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Business depends on communication, and communication is a two-way street. Not only do we need to develop the skill not just of making ourselves understood clearly and accurately, but we need to return the favor and put some effort into understanding the other person.
In a recent article I talked about the value of active listening for improving business. Only 35% of communication is contained in the actual words we are hearing or reading. The other 65% of the message is contained in body language, facial expression, tone and rate of speech, and other non-verbal aspects of communication. Active listening techniques can help us make the most of that 65%.
The problem is, that as web workers our main modes of communication make reading body language or facial expressions impossible. A great deal of our information is word only—business letters, email, instant messaging, blogging and microblogging. Some of our communication involves voice—phone and Skype—so at least we can pick up on the other person's tone of voice. And even when we have the advantage of video, it's still not the same thing as being there in person. It's helpful being able to see their face, but it is only the size of a postage stamp, and often very jumpy.
In A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood sums up the problems we experience with online communication:
Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous to use in email.
Another difference between email and older media is that what the sender sees when composing a message might not look like what the reader sees. Your vocal cords make sound waves that are perceived basically the same by both your ears as your audience's. The paper that you write your love note on is the same paper that the object of your affection sees. But with email, the software and hardware that you use for composing, sending, storing, downloading, and reading may be completely different from what your correspondent uses. Your message's visual qualities may be quite different by the time it gets to someone else's screen.
To be good e-communicators, we need to be aware of these limitations, and get creative. Here are 17 ways you can use active listening techniques in online communication:
1. Vary Your Tone of Voice on the Phone or Skype
Tone of voice adds a lot to the message you are conveying—excitement, surprise, disappointment. Make good use of this when you are on the phone, and the other person can't see your face.
Start by smiling. It's often said that you can hear a smile over the phone. Then give the listener the benefit of hearing your facial expressions and emotional responses in the tone you speak with.
2. Mirror Your Facial Expressions with Emoticons
Emoticons can help clarify a message over email or instant messenger—though you don't want to overuse them in a corporate context. Were you being serious or sarcastic, humorous or business-like. It's usually not possible to tell from the words you use—especially when you are being concise—and the other person will subconsciously try to fill in the gaps, and often get it wrong. A smiley can add helpful context to a brief message.
3. Tell the Other Person About Your Feelings and Reactions
Have you ever been on one end of the phone wondering how the person was reacting on the other? Your listeners will have the same experience. Become your own commentator, and try to fill in the gaps for them. Use brief phrases like:
- "That's fantastic."
- "You've made my day."
- "I'm disappointed about…"
- "That's terrible."
- "That won't work for me."
If you were meeting in person, the other person would have evaluated your response from your body language. It's dangerous to assume they will guess correctly from just the words you use over the phone. Let them know.
4. Ask Your Client About Their Feelings and Reactions
On the other hand, it's dangerous to assume you are interpreting your client's responses correctly. Ask them for feedback by asking questions like:
- "How do you feel about that?"
- "Does that sound good to you?"
- "Is that going to work?"
- "Is that what you were expecting?"
Don't just listen for facts, listen for feelings too. They can alert you to uncertainty or misunderstanding, warn of upcoming problems, or highlight opportunities you may otherwise have missed.
5. Specify the Response You Want
In the MindTools article Effective Email, it is suggested that you specify the response you want. This helps move things forward, and help you move to the next step more easily.
Make sure to include any call to action you desire, such as a phone call or follow-up appointment. Then, make sure you include your contact information, including your name, title, and phone numbers. Do this even with internal messages: The easier you make it for someone else to respond, the more likely they are to do so.
6. Don't Pretend to Understand
If you miss something your client said on the phone, or you don't really understand what they are saying, don't pretend that you do. If you get lost, say "Sorry, I didn't get that. What are you saying?" Pretending that you understand when you don't will usually only lead to greater confusion, and it will be more embarrassing to admit it down the track.
7. Use Effective Interjections
When we are meeting with our clients face-to-face, we can show them we are listening and engaging by nodding to what they say, maintaining eye contact, and varying our facial expressions. That doesn't work on the phone.
Instead, learn to use effective interjections to show your interest and that you're listening. Use care—you don't want to interrupt what they are saying. A simple, "Mmm" or "Ah ha" from time to time should be sufficient.
8. Offer Feedback
With Active Listening, "feedback" is a way to confirm you are understanding what your client is saying by rephrasing it. For example, you can reflect back "Joe, you sound happy with the new direction we are taking," or "Mary, it sounds like you've changed your mind about the best color to use."
This technique works well in conversations by phone or instant messenger, but be careful of using it in email. You want to avoid making your client send an extra email unless you are really unsure of what they mean.
9. Make Heavy Use of the 'What' Technique
The 'What' technique helps you clarify what your client is after, and works very well via digital communication. It involves asking questions that start with 'What', such as:
- What do you want?
- What can I do for you?
- What were you hoping for?
- What do you see as possible?
- What is the context of that concern?
10. Get Personal
Use your client's name and second-person pronouns such as “you”, “your”, and “yours” to let them know you’re thinking of them specifically.
11. Answer Your Email Quickly
It's amazing how many emails go unanswered, or are not answered in a timely manner. If your client has sent you an email, they're likely to be anxious to get your response. After a while they will take your lack of response as a lack of interest, or start to wonder whether you actually received the email.
Put their mind at rest by answering the email quickly. Even if you need time to think about their offer, or don't have time to deal with the issue at the moment, send them a brief reply letting them know you received their email, and will give them your answer in a few days or a few hours.
12. Re-read Your Email Before You Send It
You may already do this, looking for spelling and grammar errors. Make sure you also clarify sentences that might be misunderstood, and consider what emotion you might seem to be writing with. Do you come across as being short, angry or arrogant?
13. Set Out Your Email Replies Like a Conversation
When replying to a long email, or an email that addresses various points, set out your reply like a conversation. Quote each of the writer's points one by one, with your own response after each point. This makes your reply easier to follow, and your answers to different issues won't be confused. Don't quote irrelevant parts of the original email, just the issues you are responding to.
14. Use Short Paragraphs
Short paragraphs are easier to read and easier to understand, especially when being read from a computer screen. For maximum readability, keep them to 50 words or less.
15. Avoid Shortcuts and Abbreviations
Besides being unbusinesslike, MSN-style abbreviations can be difficult to decode, and lead to misunderstanding. Make your emails and instant messages as understandable as possible by avoiding them. In a business context, it is best to avoid even well-known abbreviations like "lol", "brb" and "imho".
16. Remember You Can't Get Back a Sent Message
Have you ever hit "Send" too soon - either before your message was actually finished, or just as you realized you'd typed something inappropriate? In general, once you send a message, it's gone. (Though you may be able to recall an internal email on a Microsoft Exchange server, and Gmail has a lab feature that gives you a few seconds to undo a send.)
Get in the habit of double-checking important emails to clients. For the very important ones, you may want to save it in drafts for a while, and re-read it with fresh eyes.
17. Practice the 24-Hour Rule When Upset
In Tips for More Effective Email Communication, David Friedman recommends a specific rule for the point above: "If you compose an email in anger, wait a predetermined period of time before sending it."
It's never a good idea to send an email when you're angry. Those emails are rarely good for business. Waiting at least 24 hours will save you having to apologize and have to mend fences. 24 hours is usually enough time to see the situation with a better perspective.
I'd love to hear of any further hints you have. How do you improve your online communication, making your own communication clearer, and learning to better understand your clients? Let us know in the comments.