, and get ready to be present (Tip #2).
2. Presence: Connect with Your Conversation Partner
According to Fox Cabane, charisma comes from presence, power, and warmth. Presence comes first for a reason. Think of the conversations you have with others. How often do they seem distracted? How many times are they looking over your shoulder? How many times do they cut you off mid-sentence? And how does that make you feel? Act like there’s no place you would rather be than right there, talking with that person.
The best way to show presence, and to keep focused on the conversation, is good eye contact. King believes strong eye contact is the most important aspect of good conversation skills. The person you are speaking with should feel like the most important person in the room because, at least during the conversation, they are.
3. Probing: Be Curious to Build Comfort
People love to talk about themselves. Everyone thinks their job is the hardest and their life is the busiest. Bill McGowan, author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time, effective communicators follow the “Curiosity Principle” Ask questions like the subject is the most interesting thing in the world and like the person is the most interesting person in the world.
In his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says getting people to talk about themselves is the surest way to get them to like you. The upshot of all this curiosity is influence. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini in his revolutionary work Influence: Science and Practice, “[p]eople prefer to say ‘yes’ to those they know and like.” If you want to get a “yes,” be, as King calls it, “more curious than the dead cat.”
4. Personality: Be Engaging to be Effective
Another way to connect is to show your personality. Be engaging. Showing your personality means you have to provide more than just “yes” or “no” answers. Nothing kills a conversation faster.
When I was practicing law, I prepared witnesses for questioning by opposing counsel by telling them to answer questions literally. That is, answer only the question being asked without offering more detail. While this might help keep a nasty trial lawyer at bay, it is no way to connect and converse.
5. Performance: Slow and Steady Wins the Conversation
A good conversationalist speaks slowly. Doing so accomplishes two key things. First, it gives you time to really think about what you are saying. If you want to be engaging and curious, you have to think about how your words fit in the context of the conversation. Second, speaking slowly shows the conversation matters. When someone blurts out a string of thoughts, it tells the listener that they don’t have time to talk.
6. Perceptive: Find the Emotion to Understand the Speaker’s Message
As you use focus and curiosity to connect with your conversation partner, don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus less on the minute details of what they are saying and more on the underlying emotions they reveal. If you find the emotions the speaker conveys with her words, you can alter your responses to show you understand.
In the communication field, this is called conversational empathy – look at what you are saying from the other person’s perspective. Remember, one of the key components of charisma is warmth. The best way to show warmth is to show you understand the other person’s perspective.
7. Practice: Do it When it Doesn’t Matter so You Can do it When it Does
The best way to get better at conversing is to converse. Look for low-stakes, low-stress opportunities to practice. Work on eye contact at home, with friends, or even with the checkout person at the store. As King says, “Get used to that feeling of tension from eye contact, and grow immunity to it.” Plus, you will be amazed at the response a little eye contact will get you, so it is a good way to build up your comfort with positive reinforcement.
Low-stakes, low-stress practice works for all of these conversation tips. Practice being more focused, more curious, more engaging, and more perceptive. Not only will it make you better at conversations, but it will also make the people around you like you even more.
Rebooting your conversation skills is worth the effort. If you put in a little work, the next time you ask for resources, a raise, or approval to attend a super cool IAITAM conference, you’ll have the skills to ask effectively and get what you want. Conversations aren’t as natural as people think, which puts you ahead of your colleagues if you improve your skills.