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How to Improve Communication Skills (Less Talk, More Curiosity)

By April 26, 2023December 15th, 2023No Comments
how to Improve Communication Skills

Good communication? It’s always so tempting to think it’s sharing our pearls of wisdom, nuggets of gold, diamonds of insight, and advice hard-won on the battlefield of life.

But in fact, the best way to start improving your communication skills is to talk less and ask more.

Communication is about listening, as much as it is about talking. Being curious about what’s being said – and what isn’t.

By using coach-like communication techniques you can stay curious longer. You’ll increase your impact and influence, build better relationships, and unlock greatness in the people you work with.

Let’s start by identifying the core (often neglected) communication skills, before learning some practical strategies to have more powerful conversations.

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7 Effective Communication Techniques for Exceptional Conversations

You know those conversations that leave you feeling seen, heard, and understood? They’re almost like a rare species of animal – hard to come across, but even more awe-striking when you do.

The thing is, though, everyone can have empowering, valuable discussions. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy talking instead of communicating in a way that empowers people to do their best work.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the habits of highly-effective communicators:

1. Actually Listening

I’m sure you’ve heard of active listening. It’s corporate training speaking for, well, listening. Now, most of us have mastered the act of ‘mostly listening’ or ‘appearing to be listening’. But actually listening? It’s a pretty elusive skill.

To listen well, we need to be generous with silence. Great communicators understand the power of pause – asking a question and then waiting patiently as the person they’re talking with figures out the answer.

Rather than jumping in to assert their opinions, they stay curious. They resist the urge to unleash their advice-giving monster. They show the other person: “This is an interesting place to be. Let’s hang out here for a moment.”

2. Asking Thoughtful Questions

Asking questions in the right way goes hand-in-hand with listening. When someone comes to them with a problem, a coach-like communicator won’t rush to give advice.

Most of the time, advice is overrated. But asking a great question and helping someone generate their own answer? That substantially increases the odds of growth and innovation.

Problem-solving is ultimately a team sport. If you want to learn how to coach employees, you need to channel your energy toward rallying an effective team together.

3. Winning Body Language

Non-verbal communication – things like your body language and tone of voice – has a significant impact on how people receive and understand what you’re trying to tell them. Looking at your phone, crossing your arms, or looking away when someone is talking to you, for example, all signal disinterest.

Our brains naturally want to know they’re among friends. Five times a second, at an unconscious level, they scan the environment and ask “Is it safe here? Or is it dangerous?”

Effective communicators get this. When they’re speaking with someone, they’re mindful of their body language and carefully position themselves from a place of openness and readiness to listen.

4. Speaking With Impact

Cognitively, we’re better able to remember the start and ends of things, known as the primacy and recency effects.

So, at key moments within a conversation, you’ll see great communicators summarize the points made so far before moving to the next topic. It deepens understanding and heightens memory retention.

They’re also skilled at using the James Bond effect. You know how every James Bond movie starts with ferocity? You’re dropped straight into the action right away. Communication should be the same.

Too often people ramble, unclearly building up to a question or statement. Coach-like communicators don’t give a prelude to the question they’re going to ask. Just like a Bond film, they jump straight in confidently and concisely.

5. Uniting the Tribe

Communication can only be productive if the people involved feel safe. You want participants to engage, not retreat – to know that speaking with you leads to reward, not risk.

I introduced this in my book The Coaching Habit where I identified the four drivers that impact whether the brain deems a situation safe: tribe, expectation, rank, and autonomy — TERA for short.

Great communicators proactively increase the TERA quotient of every conversation. They communicate with kindness and awareness, fostering empathy and creating a space where people can bring their authentic selves.

Rather than simply reacting to what was said, coach-like communicators listen actively and patiently. They ask questions instead of simply waiting for their turn to reply with a smarter or better idea.

6. Giving the Gift of Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is something we’re all prone to dodge. It’s only natural. Feedback can be painful. We feel threatened when we receive it and knowing that makes it difficult to give.

But the best conversationalists understand that constructive feedback is a gift. Done well, it doesn’t trigger a fight-or-flight response. It actually motivates employees and helps them learn and grow.

