The youth of each successive generation cringe when their elders yearn for ‘the good old days’, but there’s a real danger technology is robbing us of some vital skills.
The rate of development in communications technology during the past few decades is without precedent in the history of mankind.
The rapid (and ubiquitous) uptake of the internet, social media, smart phones, tablets, IVR (interactive voice response), voicemail and email attests to this.
But amid all these gains, are we losing something in terms of how we relate to one another?
I was born before the internet. As a child, I learned from my parents how to answer the telephone. As a teenager I hung out in the small delicatessen they owned and learned the art of serving customers, and communicating with people of all ages.
There were no smart phones and no computers. The only technology we knew was the rotary dial telephone. If you called someone who wasn't home, you would simply try again later. There was no voice mail or email to hide behind, no display of missed calls on your phone and no SMS.
An apple was something you ate every day to keep the doctor away and a tablet was what you took when you were ill.
However that was then; technology is here to stay and interpersonal communication skills are not a given anymore.
Technology is a wonderful thing when used appropriately, but problems occur when it's used as a barrier to hide behind or as an excuse or justification to miscommunicate. SMS and emails can too easily go astray, and as the written word lacks tone, it can be so easily misunderstood, leading to communication breakdown.
Difficulties among co-workers and with customers are often due to a breakdown in communication. Frustration, confusion and disappointment can all result from misunderstandings and have a massive impact on productivity. Not only will this disrupt the smooth operation of your organisation, stressed and unhappy employees will always generate unhappy customers. And managing unhappy customers is challenging and stressful.
Communication is not just the exchange of information but the skilful art of purposeful listening. It involves a sender (the talker) and a receiver (the listener). For an effective two-way communication process to occur, feedback in the form of questioning needs to happen to ensure the message is received and understood as intended. Competent communication skills from a confident staff are crucial for outstanding customer relationships.
We love it when others listen to us. It makes us feel valued and that what we have to say is important and interesting. It builds rapport and diffuses conflict.
However when we listen, we generally only hear one out of every four words that are being spoken to us. That's because science tells us that we think four times faster than we speak. Our mind can easily race ahead thinking about our response, or what we are going to have for lunch, or even how we are going to get out of this conversation. "Listen to understand, rather than to reply", said Steven Covey in his successful business book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Most often, the listener needs to be you. To discover your customers' or co-workers' needs and be able to satisfy them, you need to listen well. To fully listen requires practice and skill.
To become a great listener and communicate more effectively, here are my three top tips.
1) When you hear the other person's name, either repeat it if you are face to face, or write it down if you're on the phone. Use their name in the conversation to show interest. Always keep a pen and paper by your phone or have notepad open on your PC. As you hear the caller's name and other details that you may not be ready for yet, take notes and when they have finished, repeat or paraphrase in your own words the important points to indicate your understanding of their needs.
2) After hearing what the other person has to say, pause for a second before replying. This will help you in understanding what they've said, avoid interrupting and make sure they've finished. The pause will give you a moment to understand what they've just said, allowing a more effective and appropriate response.
3) Use your listening time to fully understand what the other person is saying, rather than thinking ahead. If you're unclear, ask clarifying questions to help you understand, for example, "John, you mentioned blah, can I just clarify ...?"
As US leadership expert John C Maxwell said: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care".
Really listening will help you to understand your co-workers and customers better, show that you care and know how to better serve them. You'll be rewarded with satisfied staff and happy customers who will do your marketing for you for free, resulting in repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Customer experience specialist