The Modern Survival Guide #109

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This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Transmitting those views to others, though, is tricky. Hearing other people’s views, even more so. Communication is simultaneously one of the greatest advantages our species has, and one of our most serious weaknesses. Good communication allows us to coordinate, share ideas, have fun, and draw closer to one another. Bad communication distracts us, divides us, and confuses people.

Obviously good communication is important. It’s a survival issue in this age and any other — the better you are at communicating, the easier it is to work with others. Given that working with others is how we get most things done, the benefits are obvious. For this article we’ll explore ways to communicate effectively.

There’s a catch, of course. Communication, like so many other life-critical skills, is more art than science. There are tips, tricks, and strategies I can teach. But a big part of being an effective communicator is simply having emotional and interpersonal intelligence that allows you to read the room and tailor your message. That, I can’t teach. It has to be learned through practice, and there’s a heavy component of natural skill. I have spoken.¹

The Basics of Being an Effective Communicator

Let’s start with a core premise: communication is about the mutual transfer of knowledge. This is what makes communication different from education. You can gain education without communicating back. Therefore the basic tenet of communication is that in order for it to be good communication both sides have to speak and be heard.

Good communication comes into play when you are working with others, whether that’s in your job, your relationships, or in other interpersonal interactions. When you’re on your own, or working for others, you don’t need to be a good communicator. The instant you have to actually interact with another human in order to accomplish a goal, you need to be a good communicator. This breaks down into ten common points:

  1. Speak and listen
  2. Ask questions
  3. Tell stories when you can
  4. Be as concise as you can
  5. Stay on topic
  6. Speak linearly
  7. Be as interesting as you can
  8. Be polite
  9. Be prepared
  10. Know when to stop

Let’s dive in.

#1: Speak and Listen

The first and foremost point of being an effective communicator is that communication requires two things: speaking and listening. Talking at someone is not necessarily communication. Neither is just hearing someone. In the best case scenario, both of these should be considered education, not communication. In order to actually communicate, you need to transmit and receive ideas.

Let’s say that I’m talking with my boss about a workplace problem: they are totally and completely out of jellybeans in the break room. This is a terrible thing; my productivity relies on a constant supply of jellybeans. In this case I have two jobs as a communicator — I need to inform my boss that the jellybeans have run out while emphasizing their importance and I need to hear that he understands my issue and is working to resolve it. If I do only the first part I haven’t actually communicated anything, I’ve just been talking at someone without any indication that they’ve heard me.

For a different example, let’s say that I’m planning a trip with my best friend. Our goal is to have the best time possible. In order to that, we should probably both be having a good time (I’m not a utility monster). So I need to tell him my idea of a good time, and he needs to tell me his idea of a good time, and we both need to agree to do at least some of those things. I have to hear him; he has to hear me.

Talk and listen, or listen and talk, but above all make sure that ideas are being exchanged.

#2: Ask Questions

Being an active listener is as important as being a good speaker. Part of that is paying attention to what is said to you, as opposed to just waiting for your turn to speak. That can be very difficult for some people. But in many cases, you’ll get the most out of communication with the correct application of questions.

Questions exist to fill gaps in knowledge, and in the sense that an answered question meets that need there are no stupid questions. To be a good communicator you must ask questions as necessary to be able to understand what the other person is talking about.

Language is an imperfect method of exchanging ideas, and people frequently have trouble with its use. You will not always know what the other person is trying to tell you. Hell, sometimes they won’t be entirely sure what they’re trying to tell you. Use questions to tease that information out.

Remember two things when asking questions:

Always ask questions one at a time. Do not string together a whole slew of questions and expect the other person to remember and respond to all of them. Ask them one by one; treat them like puzzle pieces you’re trying to fit together.

Always keep questions on-topic. If someone is telling you about trees, ask about trees. Do not switch to Ferraris. If you want to ask them about Ferraris, change the topic to cars and then ask your question. This is both polite and keeps people from getting confused and breaking their chain of thought.

