Do you struggle with verbal communication skills? I used to.
My previous lack of verbal communication skills
I was terribly shy in my teens and if I met someone new I’d blush bright red. I’d become anxious, start to panic and feel faint. That made me feel even less confident in making conversation and my silences might have made me appear rude. I never knew what to say as an introduction and if asked a question I couldn’t think of a bright, intelligent or funny and appropriate response. Job interviews were a nightmare as I giggled nervously (hysterically) throughout.
However, after fifteen years in Human Resource Management and fifteen more in mental health nursing and management, my confidence in verbal communication skills grew.
In a recent post we looked at good Listening Skills and today, we’ll address verbal communication skills.
What is verbal communication skills?
The ability to convey or share ideas and feelings effectively during conversation; to be able to talk and be understood. Therefore developing good verbal communication skills is necessary for both our personal and work life. By gaining these skills, we are much better equipped to connect with our friends, families, colleagues and even our boss.
4 main types of verbal communication skills
- Public Communication is normally where one person holds the stage, addressing larger groups of people i.e. Annual conferences or election campaigns.
- Small-Group Communication takes place when there are more than two people – where everyone participates and interacts with the others in the group i.e. team meeting or group therapy.
- Intrapersonal Communication is private and restricted to yourself, like talking to yourself, practising conversations you might have later on with i.e. your partner; planning who’ll say what.
- Interpersonal Communication takes place between two people like a one-to-one chat between nurse and patient or you and your boss, in order to communicate your needs or any actions required.
For now we’re going to address Interpersonal Communication; a one-to-one chat or simply a conversation between two people, as that’s what occurs most often for us, like talking to the cashier in your local shop or a neighbour.
The importance of verbal communication skills
Would you believe that approximately 65% of our communication is nonverbal?
However, while only 35% of our communication is verbal (conversation), it is still the basis of all communication so we mustn’t neglect its importance.
The classic words of John Donne in 1624 ‘No man is an island’ roughly translated means no one is truly self-sufficient, we all must rely on the company and closeness of others in order to grow. And okay, while you may know of a recluse who functions solely alone, the rest of us generally have to be around people; working and living in harmony, ‘fitting in’ and communicating with others.
I think that one of the best ways to fit in, engage with new people and build good relationships is via a two-way conversation. Developing rapport, which sometimes happens naturally, is essential and one of the first steps to relationship building. You can start building rapport by finding common ground or creating shared experiences with the other person.
From my professional experience, I know that nurses are expected to display empathy, compassion, kindness, genuineness (being authentic), self-awareness and a non-judgemental attitude when building relationships with patients.
However, these skills are easily transferable to all areas of work and personal life and can quickly be achieved by non-professionals. If you can be authentic, warm, open and friendly you’ll be able to verbally communicate with just about anyone.
Socratic Questioning skills you might find useful
Another achievable verbal communication skill (ought to be used by nurses) is displaying a quiet curiosity; asking gentle probing questions. This technique is called Socratic Questioning (469 BC–399 BC), a form of cooperative, argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking (Wikipedia). Being curious, acting a little bit dumb and getting people to think of the answers to their questions or problems for themselves.
- Questions for clarification — Perhaps in response to someone crying, “I know he’s cheating on me.” You’d question “Why do you say that?“
- Questions that probe assumptions — In response to a friend saying “He’s out late, he must be cheating.” You might ask “What could we assume instead?” or “You seem to be assuming.”
- Socratic questions that probe reasons and evidence — In response to a person saying “You’re always letting me down.” You could ask “What would be an example?” or “Tell me on how many occasions I’ve done that.” or “When did I last do that?“
- Questions about viewpoints and perspectives — Replying to someone saying “I’m not going back into hospital, I hate it” You could ask “What would be an alternative?” or “What would your Care Team think about that?”
- Questions that probe implications and consequences — In response to a friend explaining “The staff are a bit………, you know…. so I can’t go back into hospital.” You could gently probe, “What are you implying? What will happen if you don’t go back?“
- Questions about the question — Perhaps in response to a patient/friend saying “I’m so miserable all the time, do you think they’re all fed up with me.” You might respond “How would somebody else/ you mum/ your answer this question? And “Why?” or “Why is this issue important?“
Potential pitfalls during conversation we need to be aware of:
Unfortunately, in our busy worlds, at work, with families and children, technology all around us and distractions such as loud noises and an array of visual diversions, it’s no wonder we make the following errors.
- Sometimes we talk too much, often waffling or filling space. We feel we need to fill the silence with chatter — we don’t! It’s okay to have 10-15 seconds of silence, just relax and sit with it. This will give you the time to think about what you’re going to say next.
- We’re often unable to put our ideas across so that the other person understands – take a breath, exhale slowly then inhale just as slowly and start again. Don’t be afraid to say something like “I’m not sure how to explain this so it makes sense, but I’ll give it a go.” One instance maybe if the other person does not speak the same language and we can’t get our point across. However, we may be able to resort to some sort of non-verbal communication.
- We resort to jargon/colloquialism/slang – jargon occurs a lot with doctors, nurses and scientists. The medical/nursing field also use acronyms like ECG, ECT and CBT which can confuse, embarrass and alienate people who are unfamiliar with our medical/scientific/nursing terms. Colloquialisms come in where people speak with local words and phrases which can leave other people out of conversations. Computer language and the technical side of WordPress are completely lost on me – I need plain and simple messages here.
- We don’t think before we speak, we just dive straight in. When your words are negative, demeaning, harsh or inconsiderate you may be seen as a miserable, angry and mean spirited person who sees only the bad and not the good in life or people. Take a breath and a couple of seconds to think about what you’re going to say. You are what you say — your words hint at your thoughts, values and beliefs and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time might hurt or anger others.
- We don’t talk enough; If you’re unsure what the other person is talking about, ask them to repeat or rephrase it or tell them you don’t understand what they’ve just said. Most people don’t actually mind – they get the opportunity to hear themselves speak again….. If you’re short on things to say, try bringing up topics that you enjoy and are somewhat knowledgeable about. Open up and say what you think, share how you feel or share one of your own experiences i.e. if the other person tells you about their golf trip that weekend and you know nothing about golf, you could say “Ah, yes, the weather was good wasn’t it. We took advantage of it and went fishing/paddling in rock pools,” — don’t just stand there nodding and smiling.
- Going off on a tangent (and not being able to get back on track). Apologise and stop for a second. Tell them “Ooops, I’ve gone off track, what was I/you saying?”
- Being unable to give the other person the information they need to join in the conversation or to respond i.e. by giving yes or no or even one-word answers, you’re not inviting the other person to respond. Try to expand on a ‘yes‘ when asked something like “Do you work for Smith & Smyths?” You could say “Yes, I work in the post room and I’ve been there for almost a year now. What about you?”
- Not listening enough. Ernest Hemingway once said: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Don’t be like most people. Actively listen and don’t just wait impatiently for your turn to speak. When you listen, you might find something of interest that you can discuss further — when it’s your turn to speak.
Whatever you are doing, the way you use your verbal communication skills, sets the emotional tone for any future relationships. Just think; chatting with a new person might lead to a great friendship, a brilliant new partner, a friendly colleague or an amazing business lead.
Do you recognise any of the pitfalls in verbal communication? Anyone got any hints or tips for effective verbal communication with new people? I really enjoy reading about your experiences.