Top tips for improving your communications skills

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Good communications skills are an essential part of an accountants' professional toolkit. Following are 15 top tips for sharpening those tools.

Are you paid to communicate? Most people are these days, this is how people coordinate action - yet curiously very little communication training is conducted after the basics have been learnt in school. Even those with natural talent can benefit from a little extra communication training.

Communication is a complex, context-dependant and highly individual affair making a generic communication tips article like this challenging - but what the hell, here are some pointers. Please hold them lightly and not as absolutes. Most of the following apply to face-to-face communication, on the phone and via email. Many of them have been influenced by NonViolent Communication and ontological coaching if these are familiar approaches.
 
Top 15 communication training tips
 
Listen first

Listening fully without interruption is the primary communication skill. Honing your empathy (as defined as "the intention to connect in the present moment") and learning to differentiate it from other forms of listening such as sympathy, storytelling and consoling is worthwhile. Active listening and paraphrasing (repeating back what people have said) may also be useful, but any listening skill done as manipulation will quickly be spotted - the intention is what matters.
 
Breathe

While involved in a challenging conversation take a deep breath down into the belly and let in out slowly before responding. 'Centre' by becoming aware of your physical body in the here and now to get yourself together.
 
Say "I..."

Using I statements such as "I feel miserable when that happens" rather than psychologically distancing oneself by using "you..." or other terms (e.g. "You know, you feel miserable when that happens") makes a huge difference as only once a statement is 'owned' can it can be addressed. It encourages people to 'speak for themselves' too separating facts from opinions (see later tip).
 
Separate facts from opinions

Speaking as if opinions are facts can lead to all sorts of trouble (that's an opinion). Watch out for the verb 'to be' as a sign of this - "Jane is a bad manager", "John and Fred are lazy." For any conflict resolution describing the objective facts about what happened is a good place to start; the same with appraisals and feedback. This sounds like a simple tip but is remarkably difficult for people.
 
Avoid judgment, blame, denial of responsibility and comparisons

No matter how much you judge or blame people they won't like you for it. Joking aside, when corporate negotiations or relationship discussions descend into judgment and blame, both parties lose. Denying responsibility ("I had to do it," "It's my job to hate them," "I was only obeying orders") also means that communication ends. Comparisons are, as the saying goes, usually odious. Avoid them.
 
Get emotional

Emotions point us in the direction of what is important. I am angry or scared when something important to me is threatened, sad when something meaningful is lost and happy when it's gained, for example. Emotions also inspire and motivate others. Having emotional intelligence is a crucial life, training and business skill.
 
Know the cause of emotions

Note that people can stimulate each other's feelings but are not the cause (a person's own thinking and needs are), also using the word 'feel' doesn't necessarily imply a feeling is involved. "You made me angry" and "I feel you don't love me" for example are unlikely to lead to useful conversations.
 
Needs and values

Beneath feelings are needs and values. I may be angry because my need for freedom is being threatened by a micro-managing boss or delighted because I value appreciation and have received it from colleagues, for example. Because we all have the same basic needs, learning to understand others in this way is a very powerful form of communication training.
 
Get moody

People live in long-term moods. If you have a friend who is always happy and another who would view winning the lottery as a misfortune, you know this; however people's own moods are often invisible to them (ask around to find out yours). The mood and tone in which we say things and choose to listen makes a huge difference - moods are constantly communicated predispositions for action.
 
Ask for what you want

Asking for what you want in specific and time-bound positive language is how to get what you want and improve your life! This sounds simple, but often people don't ask in a 'clean' way (e.g. "It's hot in here!" rather than "please open the window"). Watch out for assumptions too..."You wanted a pet? You just said buy me an animal for Christmas not a living one!" Note that there are only four responses to any request - accept, decline, commit-to-commit (e.g. "I'll tell you Monday") and counter-offer. Maybe has no real meaning and should be avoided. Be clear about your standards for any request e.g. "I'd like the report 10-12 pages long and to include a section on finance. On my desk by Monday."
 
Make declarations

Make bold declarations in public if you want things to change, "We will put a man on the moon within 10 years," "Britain is now at war with Germany," and "I do" are all examples of bold declarations.
 
Have a look at what you're saying

We communicate more through our bodies than through our words - especially around emotionally significant subjects. Examine what your body is saying by looking at a video recording of yourself speaking with the sound off. In many ways we are our bodies and these express continuously.
 
Take culture into account

Different nations, subcultures, ethnic groups, companies, even departments have their own cultures. What may be appropriate with a group of engineers in Germany may not be with a group of therapists in the US.
 
Take individual differences into account

Different people like to communicate in very different ways. There are numerous typologies such as Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram for looking at communication styles. Extrovert and introvert people like to communicate in very different ways, as do people at different stages of development, people preferring left or right brain thinking, liberals and conservatives, etc.
 
Listen some more

Listening is on the list twice as one can't really listen too much. Our top communication training tip - listen.
 
Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham. He is a contributor to our sister site, TrainingZone.co.uk.
 

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