Raise your communication IQ

By Alexander Stein


(Fortune Small Business) -- How would you rate your skill at communicating? Excellent? Average? You prefer that someone else do the talking? Everybody knows that effective communication is essential to entrepreneurial success. So how can you raise your communication IQ?

Like a hi-fi system, verbal communication integrates input, processing, and output. Communication specialists typically focus on improving output. That is what everyone experiences when you speak: your command of language; your accommodation of social mores and boundaries; how nimbly you respond to nonverbal cues.

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Much of the processing function happens unconsciously. As children we're taught to "use our words," and before long, communicating becomes as natural as walking or riding a bike. At a conscious level, processing also includes strategies and rules of engagement that require you to put your brain in gear -- thinking about where you want the conversation to go, which statements are appropriate in a particular context and so on.

At the deepest level there's your personal psychology. It includes your gender, ethnicity, and sociocultural background -- and it shapes your fears, insecurities, and reflexive reactions and defenses. These elements combine to mold your unconscious "understanding" of how people relate to one another, as well as your expectations of how others will treat you.

How does this all play out? With so many variables, there's a nearly infinite array of scenarios, some workable, others not.

Consider Robert and Evan, president and senior vice president, respectively, of an established, mid-size wealth management firm. (I've disguised some identifying details.) Evan, 52, is a model of Ivy League B-school poise and professionalism. His demeanor, in addition to his savvy and expertise, calms skittish clients with nose-diving portfolios.

The problem: Robert, 71, is an old industry lion. Clients admire Robert, but he tends to be barbed with Evan and undermines the staff. To make matters worse, he's an execrable listener, perpetually interrupting his colleagues or talking over them. For a long time Evan reacted by muzzling himself. He didn't want to resign because he's in line to run the firm after Robert retires. He told himself that allegiance to his mentor and firm -- and his handsome compensation -- made up for his deeper pain and outrage. But he was breaking under the strain.

What to do? In my discussions with Evan, it soon became clear that he identified Robert with his father. To the outside world, Evan's dad was a pillar of the community. At home he raged like a Hun. As a kid, Evan was terrified of his father's temper but could never tell friends what his life was really like.

By decoupling the historical image (father) from the current person (Robert), Evan learned to speak up for himself and his staff. That was a major breakthrough for Evan. Still, he had to learn how to use his newfound voice. Before one important meeting with Robert, Evan ran his presentation past me. He sounded nervous.

"I'd never be so scared if I were just talking to my wife," he said. "Let's hear that version," I proposed. The words didn't change, but Evan instantly sounded more relaxed and confident. He had been telegraphing his fear without knowing it. Robert picked up Evan's nervous signals, which in turn triggered the boss's toxic assaults.

Here are some tips that should improve your communication skills.

Recognize that not every aspect of communication is under your control. We all convey messages we don't intend. And other people often interpret our messages in unexpected ways. That's not always a bad thing, especially if you're comfortable (or can become comfortable) with spontaneity.

Accept the fact that misunderstandings and conflict are unavoidable. The goal is not to evade them but to address them head-on. The longer damaging or uncomfortable things are left unspoken, the longer they remain damaging and uncomfortable.

Study yourself. Know your triggers and how you typically express feeling hurt, angry, or threatened. Cultivate relationships where you can safely air your honest thoughts and reactions. Finally, set realistic expectations. Robert wasn't about to change, so Evan had to take responsibility for improving their communication. That might seem unfair, until you consider the bleak alternative of keeping things the same.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.  To top of page

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