For entrepreneurs, knowing how to communicate clearly and effectively is critical in leading a company — and selling your business ideas. But the words you speak and hear are only a small part of getting your message across to your employees, customers and investors. It is the way you speak and listen that makes all the difference in the world.
Consider these 12 steps for starting conversations that click and, ultimately, lead to more productive relationships:
Step 1: Relax. Stress generates irritability, which leads to anger, and anger shuts down communication. Studies have shown that a one-minute relaxation exercise will increase activity in the brain that is essential for communication and decision making. So before you enter any conversation, do this:
First notice which parts of your body are tense based on a scale of one to 10 (1 = completely relaxed; 10 = extremely tense). Write it down. For 30 seconds, breathe in slowly to the count of five, and then exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat this three times. Now, yawn a few times and notice if it relaxes you. Assign it a number between one and 10 and write it down. Now stretch your body, beginning with the muscles of your face, scrunching them up, then stretching them out. Then gently move your head from side to side and front to back. Scrunch your shoulders up and then push them down. Next tighten your arms and legs for a count of 10; then relax and shake it out. Take a few more deep breaths. Once more assign a number to your state of relaxation and write it down, noticing any improvement.
Step 2: Stay present. When you focus on your breathing and relaxation, your attention is pulled into the present moment and inner speech stops, at least momentarily. If we bring this “presentness” into a conversation, we hear the subtle tones of voice that give emotional meaning to the speaker’s words. Being in the present moment will allow you to quickly recognize when a conversation begins to go astray.
Step 3: Get quiet. Developing the skill to remain silent helps you give full attention to what other people say. To hone that skill, try an exercise with this online bell. Push the button to “strike” it then focus on the sound. As it fades, listen more closely. Ring the bell several more times, and listen more closely. This is the attentiveness you need when listening to someone.
Step 4: Be positive. Take a mental inventory of your mood. Are you tired or alert, anxious or calm? Then, ask yourself: do I feel optimistic about this conversation? If there’s any doubt, anxiety, or frustration—postpone it. If you can’t, then at least mentally rehearse the conversation first, which will help you spot statements you might make that would undermine your goal.
Step 5: Confirm values. To make a conversation balanced and fair, everyone has to be clear and up front, about values, intentions, and goals. If your values are not aligned with those of the person you’re trying to do business with, trouble is unavoidable. So learn about the person’s values as soon as you can. But beware: some people will mask the nonverbal cues of deceit and just tell you exactly what you hope to hear.
Step 6: Evoke memories. Enter the conversation with an expression that conveys kindness, compassion, and interest. But it cannot be faked. So if you’re not feeling it, tap into a pleasant memory of people you love and respect. It will soften the muscles around your eyes and evoke a gentle half smile on your face, which stimulates a feeling of trust in the other person’s brain.
Step 7: Watch nonverbal cues. Keep your eyes on the person you’re speaking with, but don’t stare. And stay focused, making sure you aren’t distracted by inner thoughts. If a person wants to conceal a feeling— out of embarrassment or the desire to deceive— it might only appear for a quarter of second. But remember that micro-expressions can only tell you that a true emotion is hidden, it won’t tell you why or whether the person is purposefully concealing it.
Step 8: Be appreciative. The first words you speak set the tone for the conversation, so begin with a compliment and end it with another compliment that expresses appreciation. Of course they must be genuine. Ask yourself: what do I really value about this person? Then, ask yourself which of those attributes you respect most. Remember this as you talk, too, and listen for an opportunity to share it.
Step 9: Speak warmly. If you drop the pitch of your voice and talk more slowly, the listener will respond with greater trust. When we are angry, excited, or frightened, we raise the pitch and intensity of our voices, and it varies a lot in speed and tone. On the other hand, a warm supportive voice is the sign of leadership and will generate more satisfaction, commitment, and cooperation between members of your team.
Step 10: Slow down. Slowing down your speech actually helps people understand what you are saying and deepens their respect for you. It’s not as intuitive as it may seem, and as children we automatically speak fast. But you can teach a child to slow down by speaking slowly yourself because they’ll match you. A slow voice has a calming effect on a person who is feeling anxious, whereas a loud, fast voice stimulates excitement, anger, or fear.
Step 11: Be brief. Limit your speaking to 30 seconds or less. Our conscious minds retain only a tiny bit of information. If you need to communicate something essential, share it in even smaller segments— a sentence or two— then wait for the person to acknowledge they’ve understood. If the person remains silent, say another sentence or two, and then pause again. It also helps to write down major points before the conversation.
Step 12: Listen deeply. Stay focused on the person who is speaking: their words, tone, gestures, facial cues— everything. When they pause, you’ll need to respond to what they just said. If they go and on, then just study them and watch how your own inner speech reacts, without worrying about what you may remember or forget. You’ll actually be practicing a form of meditation that is neurologically enhancing and emotionally relaxing— a far cry from what we usually feel when we are bored by someone speaking.