Strong communication is the foundation of genuine relationships and conflict resolution. As we close out 2023, political division has divided society both in New Zealand and, to an even greater extent, internationally. Covid lockdowns and increasing reliance on technology have also impacted our ability to communicate clearly in person, resulting in social disconnection, inefficiency and miscommunication. By learning to listen effectively and communicate respectfully, we can engage in more collaborative discussion about what kind of world we want to see in 2024 and beyond.
On Thursday 30 November, the McGuinness Institute welcomed communication expert Janine Gould to share some of her wisdom. Janine has over 30 years of experience in verbal communication skills coaching as Founding Director of Communicate Consultants. This event was part of the Institute’s ‘Bursting Bubbles’ series, where each month we invite an expert to present a different ‘how to’ session. The objective of these events is to expand our ideas and thinking, opening our minds to fresh perspectives.
In the modern world, we are communicating more often, with more people, and in more ways than ever before. With communication the foundation of relationship-building, learning how to better navigate these new channels is hugely beneficial for all realms of life. Fittingly, Janine’s talk was engaging, relatable, and entertainingly interactive. Centred around the importance of body language and active listening, the talk had Janine’s audience walking out of the room with their heads held a little higher and a new perception of what truly ‘listening’ entails.
Our key learnings from Janine’s session are below. We hope they help you develop your communication tools even as the world becomes increasingly complex.
‘Be attractive and memorable’ – make an impact
This point is not about material aesthetics, but rather about making people comfortable and drawing people in. Tone of voice and body language are key to achieving this. Janine’s top tips for attractiveness and consequently being more memorable are:
We’ve all been in a meeting that starts with a tired sigh and a phrase along the lines of ‘well this is a bit boring, so I’ll try and get through it quickly’. Such meetings feel like a lifetime and it’s impossible to concentrate. Equally, we’ve all been in meetings which have been interesting and engaging, and the time has flown by. So how do we ensure the latter environment? Janine simplifies the solution to one phrase: ‘I’m really pleased to be here and I’m really pleased that you’re here’. By saying this phrase, internally, it gives you a stronger purpose and the phrase is reflected in your body language and tone of voice.
Open up your body and make strong eye contact. Good communication is all about connection and these two things make you come across as welcoming, open-minded, and engaged with your audience.
Put your phone out of sight. Even if it’s turned off and face down, your brain is still aware of it, and it sends signals to whoever you’re communicating with that you’re not fully focused on the topic at hand.
These tips apply not just to public speaking but to any social interaction. Janine gives the example of a chief executive starting an open-door policy in his office. However, despite the door to his office being open, people still found him difficult to talk to. They would come in and he would welcome them with a disgruntled ‘yes?’ (not enthusiastic); continue working on his computer (not present); with no eye contact and a closed posture (not open). His door was open, but this openness needed to extend to his body language and consequently, his mind.
‘I really want to hear what you say’ – listen when it matters
Janine shared what it means to really listen, how we do it, and all the subconscious traps we fall into which prevent it.
All of us face difficult conversations: when there’s a relationship breakdown; when someone has a different perspective; when there is a tricky situation. In these circumstances, listening to the other person is essential. And yet, as Janine points out, we have not been trained to listen but instead to reply. Our attention is often focused on what we are going to say rather than what the other person is saying.
To really listen we need to focus on what the other person is saying. So, what are the main listening blocks we subconsciously deploy? This is Janine’s list:
- Dreaming – thinking about things outside the present conversation, e.g. the email you’ve got to send or an errand you need to run.
- Rehearsing – this especially applies to introverts, with Janine defining introverts as thinking and then talking, and extroverts as talking whilst they’re thinking. Introverts tend to plan their responses whilst the other person is talking.
- Filtering – often when you’re in a hurry, you’ll cut out the small talk and filter the conversation down to just the facts.
- Judging – we are all wired to make immediate judgements. This is unavoidable and helps explain the commonality of mindless greetings at the start of conversations – ‘how are you?’, ‘good, how are you?’… However, if we prejudge or judge negatively, we often underestimate our commonalities, exaggerate differences, and hence undermine genuine connection.
- Placating and then derailing – shutting down uncomfortable conversations with cliche phrases such as ‘it’ll be alright’, or ‘don’t worry’ in order to move on to something else.
- Identifying – shifting focus onto yourself with a story that relates to what the other person has said. For example, the person you’re talking with says something about a recent visit to Spain and you interject with a story about your own visit to Spain.
Being conscious of these habits is key to undermining them. Janine offers another phrase to say internally that dampens all these blocks: ‘I really want to hear what you say’. Additionally, to ensure you stay engaged, Janine suggests three things:
- Check for clarification – if we get hooked on information we don’t understand we fall behind what the person is saying. To stop this, ask if you don’t understand something, e.g. ‘what does that word mean’; ‘does that refer to…?’
- Ask for more information – deepen your understanding and therefore your interest, e.g. ‘was this when…?’; ‘how often did this happen?’
- Check you’ve understood – we so often give answers or solutions when we haven’t fully understood the problem. To avoid this, summarise what they’ve said to you and ask if you’ve understood them correctly
Body language – be open and confident
Body language is essential to communication, laying the groundwork for people’s expectations of you. A slight shift in posture, hand position, or eye level can completely change how our words are perceived. Janine shared some quick fixes to pay attention to that will help you come across as more open, welcoming, and confident.
Uncross your arms.
- Despite crossed arms and crossed legs being instilled in us at school as basic etiquette, doing this sends signals that you are uncertain and closed off in ‘defensive mode’.
- Instead, have your arms shoulder-width apart and resting in front of you if sitting, or loosely by your sides if standing. This signals to others that you are relaxed and open to alternative perspectives and puts your own brain in ‘confidence mode’.
Stand/sit up straight and look up.
- Often we slouch subconsciously, especially when nervous, but once again, this posture sends signals that we are withdrawn and unsure, making people disinclined to want to listen to us and trust what we have to say.
- Pushing your shoulders back and lifting your gaze to level with your audience can completely shift these perceptions and make you far more engaging.
- However, raising your head too much can come across as intimidating or arrogant. You have to strike the right balance between confident and comforting to draw people in and keep them engaged.
These slight shifts in body language not only send signals to those we are talking to but also signals to our own brains that we are confident in what we are saying. An easy win-win!
To summarise, Janine stated that if we are good communicators, then ‘long after people have forgotten what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel’. If you’re enthusiastic, if you listen without hindrance, if you’re open with your body language and relatable with your words, you’re likely to leave a lasting impression, just as Janine will on her audience at this event.
With 2024 just around the corner, it is the perfect time to reflect on how we’ve communicated and dealt with conflict this year. Thanks to Janine breaking down such a complex and broad topic to a few core observations and tips, we can now all implement attainable goals for better communication in the year to come.