The Importance of Communication Skills
- Five Steps to Improve Face to Face Communication

The importance of communication skills is one of those statements difficult to disagree with. It's a truism of the same caliber as "grass is green" or the "world is round".

We know because we've either been told, read, or witnessed that communication is a key ingredient in realizing a person's fullest potential. It's one of those things that just makes perfect sense.
It doesn't matter who we are, what we do or even where we are. The importance of communication skills is still going to impact on us.

How we express ourselves matters. The dynamic dance between our expression or communication and other people's responses shapes our lives for better or for worse.

The Importance of Communication Skills

Communication skills are at the heart of our lives both public and private, formal and informal.
They're there in:

  • job interviews
  • business/college presentations
  • meetings that matter eg. with employers, bank managers, government officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers...
  • maintaining, developing and nurturing family relationships
  • maintaining, developing and nurturing our friends and community networks

Mumbling, silence, blushing, blurting or stammering don't help.

We can be smart, passionate, kind or clever but until we can show that clearly the opportunities we dearly want in life may not come our way.

That's the importance of communication skills!

Between the two extremes: being either awkwardly shy or boisterously loud, is a balance that can be learned and it's in that balanced middle ground you'll find consistently successful communication skills. And that is great news for those of us, myself included, who have to consciously work at communicating effectively.

Face to face communication, the daily interaction with our friends, family, work colleagues...anybody we meet, is a mix of two parts.

Part one is non-verbal communication.
It's what we say with our body, commonly called body language.

(Here's an introduction to understanding body language if you're unfamiliar with the concept.)

Part two is verbal communication or the words we speak.

Blend them and we have the mix by which the world experiences us.

How to improve communication skills in 5 Steps

Step One: Body Language

Understand what your body is saying. Does it speak louder than your words? Is what you do in harmony with what you're saying?

Confidence (and the lack of it) is expressed by how we stand, walk, hold our heads...
Everything we do with our body is a clue for others to interpret.

Slumped shoulders, a shuffling gait, lowered eyes, a limp handshake all can be seen as lacking in confidence.

In important meetings how we present ourselves counts. First impressions matter. Developing an awareness of what you're saying non-verbally is vital if you want to understand the importance of communication skills in your life.

Check out this page on teaching yourself body language basics.

Become a people watcher! I don't mean start staring rudely but I do mean become aware of what others are telling you about themselves without words. Examine your own responses. What judgments have you made based solely on your interpretation of their body language? You've been doing this all your life but now you are doing it consciously and it's exactly what other people do in reaction to you.

Step Two: Becoming Aware of Your Voice

What does your voice say to those who hear it?

You're probably familiar with the idea that what we look like or how we present ourselves is a critical part of the mix that determines how other people respond to us.

Dress inappropriately for an occasion and you'll feel the effect of your misunderstanding. What many people don't understand is that we unconsciously react in a similar way to voices.

They're responding to 'voice image' and it's not about the words we say but HOW we say them. The link will take you to a page explaining the concept more fully.

You'll see that voice or vocal image is the not-so-secret secret behind people who work with their voices professionally. They understand how vocal variety (pitch, tone, pace, volume, clarity) combine to create impressions in listener's ears. You can understand that too.

You do not have to be the victim of your voice.

Step Three: Active Listening

One of the most overlooked elements of good face to face communication is active or effective listening.

Most of us know what it's like to be interrupted, talked over, ignored and misinterpreted because the listener's have made their own assumptions about what you said without checking its validity with you.

All of these experiences illustrate shoddy listening skills and they lead directly to frustration, resentment and poor decision making.

To actively listen means putting aside the temptation to push your own thoughts, feelings or opinions on others and to allow room for real conversation - a mutual exchange of ideas.

Click the link to find out more about effective listening and how to practice it.

Step Four: Using Manners

An understanding of what is considered polite or the right way to behave in whatever social situation you encounter helps create a favorable first impression. Manners can open doors that otherwise might remain closed.

Through knowledge you can avoid blunders. If you truly don't know what good manners are for a particular situation, ask someone who you know will tell the right way to behave BEFORE you go to the meeting or make the phone call.

For example:
You are being interviewed for a job. You arrive and have to wait a while.

Do you make personal calls on your cell phone while you are waiting?
When you are having the interview do you call the interviewer by their first name?
When the interview is concluded, do you stand, shake the interviewer's hand and thank them for the time they've given you?

