For the past two years, I’ve been participating as a mentor in a program for mentoring professional women. The program organizers have set up a “mentor training program” to give us better tools for the job. Sadly, though, the consultant they brought in the past year to give us the training was a case-study on what not to do!
This person was very good at interrupting when we were talking. It seemed to me as if he was intent on showing us everything he knew and we didn’t, instead of uncovering the huge amount of experience from the mentors themselves. Half an hour into the first training, I could feel that the psychological safety in the room had fallen dramatically, as me and the other mentors became more unwilling to continue contributing to exercise. I stopped going to the trainings.
This year, things have been the complete opposite. The new consultant they brought in to train us is great at prompting us to share our knowledge, and distilling the learnings from the story-sharing in the room. He makes you feel listened to and is great at asking thoughtful questions. He shows all the traits of a great communicator, and is teaching us by example how to become better listeners and mentors ourselves.
As mentors and as leaders, becoming better communicators is a continuous goal. Good communication helps our teams and our organizations. So, what are the key characteristics of good communicators?
Here’s my list. I’d love to hear yours in the comments!
They practice active listening
As one of the mentors participating in the training put it, “we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason”. Many of us equate communication with speaking, yet a key aspect of any productive communication is how well we listen. Your biggest tools for a productive exchange are: a) making the other person feel listened to, and b) obtaining a clear understanding of their viewpoint. You clearly don’t get there by talking!
In most cases, when we think we're listening, in truth we're already preparing a response in our heads. This mostly comes from a good place: we want to help the other person solve their issue. Other times it’s because we’re feeling attacked and we want to strike back.
Whatever the roots of your impulse, hold it back and try to really focus on what the other person is saying. For me, it helps if I take short notes, and then repeat what the other person has said back to them (this is called paraphrasing). For example, say, "If I understand correctly, you're saying that..." "My feeling, from what I'm hearing is that you are having trouble with ______. Is that correct?" "Are you saying that ______?"
When it comes to the other person feeling listened to, small things also matter. Make eye contact. Avoid crossing your arms. Keep your phone in your pocket and in silent mode.
They ask probing questions
Our trainer impressed me with his ability to ask probing questions. It seemed to me that, while listening, he was drawing up a map in his mind of the problem the speaker was sharing. Then he used smart and caring questions to refine that map and clarify the issue further - both for himself and for the speaker. He also used questions to explore what potential solutions or resources had the speaker tried out.
Think about it, when you’re helping someone solve a problem, how many times do you stop to explore their own abilities to resolve the issue? We normally just propose solutions, but that’s not necessarily the best approach if you want to grow your team.
Good probing questions are open-ended questions that make the other person feel you're paying attention, help them clarify the problem, and reflect on how they can solve it. For example, you can ask, "What do you think is causing this?" "What are your ideas about how to solve this?" "What is the best approach for moving forward, in your view?" "What other paths have you considered?" "How can I help?" “Who else could you ask for support with this?”
They talk from a personal perspective
Great communicators also differentiate between their own thoughts/perceptions and facts. Talking from a personal perspective can feel less intrusive or patronizing for the person sharing a problem with you. For example, you can say "When I’ve been confronted with a similar situation in the past, I’ve tried this.” or “Although the situations are not identical. this has worked for me”.
Saying “this is how you solve it” can leave the receiver feeling unempowered, especially if they can’t see themselves trying out that solution. Remember that your skills and the other person skills may differ. Saying "I think one way to solve it this way" implies there might be other ways to solve the issue, and opens the way for discussion and brainstorming.
This strategy also works to build bridges between what you think and what the other person said. Can you suggest paths forward based on the other person’s skills or resources?
Try something like: "From what you've told me, my impression is that the problem lies here: ______. What do you think?” “It seems to me like you could use these resources you’ve listed to try and solve this issue, does that sound reasonable/doable to you?”
It’s hard to keep our brilliant suggestions to ourselves. And some of these might be worth sharing. But if they don’t align with what the person has told you, you might be sharing this for the wrong reasons (e.g. showing off your skills rather than helping out the other person).
There you have it, three skills that we can all practise to become better communicators. There are of course, many more. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss any communication-related content.
Which are to you, the most important ones? What makes you feel listened to and empowered? Share in the comments or on Facebook!