Several studies have showed us, alarmingly, that communication and interpersonal skills are on the decline.
And at the same time, in our service-based economy, these are fundamental to running successful businesses.
The reason for the decline is not surprising. We all know that we should talk to the people in the room, rather than send short messages to people who are not around.
Still, we check our phones 85 times a day, expect to be able to reach everyone 24/7, and are expected to be reached at all times, too.
There are other reasons for the decline of communication skills:
- First of all, I grew up financing my own studies. I had part-time jobs working in the service industry, where I had to be outgoing (even though I first came to this world rather shy). I learned basic selling skills and how to deal with grumpy, happy and drunk people alike. Today, teens barely wait tables, deliver newspapers, or sit babies to earn the extra dollar.
- The disappearance of outdoor play also plays a big role. Winter or summer, snow or shine, we were outside interacting with other kids. It sometimes meant shutting up and listening to an older kid if you did not want to get into trouble. Sometimes it meant being shouted at because you lost a ball and the other team scored. Imagine what the lack of over a decade of practical training means for society’s level of interpersonal skills!
- Another important reason is that for the past few decades, kids have not grown up in the midst of extended families. In the past, “home” would comprise three generations; today, grandma is invited for festive season celebrations and is, perhaps, granted a weekend visit. Kids don’t learn how to interact with people from different generations.
On a positive note, children today learn to think more critically and express their thoughts, and basic presentation skills have been introduced in most school curricula.
Still, the skills gap remains huge.
It is a societal and economical issue, which according to one study will leave a skills gap of 1.4 million workers in the UK alone. In large organisations, the impact will be immense. Imagine what an entire generation of leaders with a lack of basic communication and people skills means for business, which – especially in a service-based economy – relies on human interaction and trust.
Only leaders with effective communication skills can be multipliers of productivity in organisations. We all know that these skills are not acquired overnight, yet still, most companies do not put much focus on effective communication and other leadership skills until people are promoted into a management position. Companies such as Google and Starbucks who focus on developing employees with well-rounded skills at an early age are the winners, with solid talent pools from which to select their next generation of leaders.
What comprises good communication skills?
At MetaMind Training, we have defined a model of effective communications that we call WALK the Talk. It is based on four dimensions of effective communication:
- Words (powerful words)
- Architecture (how do you structure your message?)
- Listening (do you listen to truly understand?)
- Kinesics (body language, gestures, etc)
If just one of these elements is lacking, the effectiveness of communication is reduced. ‘Listening’ is vastly under-estimated and probably the most neglected among the four. Stephen Covey has famously said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Sadly, a generation after Covey’s quote, we’ve seen very little improvement.
Why is listening so difficult?
Listening is easier said than done. We can speak about two words per second, but we are able to listen to triple that. This is why your mind wanders on the right cue, why you have time to debate the arguments, and think about what you’re going to have for lunch instead. And, just as with Internet browsing, often, we are lead astray. Before we know it, our lunch consideration has resulted in thinking of Jack, with whom we have a lunch appointment, and how his wife has just delivered a baby, and how your own kids were so much easier as babies, and whether the kids brought out the garbage this morning as they were supposed to. And, oh, you need to buy garbage bags.
It’s difficult to listen. Here are some tips:
- First, let go of the pressure or urge to respond. Ignite your curiosity about others rather than aiming to tell your story. People want to offload their thoughts, and often do not have the capacity to listen to you until these are offloaded. Develop patience to listen first.
- Second, ask questions that truly interest you. This is going a step further with your curiosity. Ask yourself what you’d truly like to know more about, and you will steer the discussion in a direction that you’re truly interested in, and listening becomes easy. Find common passion and interests, and it will be easy as pie.
- Third, connect on a personal level. Be open to truly connecting, and show with your body language that you are listening. You’ll set your subconscious mind on autopilot to do the listening. Do this by maintaining eye contact with the speaker, leaning forward, nodding at the appropriate moments, and showing suitable facial expressions at the right times.
When you adhere to these tips, you’ll see that listening is a huge advantage. Not only do you get much more information, which is an advantage whether you’re in a private conversation or business talk, you’ll also be more liked. Listening is a sign that you truly care; people feel it, and return it by liking and trusting you more.
To me, however, listening is – admittedly with many exceptions! – simply fascinating. It allows me to constantly learn and discover.
By Mette Johansson, founder of MetaMind Training, author of “How to Make Yourself Promotable – 7 skills to help you climb the career ladder” and speaker on leadership topics, including Authentic Leadership – “Unmask The Leader Within”
This article was first published in the Huffington Post.