There is a lot of advice out there about how to improve our communication skills. All those things you need to do to make you a better manager, a better colleague, a better partner, a better friend.
Some days, no doubt, all this advice simply accumulates and leaves you thinking you are largely deficient as a human being.
The fact of the matter is that good communication skills are a largely natural and organic human trait. It is what got us here today, sidestepping the inherent dangers that the evolution of our species had to encounter on the way.
I am bilingual but not from birth. I am a Brit who has lived and worked in France for over 15 years. It has taken funny, embarrassing, solitary, and sometimes exhausting, moments to get to a level of fluency.
But it has also taught me a lot about successful communication, as having to express yourself in a foreign language takes you back to basics.
Let’s start with four key things:
1. Listening is more important than talking
When you start learning a foreign language, you will work on your comprehension skills before you work on your oral skills. And this will continue for a good time to come.
You will spend lots of time listening … and may you may actually learn to listen properly.
Ask yourself this question now: How many conversations do you go into knowing exactly what you are going to say from start to finish. This can happen in the workplace or in your personal relationships. You have actually thought out whatever you going to say from A to Z as you know the outcome you want from that situation.
That’s not a conversation. You pretend it is because you let the person interject from time to time, but are you really listening?
The Greek philosopher, Epictetus said,
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
A friend of mine’s modern-day version on this, when recounting an exchange with a client, was resumed in the phrase, “she’s on transmit more often than she’s on receive”.
Indeed, we don’t like it when we feel people are not listening to us either.
In a foreign language before you gain a very high level of fluency, you will not always be able to immediately articulate what you want to say. This makes you listen, and it also makes you talk less about you. These are essential communication skills.
2. Communication is not only words
I have a Bee Gees song in my head, but as much as I do like the high pitch of the Gibb brothers, it’s not only words and words are not all you have.
Quite honestly, when you are speaking a foreign language, especially in the early days, you sometimes just don’t have the words. So, where do you go?
There is a common theory — the Albert Mehrabian’s 7–38–55 rule — that seeks to quantify how much of meaning is communicated via verbal and nonverbal communication methods. It is often taught to help people improve their negotiation skills and it is often misquoted to mean that only 7% of the meaning of a message is conveyed via the words.
When it talks about 38% vocal tone and 55% facial expression is not talking about the message, but the emotional response of the interlocutor.
And communication skills are about conveying both emotion and message.
A smile is the easiest way to say you agree with something or someone.
But how often are you in a rush and you forget to smile? Think of the last work presentation you did. Under pressure, you can forget. I have a colleague who draws smiley faces on her notes when she goes into pitches — just to remind her to smile.
Non-verbal cues and body language: we tend to shut them down when under stress or in a rush.
3. Three seconds isn’t a long time
Have you ever been taught that when you are in front of an audience to imagine them with their clothes off? This supposedly eases the nerves but it’s not one for me. Carry forward the previous point and I have one of those faces that generally communicates (without words) exactly what I am thinking.
My colleagues send texts to remind me we are on video and not telephone conferencing sometimes.
The other preferred option when the nerves hit, is to count to three before speaking. Three seconds is not actually the gaping silence anyone imagines.
You will naturally speak more slowly when you learn a new language and you will leave pauses. They are not the deafening voids of emptiness you think they are.
We are all either stressed or in a rush nowadays. Why not slow down your rhythm a notch and leave just slightly longer pauses between sentences? This slower pace will calm you down, as well as whoever you are talking to.
Actually, if we all slowed down a notch, maybe we’d have time for points one and two.
4. It’s important to choose your words
When you speak in a foreign language up until the point where you are very much fluent, you will always be thinking about your choice of words. And actually, even when you are fluent, you will still have moments when you will hesitate, to make sure you say the right thing.
Remember that old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. You used to say it to the mean kid in the playground.
Well, it’s not true is it? We all remember the harsh or misplaced words of others and sometimes for years to come.
I prefer the words of Sigmund Freud:
« Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair »
Think about what comes out of your mouth. Take the time to think about the impact of your words, not just on those around you, but on yourself. What you verbalise is what you create for yourself.
So how can you start being a better communicator?
You don’t need the opportunity of a foreign language to help you to start listening more. You just need to be interested in what your interlocutor has to say.
I don’t think there are magical tips for being a better communicator. If you feel your communication skills need working on, it’s maybe more about talking a fundamentally different approach to life.
- How about taking a real (rather than feigned) interest in what people are saying to you?
- How about slowing down to allow yourself time to listen and to allow people the time to speak to you?
- How about thinking about your words and the impact they can have on people?
- How about truly believing that what people have to say to you is as important as what you have to say to them?
We all have things to learn.
And on a final note, how about accepting yourself flaws and all, and not striving for a cultivated idea of perfection? People feel more comfortable with people who are true to themselves.
I have been in France 15 years now, but I still make mistakes in French. I spent a good 10 minutes with my neighbour recently chatting about his cousin. I had misheard the word “plants” (plantes) as he pronounced it with his strong southern accent and thought he was talking about skirting boards (plinthes).
Looking back I really don’t know how I came to that conclusion, but thanks to my facial expressions that reveal all, my neighbour quickly caught on when I said, “but I still don’t understand why she would leave her skirting boards at your house just because she has split with her boyfriend.”
Like I said, we all have things to learn.
Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash