Many leaders take a vested interest in improving their communication skills. They labor over email drafts to ensure the most important updates are explained. They fine-tune and practice their presentations repeatedly before they take the stage at business events. They might even coach their teams on communication best practices and etiquette.
But what about the side conversations that happen in the hallways at work or on the road with customers? Do you treat them with the same level of preparation and care? Often not. In those situations, most of us simply wing it.
[ Read also: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]
Getting better at day-to-day, informal conversations can improve your overall communication skills, and leaders can practice every single day. Keep these 10 rules in mind for more professional and productive conversations.
1. Kindness goes a long way
Never underestimate the impact of kindness and appreciation. This is a good rule of thumb for all conversations, but it can serve you especially well in tense or difficult conversations.
“Open with ‘Thank you,’” says John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company. “Thank them for their service, hard work, previous successes, etc. It must be sincere. I like starting the conversation this way because it frames the meeting with positive, sincere affirmation. Then move into the tough subject. When you move into the tough part, be straight, clear, and kind.”
2. Think harder on word choice
Being thoughtful about language goes a long way toward having a constructive conversation. Words matter, and small changes in word choices can add up to big changes in meaning. For instance, instead of saying “You had great visual aids, but you could have given your audience more time for questions,” try “You had great visual aids, and next time you might think about adding more time for audience questions.”
“The word ‘but’ erases everything that comes before it and can put people on the defensive,” says Beth Linderbaum, managing consultant at workforce development firm Right Management. “The tweak may seem small, but the impact it will have on how the receiver interprets the feedback and how it makes them feel makes a powerful difference.”
3. Keep work conversations professional
It should go without saying, but it bears repeating: Avoid getting too personal with your colleagues. It’s natural to want to find some common interests and connect on a personal level, but err on the side of professionalism in all conversations – especially when communicating with someone who reports to you, such as in an employee-boss or mentee-mentor situation.
While the best mentors develop personal relationships with mentees over time, it’s best to start things off with a professional focus. “For the first conversation, stick to work goals and ideas around professional development,” advises Katie Ross, a recruiting partner with Heller Search Associates. “It’s a mistake to probe for similar hobbies or weekend activities because if there’s nothing in common, it can get awkward quickly and actually create a disconnect. Let your personal connection evolve more naturally through conversations over time.”
4. Active listening leads to better conversations
Confusion and misunderstanding are conversation killers. When they show up to the party, things can get tense or awkward fast. Practice active listening to keep these pests away.
“It can be helpful to restate part of what you’ve heard,” advises Gill Hasson, a career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions to Make a Positive Impact on Your Life and Career and Brilliant Communication Skills. You may start off by saying “So am I right in thinking …” or “Can I clarify what I’ve heard” and then “Can I just be clear…” before repeating back your understanding of what has been said.
“In fact, getting into a habit to listen as if you were going to repeat back (as you do when you’re listening to someone give you directions) is a really good way to train yourself to focus your thoughts on listening,” Hasson says.
5. Don’t make assumptions
Even with top-notch listening skills, however, sometimes our minds fill in the blanks when we receive only partial information. Rather than ask a clarifying question, we settle for understanding “pretty much” what was said. We don’t want to look dumb, after all. This is a slippery slope, says Paul McGough, CTO and founder, Qwyit.
“As a CTO, in actual practice and in absentia for others at various companies, there is one over-riding, ever-present communication habit nearly every IT team I’ve known struggles to break: assumptions,” says McGough. “What happens is that the IT group talks at or around their ‘constituents.’ As the discussions get more involved and detailed in any particular area – implementation, dev projects, policy – it can get farther and farther away from the purpose. IT ‘knows’ through experience, but if it isn’t clearly relayed, the business suffers as a result.”
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