Communication can be a key aspect of our human connection with others. It's not far-fetched to say that our relationship with our business partners and associates, our employees and colleagues, and those in our social network is shaped by our conversations with them.
The conversations are invaluable for laying the groundwork for trust. They can help us understand each other better and strengthen our bonds with others. Our conversations define the quality of our relationships.
Our relationships with others can have a sterling quality if we have authentic conversations. If, on the other hand, our conversations are superficial and lack authenticity, the quality of those relationships may be diminished – and can even be worthless.
Though communication can be critical to successful business relationships, many leaders don't prioritize communication, often citing a lack of time as the primary reason.
If you want to raise the level of the conversation – to have a meaningful encounter with your business associates and employees – even when you only have 10 minutes, try these nine tips:
Create Authentic Human Moments
Human moments occur when you're face-to-face with someone. This can be particularly crucial when you're leading a group. You can't lead people without talking to them. Yet many leaders can often be camped on email or spending their time behind their desks, buried in spreadsheets, or expecting employees to wrap their hearts around team goals after viewing a presentation.
Try dropping by someone's office and grabbing a chair for a few minutes or stopping for a few moments by someone's cubicle. Consider having an authentic conversation by genuinely asking about people's lives, family, and pursuits outside the office. It may only take a few minutes, but the bridges you build over time will be there to stay.
With the rise of remote work, it's crucial to make virtual interactions feel more personal by focusing on the people you're talking to and avoiding distractions. You can show that you’re being present and paying attention in online meetings by:
- keeping your eyes on the screen
- giving verbal cues such as nodding your head
- providing opportunities for casual conversation before or after the meeting.
Rather than criticize, dispense advice, or coach without permission, accepting people as they are can calm interactions and can be more likely to result in a meaningful and affirming conversation.
Take People as They Are
Accepting people as they are is one of the most human approaches we can take with others and a surefire way to improve communication. It moves us away from seeing ourselves as superior to those around us. It takes humility to do this, but people will sense it and appreciate it.
Rather than criticize, dispense advice, or coach without permission, accepting people as they are can calm interactions and can be more likely to result in a meaningful and affirming conversation. At a minimum, this approach can promote active listening and prevent one of the biggest stumbling blocks in authentic conversations, which is disqualifying others' views as less important than ours.
It also can help to understand and accept people's unique communication styles. For example, some individuals prefer direct and assertive communication, while others prefer a more indirect and diplomatic approach.
Understanding and respecting these different styles supports inclusivity and can help us build stronger relationships with people from diverse backgrounds or with different personality preferences.
Leverage Previous Positive Experiences
Think about your past experiences with your employees. What contributions did they make to your success or the success of your company?
Receiving praise in the moment is always appreciated, but letting someone know you remember a past contribution, weeks or months later, and what it meant to you is fuel for the soul. The reminder is brief; the afterglow can last a lifetime – people don't forget these comments.
A simple reminder such as: "Your work to secure the XYZ account last year has set an example for everyone. I couldn't have done it without you."
Acknowledging and appreciating a previous positive experience with an employee can boost their morale and strengthens their sense of value and purpose within the company. These positive reminders can promote authentic conversations and motivate employees to continue making meaningful contributions.
Introduce the Four-Sentence Communication Rule
One of the impediments to authentic speaking and meaningful dialogue is individuals who monopolize a meeting, digress, run off on a tangent or otherwise find ways to suck the oxygen out of an encounter. We've all experienced countless situations where these tactics deflate everyone in the room, waiting to escape. To put a stop to this, consider the four-sentence rule. The idea comes from George Kohlrieser, organizational behavior professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland and author of Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance.
Kohlriese writes that using the four-sentence rule in discussions or team meetings encourages people to speak in four sentences or less (except when someone is making a presentation.) This tactic forces people to think clearly about what they want to say before speaking. The rule doesn't mean that everyone can speak using only four sentences under all circumstances, but it's a helpful tool for engaging in a clear and focused dialogue.
In today's fast-paced digital world, concise communication can be especially crucial when using social media and emails. Conveying your message concisely can ensure it grabs attention and is easily heard amidst the noise.
Additionally, it's important to remind ourselves that there's more to listening than just hearing words. Listening is about establishing a connection. To that end, consider the concept of "level 3 listening." Here are the three levels of listening:
- Level 1 listening entails paying some attention to what the other person is saying but otherwise being preoccupied with our own opinions, viewpoints, assessments and what we plan to say.
- Level 2 listening is where we shift our attention from our own thoughts and agenda to the person we're talking with. We take in what they're saying, completely absorbed and intensely focused on their statements.
- Level 3 listening allows for a comprehensive understanding of what was said while observing the other person’s nonverbal cues, such as body language or mood. It’s going beyond surface-level interactions and genuinely grasping the underlying emotions and intentions that we can glean from non-verbal cues.
Practicing level 3 listening can lead to more authentic communication as it encourages empathy and shows a genuine desire to understand others on a deeper level.
Recognize People More
Everyone has a deep need to have a sense of belonging and to feel important. To be perceived as an authentic manager, try to strive to recognize people for their expertise and make them feel valued and heard. Letting someone know we appreciate their presence and contributions can take less than five minutes and can be a powerful morale booster. Look around you:
- Who is conducting well-run meetings?
- Who is delivering stellar presentations?
- Who consistently greets customers with a smile?
- Who stays late on a Friday afternoon to take care of some urgent work?
- Who boosts everyone's morale with their positive outlook?
- Who is always ready to pitch in?
