The way we speak is arguably more important than what we say. Even an inarticulate person can charm, sway, and move others with the tone of their voice, the cadence of their words, and the charisma they exude. As the refrain goes, “It isn’t what you say but how you say it.” I’ve learned this lesson over years sprinkled with miscommunication, misunderstanding, and missed opportunities.
In my experience there are at least three noteworthy features of effective communication. They are self-awareness, trust building, and a willingness to navigate difficult conversations.
Give Your Mind Time to Catch Up with Your Mouth
Our brains process at a fast rate but sometimes can be outrun by our mouths. This is acceptable when you are not concerned about how you are speaking, or just not speaking. But, when you are in an interview, a meeting, a high-stakes conversation, or any other situation that demands you both think and speak accurately, efficiently, and intelligently, this disparity can cause serious hazards.
Mind Your Mouth. As in, speak slowly. The tendency is to speak faster and faster when we are nervous. That can cause major slip-ups and can prevent you from catching errors of thought or inappropriate speech on the fly. When you reduce your speaking speed, you allot your brain time to catch up with what you are saying, which allows you to redact, revisit, or retract any slip-ups.
Breathing. Personally, breathing deeply or refocusing on your breath can help. It does wonders for me. When I am in a meeting, I like to keep tabs on my body because it informs me what is going on subconsciously. If I notice that my breath has quickened or that my heart has sped up, just bringing attention to it will relax my body and give my mind time to settle. Almost simultaneously, my respiration calms, my muscles release, and my mouth reencounters my mind.
Recording. One nifty and slightly invasive trick is to record yourself. I know that sounds masochistic, but like many things about oneself, how we speak and come off to others is nearly impossible to discern accurately unless we see ourselves from the outside in.
Mixing It Up. Your pace doesn’t have to be consistent throughout a conversation. You can deliver familiar subjects slightly faster and slow down to drive home important points. It’s easier to fly through familiar subjects, and that’s fine, so long as they aren’t obscure or dense.
Talk Cleanly. The idea is simple. Just because what you are saying is complex doesn’t mean it needs to be said complexly. The notion that jargon, fillers, bombast, and flowery language are impressive is a misguided. I believe I am among many who appreciate simplicity and cleanliness in oratory.
When in Doubt, Stop Talking. If you are uncertain or have confused yourself, just stop talking. It is better to pause for a moment and regroup than to waste time, energy, and someone’s patience while you audibly sort through your own thinking.
Focus on Yourself. The traditional advice when speaking is to read your audience. That is certain good advice, but it can sometimes cripple one’s communication. Our brains can do a lot and yet only so much. Don’t waste precious brain space harping on what your audience might be thinking about what you. I suggest putting more stock in your point, your delivery, and your body language. Let the pieces fall where they may.
Listen More and Talk Less. Listening is a compliment, not just to the speaker but also to oneself. It validates what your interlocutor is saying, makes them feel supported, and allows you the opportunity to respond completely to their point. Unfortunately attentive listening has become a rare commodity. For that reason, a good listener stands out and makes a lasting impression.
Say Only What You Can Abide By
In other words, mean what you say. Shari Halley writes in How to Say Anything to Anyone, that we all want to work with people that we can trust. If you want others to hear your suggestions and take them as you intend them, you must have a trust-based relationship. If you don’t mean every word that you say, then you foment uncertainty and instability, which is infertile ground for trust-building.
When someone trusts you they give you the benefit of the doubt, and that’s hugely important for effective group dynamics.
There are a few behaviors that can stop trust dead in its tracks.
Gossip. This is a far more complicated topic than I would care to admit. I suppose the most potent antidote against gossip is that if you have something to say about someone, then say it to that person. The extreme iteration of this would be that if you can’t, then don’t say it at all. I think that’s impractical. Plus, not all instances of indirect criticism are material for gossip. The risk, however, is that what you say can be taken out of context when retold. The more your say the greater the risk, so proceed with caution.
Breaking Your Word. Do what you say you will do. If you can’t, then inform the affected party as quickly as possible—the more forewarning the better. People who always show up late, people who don’t do what they say they will, and people who miss deadlines are all ineligible for the kind of trust I aspire to here. Unreliability is a trust killer.
Lying. We have all felt the compulsion to lie for different reasons. Adults and children are not so dissimilar in that they find it difficult to accept accountability. Displacing blame is a default defense mechanism: “But I didn’t do it!” or “She started it!” Although it may not be lying in the fullest sense, it is tantamount to deception.
Denial is yet another lie tactic, and it’s largely ineffective. Be honest, be self-aware, and put aside notions of culpability. Take responsibility for your part in an error, provide a solution, and move on. That way you maintain your integrity and get credit for being forthcoming. We value it in children, and so too in adults.
Happily Jump into Crucial Conversations
A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, emotions run strong, and the repercussions could be far-reaching.
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler explain in Crucial Conversations that communities, relationships, careers, and organizations alike all draw from the same source of power, the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics. Some people are more adept at it than others.
These people tend to dissociate themselves from their egos by recognizing that each person has unique pools of meaning from which their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors flow. By dissociating themselves they make it safe for each person to share without the fear of judgment; even if what’s expressed is controversial or at odds with their beliefs. In this way they create a free flow of meaning, whereon dialogue can travel. Ideally—and more often than we know—this results in compromises and solutions that seem fair to the people involved.
It’s elemental in these conversations that every person be fully committed to finding a solution that resonates with them. If someone sits back passively and not sharing, then they will never be totally committed to a final decision. Those people generally end up quietly resisting and furtively critical.
A few tips for navigating crucial conversation are:
Start with Heart. Know what you want and identify what others want. If they aren’t sure, help them work it out. Once each person has a true north, they can steer properly.
No Either/Or. People who believe in the power of dialogue usually abhor either/or distinctions. Few things in life are so cut and dry, and when it comes to mitigating differences between people, there exists much grey area. If you feel an either/or reaction coming on, reexamine your motives and ask yourself the following questions.
- What do I really want for myself?
- What do I really want for others?
- What do I really want for the relationship?
- How would I feel if I achieved what I want?
As tensions rise in crucial conversation, it becomes easier to slip into precisely the kinds of behaviors that hamper trust, vitiate compromise, and distract from self-awareness. In those moments people tend to oscillate between holding back too much and becoming too forceful. By reflecting on your propensities in high-stakes situations you can make a special effort to fill in your own pitfalls. That way, when a situation arises, you know what to look for.
Also, learn to step out of content. We can become mired in what is being said and entirely miss the underlying message. You can make a space safe and create room for perspective by pausing a conversation or stepping out temporarily. It may sound inorganic, but it’s preferable to letting your emotions hijack your brain and mouth, which can leave serious damage in their wake.
And perhaps most importantly, don’t fall captive to your ego.
A monologue is the ultimate expression of ego. It shows others that you only care about what you are saying.
Through it all, however, don’t back off your belief. For all the good that can come from making these efforts, you don’t have to lose yourself in the process.