#3: Tell Stories When You Can

There is a reason why our moral education is frequently bound up in myths, fables, and tall tales: people like stories! We enjoy living vicariously and looking at life through another person’s eyes. Harness this power in communication by telling stories to transmit ideas.

For example, one time I was giving a training exercise to a group of people, and it just wasn’t going well. I was a young kid trying to teach a roomful of older adults how to use SharePoint; it was a bit like a horse trying to teach a bunch of ducks how to gallop. He can try all he wants, but they’re not going to get it. So I was getting frustrated. But I was able to bring at least a few points home by using analogies, telling stories about how I moved into a house and linking that back to core concepts of document management. You kind of had to be there, but it worked.

Look at that! I just told a story about telling stories. Damn, I’m good.

Remember, though, that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. To tell a story correctly, you have to set the stage, establish a conflict, and resolve the conflict. Don’t just ramble on, or you’ll get in trouble with the next point.

#4: Be as Concise as You Can

I freely admit I am not good at this. Just look at the read length on most of my articles. But nonetheless it’s a good idea to express your ideas in as few words as possible — especially when speaking. This has relevance with several of the other points on this list. Look, people get bored. That’s all there is to it. As an effective communicator you need to get in, get out, and make your point before they lose interest.

Similarly, use the most straightforward language you can. Avoid technical jargon unless you know that other people are going to understand it, and speak to the level of your audience. “Plain language” should be the goal in almost all cases.

#5: Stay on Topic

Nothing ruins the act of communication more than changing topics mid-stream. If you want to talk about one subject, stay on that subject. When you want to change subjects, give notice that you are changing subjects. Make sure the people you’re communicating with know what you are talking about and why you are talking about it. For very complex subjects, it’s worth reminding people halfway through, or giving mini-summaries. Stay on target.

#6: Speak Linearly

This is very difficult for some people, but it is extremely important to speak in a straight line. That means speaking directly to the topic, in as few words as possible, in logical progression.

For example, if I am in a meeting and someone asks me why a website is down, my response should be something like this:

“The website is down because too many people tried to access it and it overloaded the network.”

Not like like this:

“Well, I was pretty sure that what happened was that the network line wasn’t working, but I checked it and it’s fine, so then I had to feed my dog which took a few minutes, sorry I wasn’t online for that other thing, but then I looked in the trace logs and noticed that packets were dropping and I had an idea to check the F5, and it looks like there are too many local IPs trying to access the system. So we need to cut back on usage.”

See the difference? The first paragraph is a concise, simple, straightforward explanation. The second is what I have to deal with on a near-daily basis from networking godlets, and it drives me insane. It walks me through the whole stream of consciousness of the speaker, and I did not need that information. At the end I’m not even sure what happened. This is called circular speaking, and you shouldn’t do it.

#7: Be Interesting

People get bored. Don’t be boring, if at all possible. This is a multi-faceted issue, but it breaks down into two main parts: variations of tone and inclusion of funny stuff.

When speaking, vary your tone. Do not be like Ben Stein. Speech tones should rise and fall slightly, your volume should vary slightly, your cadence should change, and you should use emphasis on words or points that deserve to be emphasized. See there? See what I did?

Don’t sound angry (unless you’re angry), DON’T SHOUT (unless you intend to shout), don’t run your words together as fast as an auctioneer, and don’t emphasize everything. You’re shooting for just enough variety that the brains of your listeners stay engaged.

Then be funny, if you can, and make sure you tailor your humor to your audience. Do not tell dick jokes to grandmothers. Actually… hang on, don’t tell dick jokes to certain grandmothers. Other grandmothers might find that hilarious and leave you blushing when they start telling jokes back at you.