Try not to rob people of their due credit. Try to let go of any notion of the in-group and the out-group. Try to demolish in your mind any sense of hierarchy regarding who you communicate with and how. Try to see everyone as part of a wide, ever-expanding circle with room for everyone, from the mail clerk to the vice president. While you may not be able to devote the same amount of time to each person, you can show the same care in your communications with everyone, however brief the conversation might be. This is the discipline of leadership.
We talk a lot today about inclusivity and diversity. You can do your part to promote a diverse and inclusive community by expanding your circle to have meaningful conversation topics with people from different backgrounds and experiences. Wondering how to be more present in conversations? Try to pay attention as people tell their stories.
Additionally, consider the importance of having authentic conversations with your manager, going beyond conventional one-on-ones and meetings, and, for example, taking the initiative to understand your manager's preferences so that you can adapt your communication approach. A simple example might be asking them how they prefer to receive information – by email, in person, text message or phone calls, detailed or high-level summary – and respecting these preferences.
Express Feelings Authentically
In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, author Bronnie Ware, who worked in palliative care, says that one of the top regrets of the dying is "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings." We may be insular and indirect when expressing feelings in a business environment, but a frank and open approach is a healthy option that leads to more authentic interactions.
For example, when you have an issue with a business associate and struggle over how to respond best, consider the most candid approach: honest communication. Try having an honest conversation, respectfully telling it as it is without sugarcoating or beating around the bush. These types of interactions can move a lot faster than skirting around issues. Rather than hurt the relationship, they can strengthen it because openness builds trust. You can become known as someone who speaks from the heart and values transparency and authenticity. It can make you rise above the din of the crowd.
Consider as well the "Curious Active Listening Mindset (CALM)" concept, which is the brainchild of entrepreneur and coach Takeshi Yoshida. The concept emphasizes the significance of active listening and establishing trust by having authentic conversations when giving or receiving feedback. "An authentic conversation,” writes Yoshida, “is a mutual attempt to be honest with each other and share true thoughts and feelings in the conversation."
Here's how the CALM model plays out when receiving feedback, for example:
- Calmly, with curiosity, listen to understand.
- Play back what was said.
- Ask for support.
- Keep the door open by agreeing to speak again.
Look for Common Ground
Consider looking for shared interests or common ground in your conversations with others. Commonality can draw others to us and can open a portal for authentic conversations. Shared interests or experiences stimulate us and can move us away from chit-chatting about the weather to getting to know the person on a deeper level.
This can be easy to do if you set your intention to look for commonalities with the people you regularly interact with and make an effort to listen to their responses genuinely. For example, here is a list of topics you can explore:
- What milestones are they celebrating?
- What do they enjoy reading?
- What issues do they care about?
- What are some of their struggles?
Is there a bridge in this that can connect you for a more human and meaningful conversation?
Moreover, in our diverse and globalized world, it's doubly essential to cultivate your cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence refers to our ability to work effectively in culturally diverse environments. Finding common ground in your conversations with people from various cultures can help you better appreciate the person you're conversing with.
Try to pay attention, as well, to what energizes people during conversations. When your employees share their enthusiasm for a specific task or project, try not to gloss over that. Consider thinking about how you can use this insight to give them more opportunities that align with the work they enjoy.
Adopt a Conversational Tone
Having a genuinely authentic conversation with someone who uses corporate speak can be difficult. In business conversations, it can be common for people to use inflated language, which rarely works in any situation, especially in one-on-one conversations. Inflated language can create a distance and acts as a business mask hiding our humanness and preventing authentic communication.
Whether you're an entrepreneur, manager or leader, consider using conversational, colloquial language to connect with others.
If you wonder how to be authentic at work, try to pay particular attention to your tone in critical in-person conversations and on different platforms, such as emails, social media, and virtual meetings. Try to aim for consistently using colloquial language whether you're in the boardroom or boiler room. This can add to your authenticity.
Inflated language can also be a cultural barrier when working with remote colleagues from different countries. Native speakers should consider adapting to how non-native colleagues or clients speak, replacing slang, jargon, idioms and figurative language with more recognizable words. For example, expressions such as "ballpark number," "back to square one" or "are we on the same page? " can be confusing to non-native speakers because they are idiomatic phrases that don't literally mean what they say.
Foster a Culture of Authentic Communication
Why are small companies often better able to mobilize resources optimally and target fresh markets quickly? What accounts for the success of relatively compact organizations? The secret to their nimbleness and responsiveness, writes Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg, is not size but conversation: A small company operates more like two people having an ordinary conversation; big companies don't function that way.
And one of the benefits of conversation-like practices is the ability to speed up decisions. They enable a manager, for example, to achieve higher trust and improve operational efficiency. As Groysberg puts it in his book Talk Inc., "It's energy... It's fuel. In organizational terms, the conversation keeps the engine of value creation firing on all cylinders."
Groysberg provides a model for establishing a culture of organizational conversations. Two tenants of the model are interactivity and intimacy or familiarity. In interactivity, you forget about lectures from the top and talk with employees, not just to them. With familiarity, you should consider reducing the institutional and spatial distance that generally separates you from your employees. Try using honest communication and talk in ways that are personal and authentic. That's how you foster collaboration and generate trust through talk.
An essential area for fostering a culture of authentic communication in the workplace is how your employees provide feedback. Yoshida outlines another practical feedback model for handling difficult conversations. It's The SBIN Feedback Model.
The model has four parts:
- Situation: Layout the situation of the event that happened.
- Behavior: Describe the employee's specific behavior that you observed.
- Impact: Explain the effect of the behavior on yourself and others.
- Next Step: Discuss the next steps for possible solutions.
When you encourage your employees to use these kinds of models for conducting their feedback conversations, people can end up having stimulating, genuine conversations that get to the heart of things and foster deep connections with all employees.
A version of this article was originally published on January 31, 2014.
Photo: Getty Images