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Dramatically Improve Your Communication

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

"Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after." —Anne Morrow Lindbergh
A while ago, Roger E. Axtell sent a fax to the manager of his company in Peru. In the message he wrote, "I need to know the number of people in your factory and the number of people in your office broken down by sex."

The manager dutifully replied: "We have 35 in our factory, 10 in the office, and 5 in the hospital — none broken down by sex." Later, in a footnote, he added, "If you must know, our problem down here is with alcohol."

Well, yes, they may have had a problem with alcohol, but the two of them also had a problem with communication. And whether you realize it or not, most of us have several communication problems every day.

Sheriff Terry Mullins from Springfield, Colorado provided an example of that. He wrote about an elderly man in a nearby hospital who was upset with the way one of the nurses communicated. She meant no harm but talked to him like a child. She would say things like, "How are we today?.. Are we ready for a bath?.. and ... Are we hungry?"

So one morning the old man took the apple juice off his tray and hid it in the drawer beside his bed. Shortly afterwards, the nurse came in and gave him a bottle for a urine sample. When the nurse left, the old man poured the apple juice into the bottle. When the nurse came in and picked up the sample, she looked at it and said, "My, my, we're a bit cloudy today."

The old man snatched it out of her hand, pulled the top off, and drank it down. He said, with a burp, "I'll run it through again and see if it'll clear up." The nurse fainted.

The fact is... most companies would be out of business in a week if they failed to communicate with their customers. And most marriages would fail (and many do ... whether or not the two parties stay married) if the two spouses cannot communicate effectively with one another. So here are a few tips for improving your communication skills.

  1. Never forget "the privilege of the platform."
    In other words, every time you speak, you are using up someone else's time. And considering the precious nature of time, it's quite an honor when people tune into you. Don't ever forget that.

    As speaker Naomi Rhode says, "Don't ever take the act of talking or speaking for granted. Don't ever forget the privilege of the platform." And the great actor Charlton Heston took that privilege seriously. One of my colleagues learned that firsthand when he was seated next to Charlton Heston on a plane a few years ago. As they talked, Heston mentioned he was coming from a conference where he addressed 112 people. Of course, my colleague thought how disappointing that must have been for Heston ... being a world-famous actor ... when only a few people came to his presentation. Nonetheless, my colleague knew Heston was also a world-class communicator, so he asked him what was the secret to his powerful communication ability.

    Heston replied, "I have never gotten over the miracle that someone will come to listen to me speak." He held the communication process in such high regard that he made sure he never abused the process. And that leads naturally to my second tip...

  2. Make sure you have something worthwhile to say before you say it.
    I'm sure you know people who just talk on, and on, and on. I don't know what's driving their behavior. Maybe they love the sound of their voice. Or they "need" to be the center of attention. But I do know they're driving other people nuts.

    Don't be one of those folks that other people love to avoid. Before you speak, ask yourself a few questions: "Are you talking too much? Do others want to hear what you have to say? And, are your comments worth saying?"

    As the great philosopher Plato said thousands of years ago, "Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something." Good advice for all of us. Let's make sure we heed it.

    Henry O. Dormann talked about some people who heeded that advice in his book, "The Speaker's Book of Quotations." He talked about Ralph who had been driving down a rural highway for several hours when he stopped in a small town to buy gas. He spotted several older men seated outside the garage of the gas station.

    "Hey, there," Ralph said, eager for a bit of conversation before he got back on the road. The men glanced at Ralph and nodded. "Sure is hot today," Ralph said. The men nodded again.

    "On my way to Fairfield. Haven't driven through these parts in quite some time." The men looked at Ralph. "You fellas sure are quiet," Ralph said, "Is there some kind of law against speaking in this town?"

    "No laws like that here," one of the men explained. "But we have an 'understanding': We don't speak unless we can improve upon the silence."

    So make sure your comments at work, at home, and everywhere else are worth saying. Make fewer statements, and then ...

  3. Ask more questions.
    As entrepreneur Michael Guld puts it, "You do not need to start out offering all the answers ... begin by asking all the right questions."

    Kids know that instinctively. It's why they ask so many questions. They seem to know that the quickest way to learn is to ask more questions. And the same thing goes for smart adults. As 20th century philosopher and educator Susanne K. Langer said, "If we would have new knowledge, we must get a whole world of new questions." Of course, once you ask the questions, make sure you ...

  4. Listen intently to what is being said.
    Some people are pretty good at asking questions, but they're not very good at listening to the answers. They only get a part of the story, and the communication process is incomplete ... at best. In the Jewish Shabbat Service, the following poem is sometimes read. And it clearly indicates how poorly some people listen. The poem says:

    Judaism begins with the commandment,
    "Hear, O Israel!"
    But what does it really mean to hear?

    The person who attends a concert with a mind on work,
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who listens to the news
    And thinks only of how it will affect business,
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who walks amid the songs of birds
    And thinks only of getting home for dinner,
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who hears the congregation sing
    And does not feel the call to join in prayer,
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who listens to the words of the Torah
    And thinks that someone else is being addressed,
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who hears the words of a child,
    A friend, or a lover
    And does not catch the note of urgency,
    "Notice me, help me, care about me,"
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    The person who stifles the sound
    Of the still, small voice of conscience
    And says, "I have done enough,"
    Hears — but does not really hear.

    Unfortunately, it's true. Too many people hear, but they don't really hear. They're stuck on the surface of the communication process or stuck in their own thoughts. That's why I teach people in my "Journey to the Extraordinary" program how to stay tuned in, how to hear what is being said, and how to hear what is being left unsaid.

    After all, "What people say is unimportant; what people mean by what they say is everything." according to Michael Altshuler. Now I know it's hard for some people to shut up and listen. But it might be a little easier to do if you ...

  5. Remind yourself that listening pays.
    When you really listen, you're bound to benefit. You get the liking and respect of others. And you even respect yourself more ... because when you listen, you learn. You get smarter. As Doug Larson writes, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk."

    Good listening can even pay you financially. David Traversi gave an example in his book, "The Source of Leadership." He wrote about a buyer who was negotiating with the seller of a shopping center. The buyer asked the seller to describe the negative aspects of the property. The seller mentioned a few things and awaited the buyer's response. However, the buyer remained silent and just kept on listening attentively.

    To fill the silence, the seller began to list more problems with the property, stopping occasionally for the buyer to say something ... anything. But the buyer simply listened. By the time the seller stopped talking, he had given the buyer information that took a lot of money off the eventual selling price.

    Patient listening not only allows you to receive information; in some sense it also compels others to provide it.

What do you need to work on more ... making sure your comments are worth saying ... or listening intently to what is being said? Figure that out and focus on improving your skill in that area.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.
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