Remember though, it’s easy to offend people if humor goes wrong, and if you offend people you will stop communicating because they will stop listening. That’s the catch with humor, good humor relies on being witty and knowing your audience. If you can’t do one or both of those things, tell clean dad jokes in the most deadpan manner possible and win your audience over through sheer awkwardness. Either way they’re paying attention, which is good from the standpoint of communication.

And if you don’t want to be funny, or being funny isn’t appropriate, my advice is to be utterly and completely serious. If you get it right, you can command attention by giving the impression that whatever you’re talking about must be important.

#8: Be Polite

Offended people stop communicating and start arguing. The easiest way to give offense is to be rude, so be polite. That means calling people by their preferred name or title, avoiding sarcasm and condescension, maintaining a respectful tone, avoiding passive-aggressive language, and definitely avoid cutting people off.

Honestly, if you don’t know how to be polite that’s a skill to pick up before doing much of anything else, and if you don’t care about being polite, well, life is going to be hard.

#9: Be Prepared

You might have noticed that almost all of these points require at least a little bit of preparedness. It’s hard to be concise and linear if you don’t have a good understanding of your subject matter. It’s hard to be funny on the spot if you’re not a naturally witty person. It’s hard to be interesting and tell stories without at least some practice. Hell, sometimes it’s even hard to be polite if you’re not prepared for certain people in the room.

So be prepared. Know your topic. Have stories and jokes ready to go. Do your best to judge your audience, and have at least some idea of what you need to say and what you need to listen for.

#10: Know When to Stop

Last but by no means least, communication is a tiresome process. Many people will not want to communicate at all or will get tired after a long talk. In these circumstances it is rarely worthwhile to try to force them to communicate, and you need to stop and do something else for a while.

Some things to watch for when the other person doesn’t want to talk:

  • Closed or evasive body language — crossing and uncrossing arms or legs, turning away, physically moving away, presenting restraining orders, etc.
  • Rolling eyes
  • Frequent verbal tics like “uh huh,” “okay,” or “sure”
  • Argumentative or defensive behavior or language
  • Excuses to be elsewhere
  • Cutting off your sentences
  • Topic changes

If you see these things happen, know that communication with that person is probably not in the cards for that particular moment, day, year, or lifetime (depending on the person). So now you have a choice — you can either attempt to extract information (as an alternative to actual communication) or you can walk away.

If you want to extract information, know that you need to get out quickly, so focus on one or maybe two particular things that you need to know from that person. Then focus the conversation on those points and use declarative language. “I know you have to run, so I just need those budget numbers,” for example, is a declaration that you are terminating the talk but you require information. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. It has everything to do with the local balance of power and their opinion of you.

Otherwise just walk away. Most situations in life are not so desperate that you must communicate with another person right this very second, so just come back to it at a later time.

Ok Great, Go Practice

This is an art, not a science. The way you get better at any art is through practice. You can read all the online articles you want, it won’t make a difference if you don’t go out in the real world and open your mouth. So do that. Try to have one good communicative talk per day.

This doesn’t have to be hard; the easiest way in the world to do this as an American is to ask someone how they’re doing, and then listen and respond on a deeper level than “Uh huh, cool.” You’ll likely have a thirty second conversation and learn something new about that person.

It’s also extremely worthwhile to learn how to communicate in a group, and almost all of us experience a venue where we can practice that art. It’s called a “meeting.” I’m sure you have one at work from time to time, and it’s worth your while to practice using that meeting as a venue for communication. It’s weird to say, but that’s actually what they’re for. I know, right?

And finally, if at all possible practice public speaking and public listening. Put some effort into that next presentation at the job, and solicit questions. Give a presentation at the next Rotary Club meeting, and invite comments. Most of us have a venue where we can practice this skill, and it is extremely worthwhile to do so.

So talk to people you meet. Conquer that stage fright. Learn to speak, be heard, and hear. It’ll make life easier, and it’ll be more interesting to boot!

¹That dude was my favorite character on The Mandalorian, not least because he was a highly effective communicator.