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How Can We Improve Communication?

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

"My girlfriend told me last night that I spend far too much time texting. I just tilted my head sideways and smiled at her."

Funny? Perhaps. Pathetic? Probably. The man who sent me that e-mail this week went on to say, "Now she's mad at me. I don't understand." Of course, he doesn't. He's never been taught what works and doesn't work in the "art" of communication, especially during those critical first moments of conversation.

That's why I found Dr. Leonard Zunin's discovery so incredibly helpful. In his book, "Contact: The First Four Minutes," Zunin says the success or failure of any act of communication can often be traced to the first four minutes of a conversation. Of course, you might wonder what's the big deal. Zunin says, "It is not an arbitrary interval. Rather, it is the average time, demonstrated by careful observation, during which strangers in a social situation — (and I would contend all people in all situations, even business situations) — interact before they decide to part or continue the encounter."

That's why he pleads with spouses to be pleasant when they first come together at the end of a day's work. Don't talk about the problems of the day until the mood of the evening is positively set. And that's why I plead with managers and individual contributors to spend the first few minutes of every work day connecting with one another, building rapport and camaraderie, before they get down to the challenges before them.

In a similar sense, if you're in a business that has direct contact with customers, the first minutes of a first impression can have a huge impact on the customer's overall satisfaction with your product service. The way the customer is greeted, the way the waiting room looks, everything contributes to a first and sometimes lasting impression.

In fact, if you don't spend a conscious effort making the first four minutes of every encounter count, you'll probably come off as disinterested and neglectful. Oh, you may not be "trying" to send such a message, but if you don't focus on making the first four minutes as effective as possible, people will interpret your actions as sending one of the following messages: "I am too busy for you ... What you think/feel/want is not important ... You are not worth caring about... or ... I don't like you. I don't know what to do with you. So I ignore you."

So what goes into making the first four minutes count? You need to do four things in the first four minutes...

1. Project confidence
You know from experience that you do not respond favorably to someone who is self-demeaning or overly apologetic. Such an attitude may breed your temporary sympathy, but it is doubtful that someone else's lack of confidence will create a sense of warmth or closeness. That being the case, you need to convey a certain degree of self-confidence as a foundation for any successful encounter, new or old, brief or lengthy.

2. Use creativity
When you start a conversation with someone, find ways to tune into his/her feelings. You may have to work through a lot of fluff and facts to get there, but if you can sense someone's feelings and be sensitive to their feelings, you'll be ahead of 90% of the people out there.

For example, you may sense a person is feeling overwhelmed, even though he says, "Everything's great." You may add a supportive and encouraging tone to your conversation. Or you may sense a person is feeling lonely, even though the other person says, "I'm too busy for relationships." You may say something as simple as "It's so nice to spend a little time with you." When you sense someone's feelings and respond appropriately, you come across as far more sensitive and professional than most people who simply stick to their me-me-me agenda.

You could also use your creativity to reveal something about yourself ... thus making it easier for the other person to respond to you. You might say, "I've never been to one of these training sessions before ... or ... This is a really great room for our company dinner ... or ... That's a beautiful ring. If you don't mind me asking, where did you find it?"

3. Demonstrate caring
To make the first four minutes truly count, show the other person that are you interested ... truly interested ... in him or her by listening with total attention. No glancing at your iPhone, e-mail, or interesting passersby. Indeed, when you avoid distractions, when you give total attention, and when you stay with the train of thought, you will have surprisingly good results with your coworkers, your customers, your spouse, your child, and new or old acquaintances. That's why Dale Carnegie said, "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."

Of course, for communication to work, the caring has to go both ways. Nancy Lindsay, one of my audience members from Boeing, told me, "My second job is in retail, which I have been doing for twenty-six years. I am regarded highly by my customers and my company, and I acknowledge every customer that comes near me. Unfortunately, I have seen too many sales associates ignoring their customers while engaging in personal conversations, which I consider very inappropriate. But in defense of other associates it is most difficult to acknowledge and assist your customers when they are on their cell phones. I have seen customers shop for hours without once removing the phone from their ear, and this makes customer service almost impossible. Respect is a two way street."

Yes. And so is caring, conversation, and communication.

4. Show consideration
In short, focus on what you can do and say so the other person goes away from the conversation feeling better about him/herself. It will certainly happen if you do the first three things listed above, but it also goes a step beyond that.

A great conversationalist knows that every person is unique, with their own hopes, dreams, fears and problems ... and treats them accordingly. And a great conversationalist knows that he is either giving energy to or sucking energy from the other person. So he consciously focuses on those behaviors that energize the other person.

An awful lot of what you want out of life will come about because of the way you communicate. And if you do a great job on the first four minutes of conversation, your chances of successful communication are immeasurably better.

Find three times this week to practice the skills listed above in the first four minutes of conversation. Take note of what worked especially well.

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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