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The Independent Online
THERE ARE few aspects of working life which don't involve listening and talking to others. Conversation is used to form and maintain relationships, give and take instructions, seek and impart information, and provide and get feedback.

However, conversation is much more than an exchange of words. We are not logic machines but are influenced by our emotions. Consequently, how something is said can be just as influential as what is said. What a listener hears and understands is influenced by prior knowledge, situation, timing and the speaker's choice of vocabulary, intonation and body language.

Although the importance of "oral communication skills" in the workplace is widely publicised, this phrase suggests that it is talking rather than listening that is important. However, most people want a genuine two-way exchange in which both feel they are being heard and understood. So it is perhaps better to think of "conversation skills".

If a conversation is to work each person must have the opportunity to express their opinion, make their thoughts and feelings clear, and to be listened to seriously. None of us likes to be lectured to, patronised, put down, not given proper attention, denied a chance to finish, or having our opinions ignored or trivialised.

Few people, except tyrants and bullies, do these things consciously to others. However, most of us are guilty of some of them from time to time, perhaps because we have other things on our mind, we have been approached at an awkward moment, or we are tired and impatient.

If we bounce a new idea off a colleague trying to finish a report against a deadline, ask someone to discuss a staff appraisal ten minutes before they go into a client meeting, or raise a sensitive personal issue in front of others, this will rarely lead to a constructive dialogue.

We need to create the right climate for a conversation. Those involved should be free to talk and not preoccupied with something else. And there should be no needless distractions. The person initiating a conversation should ask "Is this a good time to talk about... or would you prefer me to come back later?"

The person initiating the conversation also needs to engage the attention of the other. The most effective way is to start with the main point one wishes to make or to state the reason for the conversation. It is easier for the listener to focus their mind if they know roughly what's coming.

If you have lots of ideas to put over, it helps to list them and organise them into a logical sequence beforehand. People generally grasp facts and specific information more easily than generalisations. However, the facts and information must be relevant to the main argument. Do not overload the listener. Moreover, because the listener is having to absorb each statement while listening to the next, brief but regular pauses can help comprehension.

Don't go on at length without giving the other person the chance to respond. If the subject is complex, you need to know the listener has fully understood what has been said. It can help to ask if you have made yourself clear and how they see things. There are a number of signals which will tell you that you have gone on too long and are losing attention - such as surreptitious glances at a wall clock or wrist watch, eyes wandering, slumped posture and fidgeting.

It may be irritating if the other person wants to interrupt while you are in the middle of a complicated explanation. But, having decided they want to say something, they will not give you their full attention until they have said it. Rather than show impatience, it is better to stop, invite their contribution and give them your full attention than to try and continue regardless.

Sometimes they are seeking clarification, or have spotted a factual error. But if the point is relatively trivial, or they have anticipated something you were going to say, you can quickly get back to your main thread by saying "that's a good point which I'll be coming to in a moment". How you handle a potential interruption can weaken or strengthen the value of a conversation.

Some conversations are difficult - such as giving a reprimand, rejecting a colleague's proposal, chasing a late payment or delivery, or explaining an unfavourable assessment. Although you may be telling them things they don't want to hear, respect their feelings. Whenever possible avoid the language of blame. Blame leads to resentment and hostility. If you want co-operation and a change in behaviour, avoid attack. It is better to say: "we have a problem" than "you have a problem", and ask "how are we going to solve it?" rather than "what are you going to do about it?"

Facial expression and body language of both speaker and listener contribute to the conversation. Although one can hide the truth in what one says, it is very hard to control one's face or body language. Most people can sense whether someone is being honest in their opinions and feelings. So, to maintain trust, it is better to be honest both in what one says and in giving feedback to what is said.

We all make mistakes during conversation. Consequently we should be tolerant, curbing our impatience, annoyance or irritation at the failings of others, and work with them to achieve a construction outcome.

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