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Seven Ways to Strengthen Your Communication Skills by Loosening Your Smartphone Grip

Digital connectivity is no guarantee of a human connection. Communication expert Geoffrey Tumlin shares seven ways to step away from the screen and strengthen the communication skills that are essential for productive and meaningful relationships.
In the always-on digital age, we’re all guilty of indulging in communication shortcuts. We email our colleague Jim instead of walking ten steps to his office. We half-heartedly listen to our kids while fooling around on our smartphone. We let an incoming call go to voicemail and reply with a text message instead of picking it up. We email a client instead of scheduling a face-to-face meeting, which we know would be better. These shortcuts save time, but they are costing us something valuable: Some of our “old school” communication skills are getting dangerously rusty.
“Our overwhelming preference for quick and easy communication is causing our more difficult communication skills to erode from lack of use,” says Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013, ISBN: 978-0-0718130-4-4, $20.00, www.tumlin.com). “It’s easy to email a client, but far more difficult to persuade the same person in real-time that our product is best. Telling squabbling colleagues to ‘grow up’ might make us feel better momentarily, but helping them resolve their conflict might improve their relationship forever. And complaining that our boss ‘just doesn’t get it’ is much easier than trying to engage her in a productive discussion about a legitimate work issue.
“To keep our more difficult, but essential, communication skills limber in an environment where quick and easy communication is the norm, it’s essential to regularly exercise our higher-order communication skills,” recommends Tumlin. “The kinds of productive and meaningful relationships we want can’t be sustained by emails and texts alone. When we reach for our more difficult higher-order communication skills, we need them to be up to the challenge.”
Here, Tumlin shares seven ways to strengthen our vital higher-order communication skills:
Offer praise. Praising sounds easy, but it’s harder than it looks because we do it infrequently and because it often creates an awkward moment. “A common disconnect in organizations is that supervisors think they give plenty of praise, but subordinates feel like they never get enough,” says Tumlin. “Remedy that by looking for opportunities to provide work-related compliments.
“Delivering praise in real time (that is, face-to-face or by phone) is a higher-order communication exercise because it forces us to push through the awkward moment that often accompanies a compliment for a job well done,” he adds. “And persevering past awkward conversational moments without abandoning an interaction helps inoculate us against giving up too easily.”
Give negative feedback. We may praise infrequently, but our record for providing negative feedback is much worse. Most feedback never gets communicated for a simple reason: We don’t like giving it, and the other person doesn’t like receiving it. And people who claim they like giving negative feedback aren’t giving feedback at all—they’re criticizing. Unfortunately, there’s one small problem with criticism: It never works!
“The failure to give negative feedback is a major opportunity lost. An enormous amount of organizational learning never happens because it’s easier to sit on important feedback than to give it,” Tumlin says. “Giving timely and relevant negative feedback is a true test of our higher-order communication skills because it forces us to do something we’d rather not do, and it forces us to continue past the resistance to our message.”
Persuade. Trying to land a client? Negotiating a deadline with a colleague? Trying to convince your spouse to spend the holidays with your family this year? See how well you do in a real-time conversation instead of hunkering down to write an email.
“Sending a computer-mediated message doesn’t test your ability to think on your feet and adapt your persuasive message in real time,” says Tumlin. “No matter how good you are at organizing a persuasive email, some of your important influence attempts will happen face-to-face. Instead of being caught flatfooted—especially when the stakes are high—exercise your real-time persuasion skills with enough frequency so you stay quick on your feet.”
Argue. Few skills have suffered more in the digital age than our ability to argue intelligently. Online comments are filled with ad hominem attacks, invective, and worse; accusatory emails fly back and forth between otherwise rational people; and it often seems like all we are doing online is arguing right past each other. We need to make a concerted effort to shed the counterproductive arguing habits we’ve picked up in the digital age and revitalize our ability to thoughtfully and effectively make our points.
“Arguing is an essential communication skill,” says Tumlin. “Knowing how to express ourselves when we disagree is what prevents small issues from becoming large problems. Arguing—sensibly, smartly, and effectively—is a higher-order communication skill we can’t afford to lose. It’s never been easy to keep emotions from seizing control of arguments. But without practice, we won’t stand a chance, and our most important relationships will suffer the damage.”
Offer support. Sometimes, posting a condolence note on Facebook or sending a supportive email to a struggling colleague just isn’t enough. When the chips are down for people we care about, we need communication skills that can step up and provide real comfort.
Face-to-face messages of support are just plain powerful, but they often don’t get delivered, because we convince ourselves that we don’t know what to say. But that’s a mistake, says Tumlin.
“A good rule of thumb when providing support is the less certain you are about what to say, the simpler your message should be,” recommends Tumlin. “Tell a colleague who’s just received a career setback that you believe in her. Tell your grieving boss that she’s in your thoughts. Tell your upset friend that you’re there for her. That’s enough to show that you care and to make a connection.
“And if your support happens to cause an outpouring of emotion, perfect words still aren’t necessary,” he adds. “When comforting, you never have to worry about finding just the right words. Your expression of support and your presence are what really matter.”
Resolve a conflict. What happens when no one at work knows how to effectively defuse a conflict between feuding colleagues? Or when there’s no one around who can deescalate a squabble at home? Offices and homes without an effective peacemaker are minefields of anxiety, grief, and drama.
“Conflict resolution is a challenging communication skill,” says Tumlin. “Encouraging people to climb down from entrenched positions and set aside differences requires diplomacy and precision. But it’s the peacemakers who get people talking again and who prevent relational damage from taking a wider toll.”
Don’t say something. For a major communication challenge, try not talking when you really want to. Why’s that so hard?
“The clearest signal you shouldn’t say something is usually an overwhelming feeling that you should,” says Tumlin. “But it’s the ability to choke back impulsive and harmful words that distinguishes great communicators from everybody else.
“Some of our most significant communication ‘victories’ actually happen when we don’t say a thing,” points out Tumlin. “The criticism we let die on the vine, the smart question we don’t ask, the comeback we choke back, and the insult on the tip of our tongue that stays there are unsung communication heroes, silently protecting our most important relationships. Some of the best evidence our higher-order communication skills are strengthening will come from all the things—the fights, the damage, and the relational turmoil—that never happen. Nothing seems more antithetical to the digital age’s ‘express yourself’ ethos than sitting on your words, but not saying something is a skill that’s never been more important in our hypercommunicating era.”
“Not all of our communication can happen effectively along lower-order channels,” says Tumlin. “Sometimes we need to do difficult things with our communication, like resolve a simmering conflict, persuade a reluctant client, or lend support to a struggling friend.
“Even though it takes longer and is more difficult, walk over and talk to a coworker instead of sending an instant message. Call a friend who’s mourning the loss of a parent instead of posting your condolences online. And fire up the car and go visit your client instead of just sending another email,” concludes Tumlin. “The kinds of deep, productive, and meaningful relationships we want can’t survive on quick and easy communication alone.”

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