Learning how to converse fluently and authentically could give young people the edge in the modern workplace, writes voice-over artist Lorraine Ansell.
Growing up in a world where it’s normal to interact with others via technology, many young people are more confident communicating online than in person. They underestimate the importance of conversational skills to their future careers.
Not only are they joining a multi-generational workforce, where reaching for a smartphone isn’t the default method of communication for everybody, they’re also entering an environment where conversation is integral to making personal connections, building networks and opening doors.
Research among recent graduates, conducted by CEMS — the global alliance in management education — suggests it will be exceptional people skills that will help future employees navigate a volatile and uncertain digital economy, in which humans work alongside machines.
More than half of respondents (56%) considered either social skills (33%) or the ability to manage people (23%) the most important skills to develop as technology increases in the corporate workplace. They rated these soft skills more highly than teachable hard skills (7%), technical, job-specific content skills (7%) or process skills such as critical thinking (12%).
So how do we help our students master the art of talking to the people around them, and why is conversation still so important?
In the workplace, technology (from email to instant messaging and tools such as Slack and WhatsApp) has helped streamline business communication, but this is sometimes to the detriment of richer and deeper communication.
Business meetings take place with people of different ages, with varying mindsets and from a range of cultures and backgrounds, so only by communicating face to face will true connections be made. Conversation is the verbal invisible connection we have with others, involving emotion and a real meeting of minds. Conducted effectively, it can enable the sharing and growing of ideas.
By having real conversations you can begin to gauge who the other person is
In an authentic exchange, each party actively listens, hears and then reciprocates. In this way, all those taking part can truly engage with the words, intentions and feelings behind each conversation. This is an important advantage of face-to-face conversation.
In other forms of communication, meanings can get lost or be open to misinterpretation, and it is often only by speaking with someone that ideas can be clarified and misunderstandings cleared up. For example, use of humour or emojis in written messages can unintentionally confuse or offend. By having real conversations, you can begin to gauge who the other person is, pick up non-verbal cues and make better judgements on how to approach subjects or issues.
Meeting in person also forces you to focus on the conversation in hand and to ignore distractions. The ease and speed of technology that allows us to converse simultaneously with multiple people on different platforms is a form of evolution. However, a conversation is like a good cup of tea. It needs time and space to develop. Committing to a conversation can be very rewarding, so show yourself and the other participants respect by taking your time and enabling ideas to come to life and evolve.
In addition, whatever your level of seniority within an organisation, conversations provide opportunities for you to get your messages across to colleagues and to have your views and feelings aired and understood. There is an art to achieving this without alienating other people.
Committing to a conversation
Truly effective communicators commit to a conversation with focus and intensity, listening carefully before offering their point of view. They are mindful of varying opinions. The real art is understanding that we can hold different views and still respect one another. Do not follow the example of those politicians who refuse to engage in conversation but repeatedly hammer home their three key messages.
Body language is a core element of effective conversations: in the 1970s, Professor Albert Mehrabian famously concluded that 93% of communication is non-verbal, comprising body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%). Subtle mirroring of body language can help build trust and understanding within a conversation. Good eye contact and a smile is an instant way of demonstrating your willingness to engage.
Nowadays, authentic conversations don’t actually have to take place in person; we can use technology to communicate effectively across countries and time zones. Services such as Skype and FaceTime time allow us to interact with sound and real-time images, experiencing the other person more holistically. However, whenever you can meet in person, it’s a worthwhile investment of time. Communicating this way helps us make that all-important emotional connection: the human bond that encourages others to go the extra mile for you.
Tips on mastering the art of conversation at work
- Establish your purpose: Are you imparting information, requesting something of somebody, or just having a catch-up? Decide what you intend to talk about and set your goals. Do you need to gain approval or permission by the end of the conversation?
- Let the other person speak: Conversation is a bit like tennis. Each person needs to take their turn rather than dominating the exchange.
- Listen actively: What is the other person saying and in what tone of voice? What language and body language are they using; can you gauge any emotions from the way they are speaking? Listening is as much a part of a good conversation as talking.
- Be grateful for the other person’s time: A simple “thanks” at the end of a conversation signals that it has come to an end and shows your appreciation of the other person’s time and effort in today’s busy world of work.
Lorraine Ansell is an award-nominated voice-over artist and studio engineer. She is a graduate of the Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS), a global alliance of academic and corporate institutions dedicated to educating and preparing future generations of international business leaders.