Some things we just know. Some things we learn by reading books (or fine blogs like Stepcase Lifehack) and yet another set of things we learn the hard way: by doing them. Or, to be more precise, by trial and error. Or, to be even more precise, by a lot of trial and a lot of errors.
For me, one of these things was interpersonal communication. I always had a very easy way with words. Seemed that I can find them without too much effort. Also, I have the ability to learn new languages pretty easy (I’m not a native English speaker, by the way). And that made me believe for a long time that I was a good communicator.
Of course, I was so totally wrong. As paradoxical as it may seem, interpersonal communication has very little to do with words. It doesn’t really matter how fast or accurate you may find them. The very core of interpersonal communication is not in words, it’s in interaction. It’s true that sometimes words may greatly enhance this interaction, but the core is always about dancing, not about posing.
So here are 5 simple rules that will help you get more value from your conversations. They’re not learned from any books, but from my own experience in countless of interpersonal communication processes.
1. Never Start A Sentence If You Don’t Know How It Ends
That was one of my biggest struggles when I started to consciously improve my interpersonal skills. There is this thrill of talking out of nothing, just to have your voice heard. I may say a stupid thing, but what the heck, at least I will make myself heard. What a dumb (and actually easy to avoid) mistake.
The thin interest that you may generate will soon turn into laughter or just plain ignorance. Mean what you say and know exactly how it will turn out before putting it into words. While it looks like it may add some salt and pepper to the conversation by introducing some sort of randomness, speaking without really knowing what you say will only ruin the other part expectations. They’re talking to you because they’re searching for meaning, not for randomness.
Now, every little thing I say is atomically processed in my head before it reaches my lips. It creates some sort of a mental space in which I can follow the main ideas or the further developments of the main conversation thread. If doing this sounds like too much of a hassle, don’t worry, it’s way much easier than you think. Just start practicing and it will come along naturally.
2. “Uh”, “Oh” and “Sheesh” Are Vague
So expect to get back vague responses too. Interjections are not meant to generate an answer, but merely to acknowledge your surprise or satisfaction. If you use an “Oh” as a way to get an answer from somebody else, not only you will gradually puzzle your interlocutors, but, eventually, you will annoy the heck out of them.
Being exact in your responses is fundamental in interpersonal communication. Imagine that you’re playing squash. You hit the ball and expect the wall to send it back exactly in the direction you calculate. Now imagine the wall is actually soft, or deformed, like being made from some sort of plastic. Your ball will fly around in unpredictable circles.
That’s exactly what these types of interjections, which we all use because they’re holding some degree of “coolness”, are doing. They’re distorting the feedback we’re sending back to our interlocutor. In the end, he’ll walk out with a foggy conclusion about your interaction. If he’ll be able to extract a conclusion at all. Huh? ;)
3. There’s No Right Or Wrong
Noticed how often we continue a conversation just to prove that we’re right? I call that type of conversation a “loose end”. If somebody approaches me with something like “well, let me tell you how things really are in that matter”, I usually don’t. Don’t let that person tell me anything, that is.
Being right or wrong is a mental construct. We’re moving through life continuously, our own personalities may change over time and we’re constantly changing contexts and situations. What’s right here today may change tomorrow and what’s acceptable as true in your culture may be completely forbidden in another one.
Hijacking an entire conversation just to prove yourself right is an incredible waste of time. Human interaction is much more valuable than we’re ready to accept and much more rewarding, if carefully practiced. For instance, the benefits of proving yourself right will last as long as that conversation, while the benefits of a true interaction will widely go over that 10 minutes span, maybe for years.
4. Listening Is Always More Valuable Than Talking
If you spend more than 50% percent of a conversation just talking, you’re losing big time. Ideally, a conversation will have at least half of the time dedicated to listening. Because that’s where the real value lies, in finding out new things. One can really know just as much as he knows. Value is created incrementally, by incorporating other messages in your knowledge base.
That’s why I developed my own listening technique. Every time I witness my interlocutor’s eyes slipping slightly over my head, I know it’s time to use that technique. By the way, listening doesn’t mean you shut up. On the contrary, you support conversation, you show you’re engaged and willing to learn more.
Ask small questions, acknowledge that you’re processing the information, give small incentives to the other part so he’ll keep on talking. The art of listening is even more difficult than the art of talking, but, in my experience, its benefits are in direct proportion with the difficulty. Way bigger, that is.
5. Login. Logout.
Practice your openings and closings very carefully. When I enter a conversation, I usually do a mental “login”. Like I actually login on a remote server via some sort of a console (I’m a bit of a geek, I know, I can’t help it). Once I’m there, my activities are bound to that window. I almost never get out of that space until I finish what I was supposed to do there.
This trick proved to be so valuable that I even used it in real life events like workshops or team buildings. The initial “ice breaking” sheet of paper is called “Login” and the feedback form I give them at the end is called “Logout”. It helps everybody identify and respect the boundaries of that specific event.
The same happens in conversations. That’s why I seldom respond to an interruption stimulus if I’m engaged with somebody else. If I start 3 login sessions at once, I will never remember what command I issued, in what window. They will just stay there, on my screen, but without real use. Or, in other words, interpersonal clutter.
Have your own conversation tips? Would love to hear about them in the comments. Let’s start a little bit of an interpersonal interaction, folks. :)