By Fareeha Qayoom
s a perpetual student of life, I have known for a long time the importance of asking the right questions. All questions can be broken down to six categories — why, what, where, when, who, and How?
Effective communication is an acquired skill – though, not all managers know how to communicate effectively. Words have meanings and associations – same words can mean different things to different people. Then, there are hidden meanings, fine nuances, body language, and outright contradictions between actions and words, not to mention, human nature…walking through this minefield can be tough – on top of that, you need emotional intelligence and people skills. I don’t think you can ever say you have mastered all the skills of communication and now you have become an effective communicator. You live and learn — it’s always a process. However, there are some rules of effective communication that you can acquire…
Building credibility over the short term or long term
Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is equally important. I am talking about ‘accuracy’ and ‘consistency.’ It makes for credible conversations and effective communication. Many ineffective conversations can be broken down to one truth – wrong words, wrong tone of voice, or downright misrepresentation of truth, distrust or dishonesty. Conflict arises and communication breaks down and you are one step away from total collapse of a relationship.
Once upon a time, I went to this job interview on a lark (summer of 1998), the lady was co-owner and publisher of one of the top weekly political English publications in town; she asked me to bring a few examples of my writing – I did. She had actually meant non-edited version of my published work; (example of wrong use of words). Why didn’t she just say so? The edited ones were all my writing too, (the editors had only removed a word here and there and substituted a more formal word consistent with their newspaper house style). Anyway, I had brought a few copies of the newsletter I published in English as well. She couldn’t believe it was all my work! (Example of distrust) – On top of that, she couldn’t believe that majority of the people featured in it talked to me in Urdu or ‘Urlish’; apparently, she thought I wasn’t fluent in English and therefore, first wrote the copy down in Urdu and then translated it in English! (Another example of distrust); like most educated folk in Pakistan – I am bilingual so I am equally at home in both languages – I don’t need to translate, it’s automatic! Duh…
Then she referred to her publication by calling it the wrong day of the week. I just looked at her, though, I didn’t contradict her. It would have been rude to correct her. Why put me in a spot? It was our first (and last) meeting. By this point in our conversation I had already decided I didn’t want to work for her. She could have just asked me if I had ever read her publication instead of doing that elaborate play-acting! I just kept quiet.
Then, she asked me to give her a list of influential people I had on tap. Again, I was hardly impressed. It seemed perfectly obvious she hired people with influential connections only. It wasn’t about your basic writing or reporting or editing skills at all. After that, she picked up the phone, and made a pretense of telling her secretary that I was hired and she should be reminded about something or the other – blah, blah, blah. Of course, she had no intention of hiring me and I had no intention of working for her. The whole thing was bizarre. It just left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember I mentioned this encounter to a mutual friend afterwards. He couldn’t believe I was talking about the same person. She apparently came across to him as a very articulate and effective communicator. Go figure…
Soft tone of voice
You can say anything you want to anybody you want, the message could be as negative as possible, as long as your tone of voice is calm, soft and respectful, the person being addressed will not take offense.
A colleague (he’s a friend too) was arguing with me that it’s the words you use that cause offense (again, this is ancient history). He told me being told to shut up was apparently the most offensive thing anybody could ever say to him. I told him, it was usually the tone you use, not your words that cause offense. We agreed to disagree. We were having this friendly argument while we were on the way to a factory to discuss a sticky subject like late deliveries of particular knit product intended for export to USA.
The owner of the factory was a considerably older and very distinguished gentleman; he gave me many reasons for the delays – majority of them had nothing to do with the truth. They were just excuses. I heard the gentleman out and then I apparently said, “BS sir.” I didn’t notice my words nor did he. Later, on the way back, Rizwan laughingly told me he believed me. “Fareeha, do you know what you said to him?” I said, “No, what did I say?” He couldn’t stop laughing. “You said, bull sh*t, sir!” I made a believer out of him that day. I had just told a rich, powerful, elderly person of influence that he was lying to his face using a disrespectful word to describe his behavior and he hadn’t taken offense because my tone had been respectful, soft and conversational. There had been no pause – in fact, I think both of us probably didn’t even notice the profanity – we amicably sorted the deliveries to our mutual satisfaction and both of us went away well satisfied with each other. (And no, he never complained to my boss asking me to tone down my language or anything like that! So, it’s not insensitivity on my part that lets me claim that!)
Do your homework
This is another funny story. The other day, one of our vendor’s senior managers asked me for directions to our office over the phone. He had been to our office before but he had forgotten the way.
I asked him to give me his current location. He had apparently crossed the Shell Petrol Pump and was near the Central Mosque. So, I gave him the directions accordingly. (There is only one Shell Petrol Pump near a central mosque in DHA and that’s located in H sector – each phase has its own central mosque).
He finally arrived.
Later, I found out through another colleague, that I had apparently sent him on a wild goose chase. The problem had not been my directions but his inaccurate reply to my question. He had crossed the Total Petrol Pump in phase 3, to finally arrive near the phase 4 Central Mosque and he was actually in the vicinity of our office when he called me for directions! I had a good laugh. He couldn’t even say a word in his defense because it had been his own fault anyway. If he had given me his correct location, I would have given him correct directions!
So do your homework. Go prepared for any communication, have all the information you might need at hand, have clear objectives and yes, leave your ego at the door. Some communication failures can be laid down to nasty, cheap shots. Avoid sarcasm. Listen more. Talk less. Stay calm. Don’t lose your cool. Try not to interrupt. I know this is the hardest part. Sometimes, I get impatient with long winded speeches and I do interrupt but in retrospect I always regret it. It’s better for the other party to have his/her complete say.
Last but not the least, honesty is the best policy. Effective communication requires a certain amount of trust which builds long term credibility and rapport. Without that, you can’t influence anyone to do Jack.
Lack of ego is another factor that helps. Don’t try to impress, but do express clearly, concisely and simply. Let the other party play the big shot if it makes him happy. Don’t react to negativity, stupidity, dishonesty, and provocation. (This is harder than you think – sometimes, human nature comes in, bite your tongue and keep your cool! Don’t let thoughtless words escape. Take a break, walk away and regroup and then come back to the discussion table when you are calm and collected).
Bossiness, Bullying, trying to get your own way at the expense of others each time, creating a win/lose scenario in each encounter will in the long term mean a breakdown of a relationship. So let the other party win stuff that’s important to them. It’s always a give and take that makes for a successful and long term relationship.
So to sum up, active listening, accuracy, consistency and honesty, in other words, saying what you mean and meaning what you say; respectful demeanor and soft tone of voice, lack of ego, clear awareness of your goals and objectives and correct and updated information about your subject under discussion are some of the factors that would make you an effective communicator and negotiator in the long run. It will also help you negotiate mutually satisfactory outcomes every time.