Previously I discussed the things that can kill conversations. I discussed how to reframe things in the moment, but what if you are looking to fully overhaul your conversation skills in the long term?
To really hone in on your skills, two things are required: practice and your full attention. Similar to any skill, you cannot just read a book on the topic, you need to actively, and mindfully, practice the skill to improve. Three things, specifically, to practice and learn are: listening, curiosity, and empathy
While listening is a fairly basic skill, active listening is an advanced skill. Active listening requires removing your judgment, ego, and solutions while taking the time to not only hear the words but also the emotions, tone, body language, and nuances. That is, active listening is about listening without thinking of what you will say next and it's about understanding rather than debating, fixing, or contributing. Not speaking is hard, but using minimal encouragers such as, "I see" and "go on." Even leaning forward helps show you are engaged. To ensure you can stay focused eliminate as many distractions as possible.
Learning Checkpoint: To see if you are listening well, keep reflecting on what you are hearing. Such as "it sounds like you were really frustrated when I did ___." They will clarify if it's not exact, and then repeat the process until you are both on the same page with what you are hearing.
You may have already been naturally curious when you were really listening. But once you get a good sense of the situation and the nuances, you can start to talk about them. It's important to note that you cannot fake curiosity and you cannot rush curiosity. A 10-minute chat won't be enough to uncover an issue. If you are having a two-way conversation, you need time to get curious to develop mutual understanding. Embrace ambiguity and frame this as a quest to uncover their story.
Getting curious means you can dig deeper into why they felt a certain way or you begin to see nuances such as changes in body language. For example, if their body language seems inconsistent with their message asking about it may either give you better insights (e.g., they feel uncomfortable) or may help you understand other information to help you connect (e.g., they have back pain, the room is too cold).
Learning Checkpoint: To see how much detail you truly gleaned, imagine you are planning to make an intel report for someone else following the meeting of all the details of what you have heard. How well do you think you would do? (Note: you won't actually do this as the conversation is confidential!)
Finally, to really level up your conversation skills, you move beyond interest in the topic or in the person, but into investment. Empathy requires an accurate awareness of the person's viewpoint and the ability to imagine how you feel if you were in their position. This is not sympathy, we do not feel bad for them, but we feel with them.
Simply saying "I know what you are feeling" or "I understand" without having a connection will have a negative consequence. Ensure to first find some sort of common ground. Perhaps you both want the job to be completed on time and on budget. Or maybe you both feel sensitive after receiving criticism. Finding common ground doesn't necessarily mean finding a common viewpoint or thinking, but can just be finding a common action or outcome.
An important note to know is that sometimes empathy isn't appropriate. If something is very difficult, painful, or different from your own beliefs or values showing you feel the same can feel disingenuous. For example, if a marginalized person is speaking of their experience, feeling you can relate when you have significantly more privilege may be harmful to the relationship.
Learning checkpoint: Empathy is a tough one to check in on because it requires you to know how you feel emotionally. Building your empathy can sometimes feel like a step backward because you begin to take on the burden of others but this is required for mutual reconciliation or problem-solving. Check in with yourself and see whether you feel drained yet inspired? Or do you feel heavy but resolved?
Really listening, being curious, and displaying empathy are some of the most powerful ways we can communicate how we care, show we are interested, and demonstrate that we respect others. Research supports that through increasing our conversation skills we have better relationships at work, increase everyone's intentions to change, better facilitate change initiatives, conflict is overcome quicker, and feedback becomes less defensive and is used as an opportunity for growth and development.
As you are working on these skills remember that intention is more important than technique. You may stumble or bumble but if people see you are genuinely trying, they will be forgiving.
Bass & Riggio, 2006; McKinsey, 2012; Meinecke & Kauffeld, 2018; Yukl, 2010