It’s all about how you give that feedback. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about our brains scanning for danger, it’s your job to make the receiver of your feedback – and their brains – feel safe, not threatened.

7. Being a ‘Learn It All’

Often, people fall into the trap of thinking feedback is an attack. It feels wrong, personal, and unhelpful. But taking this stance stops them from gaining value from the conversation at hand.

The best communicators think differently. They embrace the role of a student and understand that, while feedback is interesting, it’s not the truth. When they receive constructive criticism, they don’t jump into defense mode.

Instead, they realize that feedback is a huge learning opportunity in several ways. Firstly, it tells them about the other person’s sense of reality. They get curious about what the feedback teaches them about the giver and what’s important to them.

Secondly, they know feedback often contains at least one or two constructive ideas. They seek out what’s helpful from the conversation, note the learnings and ignore the rest.

The above techniques are great high-level skills for becoming a better communicator, but how do you implement them?

Let’s take a look at some pragmatic ways to master meaningful conversation.

Effective Communication Skills: 10 Tips to Master Meaningful Conversation

Many of us think we communicate effectively, but we fall into all too common traps that shut down any hopes of meaningful connection.

Thankfully, communication is a skill. You can build new communication habits, starting with the 10 tips below:

1. Cultivate Curiosity With “What” Questions

Helping people find their own answers is much more valuable than simply offering advice.

Your advice is usually not as good as you think it is. It’s often aimed at solving the wrong problem and filtered through a foggy lens of biases and incomplete information.

Worst of all, launching into advice-giving diminishes the growth and humanity of the person you’re advising.

So what’s the antidote? Staying curious longer.

The simple, practical application of this is asking questions.

Generally speaking, you can start questions with three key words: what, how, or why. My favorite questions pretty much always start with ‘what’ because it allows for the most genuine curiosity.

While ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions can feel interrogative, ‘what’ questions fuel the quest for understanding. They’re open in nature and require full and more detailed answers.

There are a lot of really great questions in the world and I explore seven of them in The Coaching Habit:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • And what else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you (really) want (from me)?
  • How can I help?
  • If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  • What was most useful for you?

2. Ask, Then Be Quiet

Open questions often challenge people to pause and reflect because they require cognitive work to reply.

This might be followed by a slightly uncomfortable silence as the person thinks about the answer, but don’t be deterred by this.

Ask the question, then be quiet. They’ll nearly always fill the silence for you.

Not only that, but when you learn to ask great questions, you’ll unlock the power of the “aha moment”. Watch as the person you’re conversing with tries to find an answer. That process is actually new neural pathways being formed in their brain.

As you build your tolerance for silence, you are making space for deeper dialogue and helping the other person become more self-sufficient.

3. Use Ordinary Words Extraordinarily

In your next conversation, I challenge you to be totally present and give the other person your complete attention. Listening, after all, is a rare and generous gift.

As you listen, show the person you’re conversing with that you’re interested and engaged by dropping in ordinary words of encouragement as they speak. This has an extraordinary impact and can act as great lubrication for the conversation.

Saying things like “I see” and “right” signals to the other person that they’ve got your attention and that you’re listening to what they’re saying.

Then, of course, there are nonverbal cues – making eye contact, slowly nodding your head, being aware of facial expressions, and minding your body language.

My friend Mark Bowden, an expert in nonverbal communication, taught me the importance of this. For example, you can demonstrate that you’re listening by tilting your head and resting your hands at the navel level to send a subconscious message of trust.

4. Shape the Dialogue

Our thoughts often feel like they’re going a million miles an hour. To bring focus to a conversation and boost memory retention, you’ll want to proactively shape the dialogue.

Start by telling the person you’re talking with what you plan to discuss. Remember, be like Bond and dive straight into the action. Once you’ve delved into that issue, summarize the key points. It’s a compelling way to boost understanding.

At the end of the conversation, round up with the question: “What was most useful here for you?”

Not only does this help the other person learn and reflect, but it also ends things positively.

5. Empathy Affirmations

Great coach-like conversations only happen when everyone involved feels safe to be their true selves. This is about building empathy – showing people they’re understood, heard, and valued.

