Managers need to be powerful communicators if they are to achieve their goals and inspire their people as individuals and in teams. Karalyn Brown investigates the art of conversation.
Benjamin Disraeli once said a bore was one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation. While he spoke as a 19th-century statesman, real estate agent for De Sousa Real Estate, Mike Riddiford, would agree with Disraeli’s words. He has seen many of his industry colleagues lose business by talking too much.
While it’s amazing that while most of us spend each day talking to each other, it’s surprising how many people struggle to have a conversation of quality.
Liz Cassidy, founder of executive coaches, Third Sigma International, says society conditions us not to converse. “We are taught as children to sit up, shut up and not fidget,” she says. “When I first joined the workforce I sat there, waiting to be spoken to. It took me quite a few years to learn how to have a proper conversation.”
Andrew Rogers, National Sales Manager for the corporate communication trainers Maura Fay Workshops, says people struggle with conversation because although they have so many different pieces of technology available to improve communication, a lot of these tools are conversation distracters.
Rogers believes that technology is seductive as it enables us to avoid the consequences of our words. He says face-to-face conversations are critical, even if people find it difficult to talk. “Most consequences occur because people don’t have a conversation,” he says. “Most relationships fail because of what people haven’t said, not because of what they say.”
So, what defines a good business conversation?
First, you need a point, says Cassidy. “Without a purpose it’s simply a two-way flow of something, and it may meander without a useful outcome.”
Rogers is careful to clarify the difference between an outcome and objective. “A lot of issues occur when people get these confused,” he says. “Lots of people are not taught that an outcome is: what do I need the other person to do, think or experience as a result of the conversation?”
He claims communication is not a joint responsibility. “We argue it’s not anyone’s responsibility to listen to a poorly-articulated message. If you acknowledge it is your responsibility for the outcome, then you take ownership of it,” he says. The classic response from people who do not understand this premise is “Why don’t people listen to me?”.
Many will argue words are all powerful; however, it’s what people don’t say that’s more important. Cassidy points out that studies suggest body language contributes up to 65 per cent of meaning in communication and tonality contributes up to 30 per cent. “Good body language is appropriate body language,” she says. “Does your body language match your words? If not, you will send mixed messages.”
Cassidy also cautions about following old-fashioned rules around body language, such as the idea that the person who folds their arms has something to hide. A person could be defensive, or they could just be cold. She recommends that in performance counselling meetings managers sit upright, without a barrier, not behind a desk and with open palms to show no hidden agenda. Smiling is not appropriate, but lots of eye contact is.
As easy as it sounds, quality listening is hard. “To have a really great conversation, you need to suspend yourself. Step back and actively listen,” says Rogers. “It sounds cliched but it is hard to do. Steven Covey (author of The seven habits of highly effective people) says people listen with the intent to respond, rather than to understand the other person.”
Clever conversationalists will use questions that show genuine interest to help people to open up. Cassidy suggests FORM (family, occupation, recreation and motivation) as a useful tool to generate topics. She believes people will respond if you seek to understand what their true motivation is.
And, to start a conversation on the right note, or defuse a heated debate, Rogers suggests using questions to guide conversation to common values. He recommends tapping into universal motivations, such as love and fear, as the point of agreement.
Finally, what to do if you sense someone doesn’t trust you? De Sousa Real Estate’s Riddiford says listening hard builds trust in an industry renowned for over selling. “I apply the rule that communication is 80 per cent listening and 20 per cent talking.” Also helpful are quality questions: “I ask people what they are hoping to get out of the relationship, what’s important to them and why they are selling.”
Andrew Rogers: If a conversation is going in the wrong direction, break the state of the discussion. If it gets aggressive, acknowledge the anger to neutralise it; it’s hard to maintain anger if nothing is feeding it.
Be an active listener, but realise this is difficult. Consider that our entire existence exists between our ears. We are the centre of our universes. It’s not unusual to miss nuances because we are so focused on ourselves.
Mike Riddiford: Quality sales conversations begin with people. In real estate, for example, it’s not about the house, it’s about the people. Find some common interests to get people to open up. Ask lots of questions about people’s wants and needs. When you are selling, people don’t want to talk business all the time. It’s too much pressure.
Liz Cassidy: Have a planned outcome in mind before you start. Be interested in the other person as a person first. Eliminate distractions and focus your whole attention on them. Then, bring your whole self to the conversation, including your honesty. Listen to them and what their needs are; then speak about your needs at the deepest level you are able to.