I grew up in a house where my parents didn’t really know how to communicate. There were a lot of suppressed emotions and thoughts floating around, and when people would talk they’d often mean something different to what they were really saying.
(You might’ve experienced something very similar. There’s a generational difference between how we communicate about our emotions and the value we place on them, which is slowly changing.)
For an intuitive and honest kid, this was a challenge. I couldn’t work out whether my folks meant the words they said, or the emotion they were conveying behind the words. Either way, as all children too, I learnt this ‘new’ way of communicating so I could survive childhood and the turbulent teenage years as easily as possible.
But when I left home, I found that this way of communicating was holding me back. I struggled to form solid connections with work colleagues and had a series of relationships which ended because of poor communication – usually mine. I was constantly frustrated with other people for not knowing how to communicate, when really I didn’t know how to communicate with authenticity or impact, and I suffered as a result.
I realised that if I wanted to do all the things I dreamed about – like teach, coach, have meaningful relationships and run a business – I needed to learn how to properly communicate. Or rather, I needed to unlearn the traditional way I had been implicitly taught to communicate, particularly about my feelings and the challenges I was experiencing.
So I set out to educate myself about communication. I worked as a writer (my written communication skills were always good – it’s easy when it’s a one-way street!) and learnt about the nuances of vocabulary. I delved further into the role of intuition and how we ‘read’ people when they’re not saying anything at all, and vice versa. I learned about the language used in coaching and mentoring spheres too.
The most profound change was when I learnt about, and did initial training in, Non Violent Communication, a communication model (and paradigm shift) created by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
And it wasn’t easy – it still isn’t. I made a lot of mistakes: speaking when I should have been listening, using language to manipulate or coerce rather than influence, even not speaking out at all when I witnessed suffering because I didn’t know how to do it effectively.
But I’ve now built a life and business around authentic, effective, even loving communication that has impact, because I have made intentional choices to reimagine what communication could be like in my life.
As more of us are using virtual communication tools than ever before – in Spring 2020, Zoom saw an increase of daily users from 10 million to 200 million – it’s important we communicate authentically and with purpose, even when the tech is glitchy, we can’t make eye contact and we’re plagued by interruptions.
In the Lean In Leeds panel I sat on, I shared my top three tips for communication with impact particularly in a work setting and using digital tools.
#1 Know your reason
Before any interaction where you will be communicating, it’s important to remind yourself why you are communicating. There are a myriad reasons for communicating – to transfer knowledge, to share ideas, to get feedback – but if you don’t know what your specific reason is in this instance, it’ll be hard for you to guide the conversation, or even participate fully.
It’s the same idea as ensuring every meeting has an agenda. Most people don’t bother with one, which is why most meetings are rambling, people get bored and they could’ve really sent an email. Clarifying your reason for having the communication prevents dithering and gets everyone (including you) focused.
And, crucially for authentic communication with impact, it encourages you to consider whether you’re going into the conversation with a positive intent. Can’t be arsed with a meeting? Want to compete with a co-worker? Going to give Gary a piece of your mind? Not a great start. Our ability to communicate effectively under intense emotion (like anger) is limited. Process the emotion, then communicate.
#2 Listen more than you talk … THEN don’t apologise
On the NVC training I attended, the facilitator told a great story of her neighbour who had got frustrated with the work being done in her garden and had taken passive-aggressive action that stopped the workers accessing the facilitator’s property.
In response, the facilitator said, “I thought to myself … ‘I need to give that guy a good listening to’.”
The biggest communication mistakes I’ve made is because I haven’t given people a good ‘listening’ to; instead, I’ve done the traditional thing and given them a good talking to. I rarely found out how they felt and they ended up blown over by the strength of my frustration, with a lose-lose result for both parties.
It’s a lot easier in virtual communications to listen more than talk, because there are less physical cues to pick up on that say ‘It’s your turn now’. And while it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest to historically oppressed individuals like womxn or femmes to listen rather than speak up, the result is that when you do say something it’s normally much more informed, intelligent and precise than those people who’ve barged right in and waffled on without listening to what’s really going on.
When you do talk, avoid apologising or using hedging language. Rather than ask “Can I speak now?”, say “I’d like to speak now”. If you have an idea and want other people’s input, say something like “My idea is X. What do you think?” instead of using an upward inflection on the statement, which can suggest that you are not sure of the idea (e.g. “My idea is X?”). And the likelihood of you interrupting someone during a virtual communication is much higher than in person, so make a pact with yourself not to apologise for it, otherwise you’ll be apologising constantly.
#3 Stay in the room
This is something my friend Gemma and I say about running a business, but it’s also an important aspect of communicating with authenticity and impact. Because when you are in that conversation, be in that conversation. It’s about being attentive, and staying with the other person.
And it’s really, really hard in virtual communications. There are distractions, right there on your browser, that no-one else can see! Or at least, you think they can’t see it. But just as you wouldn’t expect a colleague to be playing on their phone during a work meeting, there’s an expectation that you won’t be secretly shopping on LookFantastic.
During my coaching, mentoring and teaching, the greatest gift I can give the other person is to be fully present for them, listen to them and respond. You might not be entering into these sorts of conversations virtually, but it’s still a powerful gift. Simple techniques drawn from active listening, such as reflecting back what is said, are useful but in virtual communications some of those don’t work – you cannot make eye contact or necessarily want to be nodding along all the time.
For me, attentiveness is more about a frame of mind than anything else. You’re there, in that conversation, and you want to hear what other people have got to say. If you don’t – maybe it’s not a good idea for you to be in that conversation. And that’s okay too – that’s what emails are for.
A couple of extra tips for virtual meetings
- Attentiveness is key, and one way to do that is through watching people carefully (not in a creepy way) for micro-movements in their face – it’s the new body language!
- Use people’s names when referring back to their point; it keeps them engaged when the conversation has moved on and elevates their visibility
- If you’re finding it hard to get stuck into the conversation as you can’t feel a pause, use the chat function or ‘raise hand’ to say “I have a point”; a good facilitator will spot this and open a space for you
- This new tech can be fun, rather than functional – use the virtual backgrounds to share a space with everyone (we’re all in the Bahamas!) or play with YouTube, JamBoard or the in-built poll tool to make the conversation more interactive
Photos by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti, Fred Kearney, Alex Gruber and Max Ostrozhinkski on Unsplash.