Remember what can appear easy-going and casual in one situation can appear thoughtless and rude in another. Such is the importance of communication skills that it is best find out what is expected and deliver it. Your manners or lack of them are part of that bundle.

And the answers to the questions?
It would be considered rude to conduct private phone calls in someone else's office, you don't presume to call the interviewer by their first name and yes, you do thank the interviewer for giving you their time.

Step Five: Conversation Skills

Good verbal communication or conversation skills when mixed with confident body language, manners, an awareness of your voice and active listening will optimize any opportunities open to you.

How do you strike up a conversation with someone you don't know?

If you been habitually shy and have waited for others to talk to you before speaking, then it's quite likely that you've either missed out on opportunities completely or been unable to maximize the openings you've been given.

Here are some pointers to practice and like most new things they will feel a little strange at first.

Once you've discovered that you can use them successfully you'll gain so much confidence.
Give them a go.

Being shy, tongue tied or awkward does not have to be a life-long sentence.

You can, if you want to, grow out of it.
I know because I did it myself!

  • Practice asking non-invasive open-ended questions that fit the social setting you are in.

    The setting is conference. It's coffee break time and there are many new people to meet. You'd especially like to talk to the guy you heard speaking earlier about little blue widgets. They've been a passion of yours for awhile.

    A conversation opener might go like this:

    'Hi, I'm Fred from XYC Company in Toronto. I really liked your talk, particularly the bit about little blue widgets. What else can you tell me about them? I'm keen to hear what you've got to say.'

    In this scenario you've embodied your question with personal information (your name, company and place of work), given a sincere compliment, (I really liked your talk.), and asked for more information. It would be hard to refuse!

    Most people will talk about what they're interested in willingly.

  • In the example above there was a compliment combined with the question.

    The compliment has the effect of warming the person you're talking to. It shows you've noticed something admirable about them and it makes them feel good. As a consequence they are more likely to engage in conversation with you.

    Giving a sincere compliment works. Take care though to keep them appropriate and genuine.

    Here's an example of what not to do:
    The setting is your new place of work. The girl in the cubicle next to yours has long slender legs.

    'Hi! You've got fabulous legs! What do you think about doing away with the wall?'

    This approach is unlikely to win you friends. It's too much, too personal and too fast.

    You need to be aware of gender, cultural differences and the social nuances you're operating in. Practice giving compliments but make sure they're 'safe'.

  • Once you have your listening skills honed, demonstrate that you've actively heard the person you're talking to by:

    1. using their name correctly
    2. referring back to small details they mentioned
    3. paraphrasing what they said in your own words
    4. asking for clarification if you need it
      For eg.'I didn't quite understand what you meant by XXX. Could you explain it another way?'
    5. asking for affirmation that your understanding of what was told to you is correct.
      For eg. 'Have I got that right?'

    These last two points are particularly important in situations like business meetings or job interviews where mutual understanding is crucial.

  • Gather up a list of neutral topics that most people can easily talk about.

    Often these are classified as 'small talk' and sometimes are despised for that. However small talk has a way of becoming meaningful BIG talk if you let it.

    The job of the small talk topics is to gently ease the way open for something more. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't matter. You can move on but if the conversation becomes mutually interesting you can continue it.

    Again depending on context safe or neutral topics are weather, sports, news, family events, traffic, children, work and seasonal happenings.

    'I'm really looking forward to Christmas. We're going to XXX this year. What are you planning to do?'

  • Observe successful conversationalists

    What do they do?

    For example:
    How do they move from one conversation to another? How do they open a new conversation? How do they close one without appearing rude or abrupt?How do they join a conversation?

    Learn from them.

    I have a close friend whose work is closely aligned with her greatest skill, making people feel good about themselves. She's naturally friendly and always interested in whomever she's talking to.

    Watching her in action is watching all of these five steps refined to gracious perfection: she listens, she asks questions, she compliments, her voice, her body language and manners are excellent. Through observation I've been able to learn skills I didn't naturally acquire as part of growing up.

There you have it - How to improve your communication skills in 5 steps

  1. Understand the role of body language
  2. Become aware of the effect of your habitual speaking voice
  3. Learn to actively listen
  4. Use good manners
  5. Practice conversational skills

You can realize your full potential and achieve it through understanding the importance of communication skills.

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"Words are of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
Rudyard Kipling