Interpersonal communication, which has always been challenging for many, is further complicated today by convenient technology that can shield us from face-to-face communication or telephone dialogue. A client recently explained her preference for excessive text messaging (hundreds a day) because she appreciated its ability to help her avoid awkward gaps in conversation.
The art of conversation may soon be extinct, as those who remember the good old days of dialogue without a device, become outnumbered by those who do not. And this allows women who might already experience some degree of social anxiety to avoid practicing communicating and overcoming conversation stumpers.
But as professional women, we will all, at some point, need to interact with clients, peers and managers; and since we are socially expected to be naturally better at conversation than men, communication skills are critical to business success.
If you are painfully shy, your conversations may regularly end abruptly or in frequent misunderstandings. If you feel that your input is frequently overlooked or dismissed, your communication skills may need honing. Here’s how to address both problems.
1. Ask an icebreaker question.
For example, asking where someone was born and raised allows you to share information you might know about the person’s home state or to inquire about that part of the country and what made her relocate. Most people respond favorably to those who show interest in them as long as the questions asked are not intrusive or too personal. For instance, in a first conversation, try to avoid touchy topics like medical issues, age, or income—and don’t volunteer too much detail about your own medical issues, income, personal tragedy, family conflicts, or sources of extreme anger and annoyance. The goal for casual conversation is just that—casual. Look for changes in gestures or facial expressions that indicate a person might be uncomfortable or irritated by a particular subject. Think of a few appropriate questions (i.e., not just weather or movies) to keep on hand for a chance meeting that requires small talk.
2. Use minimal verbal encouragers to seem responsive.
Nodding and saying things like “right” or “I see what you mean” during natural breaks in the conversation let her know you’re listening and are engaged. Most people naturally pause and wait for encouraging sounds from the other person that assure them that they’ve been heard. They’re hardly noticeable when present, but when they’re missing, their absence is representative of what researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman refers to as a “failed bid” for another’s attention, humor or support. Too many failed bids may kill your conversation. Also, intersperse comments about yourself with questions about the other person’s life experiences. Try to make regular eye contact—and, whenever possible, avoid taking cell phone calls or allowing children to consistently interrupt adult dialogue.
3. Resist the urge to brag, name-drop or interrupt.
Do you know someone who allows you to speak only until she can seize control and dominate the rest of the conversation? It’s annoying, right? For example, imagine initiating a conversation about a dental problem you’re experiencing only to have someone cut you off to begin telling the story of her dental woes, never to return to your original comments. Try to listen slightly more than you speak. Co-Active Coaching authors Laura Whitworth, Karen and Henry Kimsey-House, and Phillip Sandahl describe three levels of listening. At level one, awareness is on ourselves, and we listen for how others’ conversations apply to our own needs. Level two is defined by a sharp focus on another person, where we listen with empathy, clarification, and collaboration. At level three, we do both. Try to be completely engaged in what another person is saying without being preoccupied with thoughts of a rebuttal or reply.
4. Avoid providing too much detail.
Droning on and on about details that do not enrich your story or add to the punch line encourages listeners to tune out, discarding unconsciously what they’ve already determined is superfluous commentary. People who chatter excessively tend to believe they have to justify their actions and decisions by sharing every phase of their thought process. Stay focused and your conversation will be more compelling.
By Pamela Thompson, Psy.D. is a practicing psychologist and a member of the Novem Group, a life/relationship/executive coaching firm made up of seven psychologists.