'Real life' person to person conversation should not be ignored

We often ignore the most basic and direct line of communication we have; the real life, honest to goodness, person to person conversation
Barry Shannon

WE hear about communication in work all the time. We have communication plans, strategies, directors, gurus and initiatives. We hear words and phrases like guerrilla, offline, online, social, overt, direct, indirect and hidden persuaders.

Often however we ignore the most basic and direct line of communication we have; the real life, honest to goodness, person to person conversation.

I know you might well ask, in a world of technology and instant messaging where we can relay a message to a colleague in microseconds rather than have to get up and walk a whole 10 feet; why do we even need to engage in actual dialogue?

First up, humour doesn't translate well in print unless you already know the person quite well. The little twitch at the side of the mouth that tells you they are being sarcastic and not to be taken literally.

Secondly you can really miss tone, inflection, volume, eye movement and all those other little cues that tell you so much about what a person is saying without even having to hear the words themselves.

Why then do we often get so frustrated when we engage in work conversations? Well, it's often said that there are two types of conversationalist.

Those who use the time that you are speaking just to plan what they are going to say next (the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows refers to this as ‘anecdoche': ‘a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening') and those who actually pay attention to what you are saying so they understand what you are trying to communicate to them.

When you work in business it's vitally important to be the second type of conversationalist and actually hear and understand what your colleagues and customers have to say.

There are certain tips and techniques that can help you along this path towards become a better conversationalist:

1. Keep your mind focused. Even if the topic is boring (but necessary) train your mind to stay focused on what is being said. Don't let your mind drift off into what's on the telly tonight or where you are going for dinner later that week.

2. Let the person finish speaking before you reply. You might miss something vital.

3. Just as Simon and Garfunkel sung about the sound of silence, this too has its place. If you can master being comfortable with silence you can often pull more information out from the person you are speaking with, as they will naturally not wish to feel uncomfortable and will try to fill the vacuum with more talk.

4. Look directly at the person and show physical, especially facial, expressions of interest; it will encourage them to finish what they need to say.

5. Listen for key words. Repeating (or reflecting) these back in your reply will make the other person believe that you are really understanding what they have to say.

6. Realise that sometimes you do not need to offer an actual solution, just some empathy.

7. Keep an open mind. You might have a set position at the start of a conversation but remain open to having your opinion changed.

8. Try and avoid starting your reply with negative words like ‘but' and finally.

9. If you feel you are getting frustrated or on the verge of arguing, then take a time out and walk away.

So remember, when having a conversation, you should be very conscious about when your setting should be ‘broadcast' and when it needs to be ‘receive, with perhaps the final word on needs going top that great philosopher Hobbes (the striped version) who was asked by his pal Calvin ‘I wonder why we think faster than we can speak', to which he replied…. ‘Probably so we can think twice'.

:: Barry Shannon ( is HR director at Cayan in Belfast

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access