Listen, ask great questions, and know when and how to speak
Communication is the key to success in many areas of life, both personal and professional, but especially in marketing. Some people are naturally great communicators who can make you laugh or cry almost on command. The rest of us need to practice the fundamental skills to become a great communicator.
In general, the three keys to being a great communicator are knowing how to listen, how to ask great questions, and knowing how (and when) to speak. This goes for verbal as well as other forms of communication.
Communication is about reaching a certain goal with a conversation. That may be the goal of comforting a friend who is in a bad place or the goal of convincing your boss to give you a raise. The tools are the same.
Great communication is about Listening
“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” — Alan Greenspan
Level 1: Listening only to talk. Focus on yourself
This is the classic ego listening that most of us are prone to do, at least some times. We use all the time the other person is speaking to come up with a great answer, counter, or question. We barely listen to the words that are being said. This kind of listening often comes off as hostile, insincere or just downright rude.
As with so many other parts of life, when you focus on yourself you will miss out on a great many details of the world. Pay attention to yourself in conversations and be on the lookout for times where you are not truly listening to the other person. Then try to move yourself to level 2.
Level 2: Listening to understand. Focus on the other person
Focus on the other person is the basis of good communication. It is not merely listening to the words of the other person, but also to the body language. Your focus is not to answer or counter but to understand where the other person is coming from.
You should ask clarifying questions and make summary statements of what you have heard. Check if you have understood the other person correctly. The better you understand the other person or persons, the better you will be able to answer them later on.
Level 3: Listening completely. Focus on everything
When you have mastered focus on what the other person is saying, you can add a third layer to your listening skills. On this level, you are not merely listening to the words and body language but you can listen to the conversation almost as if you were a third party to it. The focus is on listening to everything that happens between you and the other person and what is happening inside you. This is sometimes called intuition. The gut feeling you get when you are listening to someone and it does not seem to add up completely.
At this level, you are also listening to understand the motivation behind what is being said. Why is the person expressing these thoughts? You should try not to speculate too much or get caught up in an elaborate analysis. Just listen to what is not being said as well as what is.
You should add a small layer of detachment from the conversation while still keeping the focus. Think of it like you are both present, listening with full attention, and at the same time looking at the conversation from the outside. What information would that give you about yourself and about the other person?
Practice immersing yourself in the conversation you are a part of. Decide that what this person has to say is really important! You want to understand everything the other person says.
Asking Powerful Questions
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire
One of the most overlooked skills in communication is the art of asking questions. Maybe not by journalism, social science researchers, and by communication professionals. I am a certified coach and coaching is all about questions. Questions are the absolute most important tool.
We are often very focused on “getting our opinion through” on “making the other person understand.” This is often equated with talking and explaining our points and the good question is overlooked.
Questions can get your point through with practice. Sometimes more than actually saying your opinion. The challenge is: asking good questions can be difficult and it means you sometimes have to accept that your opinion has to wait.
The key point is to focus on the goal you want to achieve. What is most important: to mouth your opinion or to move the conversation?
Three types of questions worth practicing.
1. Questions to understand
Asking questions to understand what the other person is trying to say. This ranges from asking classic clarifying questions like “what do you mean by X?” or “can you explain X to me?”, to questions that focus on the context of what is being said like “when did that happen?” or “where were you at that time?”
Other questions in this category would be summary questions like: “do I understand correctly, that you are saying X?” or “to summarize, is it accurate that you are saying X?”
These types of questions are typically linear in nature. They are about the “what”, “where”, and “how” of things. From details to context. These questions will help you understand both the subject of the conversation as well as the person.
Practice: try using only clarification questions for the first couple of minutes of the conversation.
2. Questions to create perspective
Moving a conversation or opinion, or to help another person change, is often helped by creating perspective. And the best perspective is created by the other person through a question that will help them think differently on the subject. This could, as an example, be questions like: “how do you think X will be in three years?” or “how do you think person Y will think about this?”
It is important to inspire the other person to think about the subject differently by taking on another perspective. That could be to change perspective to the future? Or to another context? or from the shoes of another person?
These types of questions can be thought of as circular. You are looking at things from another point in a circle, to see the subject in a different light.
Practice: try to ask a question that will bring in a new perspective, like “how would X think about this?”
3. Questions of courage
The third kind of question is my favorite and is a type of question that can be hard but can be a strong agent of change. Think of these questions like the questions that make you slightly uncomfortable asking. Maybe the other person is talking about some commitment, but from his body language, you can see he is not committed. Ask the tough question “are you really committed to X, or is it just something you are thinking about?”
Practice: next time you have a serious conversation with someone, professional or personal, decide to ask one question of courage. (But be mindful that the timing is right.)
Important note on questions
Always remember to be respectful in your questions. You should ask from a place of curiosity and respect and with a mindset of wanting the best for the other person.
Great communication is about: Talking
“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.” — Plato
The most important of all is to know when to talk and when not to talk.
The general rule of thumb, you may have heard this before, is to listen twice as much as you talk. That is not an understatement. For many people, it is easy to talk, and I am one of them. I think while I talk, so I talk a lot. That is not always very beneficial, and the talking is not always as focused and optimized as it could be.
A good framework to reflect on (I have it glued inside my work notebook) is the “Why Am I Talking” framework.
In general, when talking, you should consider:
1. Who you are talking to
Who you are talking to is extremely important in any conversation and often overlooked. This is a whole topic by itself, that I may cover at a later time, but the most essential is to notice the person you are speaking to. What do you know about them? What preferences do they have? How are they talking? Do they always use a very colorful language or speak in images? Or do they just love numbers?
Practice: consider the people you speak to most often, how are they different in style themselves? How could you optimize your way of talking to match them better?
2. What do I want to achieve?
Sometimes we tend to voice our opinions because it feels good. Because we believe it will help the conversation. And sometimes it will not achieve anything and it would have been better to have stayed quiet or asked strong questions.
Practice: after a conversation, reflect on the things you have said. What would have been better left unsaid? What should have been said differently?
3. Make what you say matter
When saying less, the things said will have more weight. In meetings, as an example, you may be tempted to be the first one to speak. The first one to answer a question. That may not be the best way to achieve your goals or to give your words power. Taking everyone seriously and listening well to them will put you in a position to give a stronger answer. It will make it easier to say your opinion in a way that will have a stronger impact.
If you are talking to an audience, there are a few more pointers in this article.
Practice: notice the effect of what you have said. How well does this match what you said out to achieve?
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Confucius
Communication is easy. You need to understand who you are speaking with, respect them, and listen to them before you start opening your mouth too much. If you understand people’s motivation, what is behind their words, it will be much easier to be successful with your communication.
Remember the keys to being a great communicator is:
- Be a great listener! That will take you 70% of the way. No one loves anything more than to be listened to.
- Ask great questions! You will learn a lot and everyone you talk to will feel like they are taken seriously.
- Talk less and make it count! Speak only when it matters and focus on listening and asking questions.