Unfortunately, many people mistake empathy for sharing mutual experiences. But saying, “oh yeah, this happened to me too”, actually moves the power and purpose of a conversation off of the other person onto you.

By contrast, practicing real empathy involves affirming the other person’s perspective – tuning in to what’s being said both on the surface and at a deeper level, and reflecting that back to the other person.

You can do this in a succinct and effective way by simply saying, for example, “that sounds hard”, or “that sounds exciting”. In this way, you demonstrate that you understand and are paying attention without upstaging the other person’s experience.

6. Help People Provide Their Own Feedback

Giving feedback is never a one-way conversation. In fact, it’s really about being curious of the challenge at hand from the other person’s perspective.

We often jump in and give the wrong advice or give advice too soon, instead of trying to understand the specific context.

Giving useful feedback is a critical skill you need to master if you want to become a manager…a successful one at least..

So, next time you’ve got some feedback, remember the most powerful way to help someone is usually helping them find the answer for themselves.

Similarly, when receiving feedback, we need to stay curious. Now, given that any form of criticism can trigger our fight-or-flight systems, that can be hard to do. I recommend the following three things to tame your inner critic:

  1. Remember that the feedback is for you, not about you. You don’t have to take it personally. More importantly, you don’t even need to take it onboard if you don’t want to.
  2. Assume positive intent. Give people the benefit of the doubt and believe wholeheartedly they’re trying to help you.
  3. Remember feedback is just another opinion, not the truth. Proactively separate the facts of the conversation from opinions. Take what’s useful and ignore the rest.

7. Put the Spotlight on Focus

We live in a world of distractions. Given that many conversations now happen over a screen, we’re almost always battling a plethora of external noises when trying to communicate.

To have great conversations, we really need to be present, but webinars and online meetings make that even more challenging. I find it valuable to set the tone by asking everyone at the start of a video meeting: “How focused can you be during this?”

I do this a lot when I’m running webinars. I offer a focus scale – one is low, and seven is high. I then ask the participants to make one adjustment to their environment to help them show up with the level of focus they’d like for themselves.

8. Appreciate Cultural Differences

Our world is more connected than ever, which is a great thing. It allows us to communicate and collaborate with people all over the world. But different countries and different people naturally communicate differently.

Not only do we have time zones to contend with, but there are also cultural differences in how people communicate. For example, 20 years ago I worked in a merger for the pharmacy group AstraZeneca. The three parties involved were British, American, and Swedish.

The Brits had a dry sense of humor and were quite individualistic. The Swedes were very straightforward, blunt, and collective in their thinking, and the Americans took on the leadership role and spearheaded decisions.

We worked with them for two years after the merger, and their meetings were terrible for those two years. Why? Because nobody quite knew how to communicate with people from different geographies.

But all of this hoo-ha could’ve been avoided with a few simple questions. How can we work best together? What are your communication practices and preferences? It sounds overly simple, but it’s a must for building empathy and understanding from the outset.

9. Stay Succinct

Speaking of simplicity, what you say is just as important as how you say it. Now, I’m not one for dumbing down vocabulary. Language is a beautiful thing, and certain nuanced words can’t be swapped out for simpler ones.

But I do believe in choosing words thoughtfully. You want to be succinct to keep people’s attention.

Paradoxically, I’ve also found one of the best ways to simplify language is to complicate it through metaphors. Imagery is a rich, vibrant way to create understanding and make conversations more memorable.

10. Increase Value, Not Volume

People often confuse confidence for loudness, but this isn’t the case. You don’t need to be the person that talks the most to bring value to a conversation. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.

As we’ve noted, listening is crucial for helping you and the people around you learn and grow. You don’t have to talk much to contribute to a great conversation. But, when you do speak, speak with purpose: ask questions, be curious, and seek to understand.

These actions reflect a deep sense of curiosity and innate confidence that will make other people feel safe around you.

Unlock Your Greatness and Help Those Around You Do the Same

Valuable, game-changing conversations are within your reach. By practicing curiosity, empathy, and staying mindful, you can bridge the gap of disconnection that often restricts growth.

In my upcoming book, How to Work With Almost Anyone, I dive even deeper into this topic, giving you the secrets to amplify the best in yourself and the people around you through the art of effective communication.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.