Chapter 15: Business Communication in Person
Jordan Smith and Venecia Williams
- Identify the five parts of a conversation
- Examine how communication skills are affected by technology
- Learn how to improve conversation skills
- Understand how to communicate on the phone
Your professional success depends on having advanced people or soft skills because most jobs require you to talk to people. Key among these is skill in speaking to and conversing with others in person. Retail sales, for instance, requires the ability to listen carefully to what a customer says they want and “read” their nonverbal cue to determine what exactly to say and how to say it in order to close the deal with a purchase. Aside from a handful of jobs with minimal human interaction, the vast majority require advanced soft skills to deal effectively with customers or clients, coworkers, managers, and other stakeholders. Though we’re not born with them, everyone has the capacity to learn, develop, practise, and apply verbal and nonverbal skills to benefit those audiences, their company as a whole, and themselves.
You’ve certainly participated in countless conversations throughout your life, and the process of how to conduct a conversation may seem so obvious that it needs no explanation. Still, you can tell that some are better than others at conversation and some argue that technology is preventing many from developing these skills, so it’s worth breaking down how an effective communicator approaches the art of conversation. A skilled professional knows when to speak, when to go silent and listen, as well as when to stop speaking before the audience stops listening. Conversations may differ depending on the field, level, knowledge, and experience, but they generally follow five steps.
The Five Parts of Conversations
Conversation is one of the main ways we interact in the business environment and yet it’s highly susceptible to miscommunication and misunderstandings. Our everyday familiarity with conversations often makes us blind to the subtle changes that take place during the course of a conversation. Examining it will help you to consider its components, predict the next turn, anticipate an opening or closing, and make you a better conversationalist. Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond (2002) break conversation down into five stages that we will adapt here for our discussion.
As the first stage of conversation, initiation requires you to be open to interact and perhaps use small talk to prime yourselves for the intended topic. You may communicate openness with nonverbal signals such as approaching someone, stopping four feet away, facing them, making eye contact, and smiling. When a degree of unfamiliarity comes between the two speakers, small talk helps “break the ice” to clear a path toward the topic at hand. Asking how they’re doing, a casual reference to the weather (“Nice day, eh?”) or a brief back-and-forth about the weekend requires someone to begin the exchange. For the very shy, this may trigger some anxiety whereas extraverts delight in this stage, and “ambiverts” (e.g., natural introverts who have learned to play the extravert game) do it in recognition of its necessity (Bradberry, 2016). If status and hierarchical relationships are a factor, cultural norms may determine who speaks when. Usually, however, initiation just requires a willingness to engage in conversation and a purpose—something to talk about after clearing the small-talk hurdle.
The preview verbally or nonverbally indicates the conversation topic. A word or two in the subject line of an email performs the same job, but in conversation this can be done as easily as just summarizing the topic in a few words (e.g., Can I ask you about how I can minimize my tax liability? or Let’s talk about some basic heavy-equipment safety guidelines before we get started). People are naturally curious and also seek certainty, so a preview conveniently reduces uncertainty by taking a direct approach to signal the speaker’s intent.
A general reference to a topic may also approach a topic indirectly, allowing the recipient to either pick up on the topic and to engage in the discussion or to redirect the conversation away from a topic they aren’t ready to talk about. For instance, a manager needing to talk to an employee about being late for work too often might start off by saying, “That was some nightmare traffic on the highway this morning, eh?” Depending on the employee’s response, the manager could then say what they do to get to work on time, suggesting that the employee should do the same. To reinforce the point, the manager could finally explain that continuing to arrive late will affect the employee’s job security. The savvy communicator would be able to infer from the initial question about traffic where the manager’s going with this line of questioning and may even begin to offer up a convincing excuse for why they’re late and suggest a compromise such as a plan to stay later or make up the lost hours by working from home on the weekend.
You get down to business when you reinforce the goal orientation of the conversation. In workplace communication, we often have a specific goal or series of points to address, but we can’t lose sight of the messages within the discussion of content. You may signal to your conversation partner that you have three points you need to cover, much like outlining an agenda at a meeting. This may sound formal at first, but in listening to casual conversations, you’ll often find a natural but unacknowledged list of subtopics leading to a central point where the conversational partners arrive. By clearly articulating the main points, however, you outline the conversation’s parameters to keep it efficiently on track rather than prone to digress from the main point.
Similar to the preview stage, this feedback allows speakers to clarify, restate, or discuss the talking points to arrive at mutual understanding. In some cultures, the points and their feedback may recycle several times, which may sound repetitious in the West where speakers typically prefer to get to the point and move quickly to the conclusion once they’ve achieved understanding. If so, then a simple “Are we good?” might be all that’s necessary at the feedback stage. Communication across cultures, on the other hand, may require additional cycles of statement and restatement to ensure understanding, as well as reinforcement of the speakers’ relationship. Time may be money in some cultures, but spending time is a sign of respect in cultures with rigid social hierarchies. The feedback stage offers an opportunity to make sure the information exchange was successful the first time. Failure to attend to this stage can lead to the need for additional interactions, reducing efficiency over time.
Accepting feedback on both sides of the conversation often signals the transition to the conversation’s conclusion. Closings mirror the initiation stage in that they can be signalled verbally (e.g., “Okay, thanks! Bye”) or nonverbally, such as stepping back and turning your feet and body in the direction of where you’re about to go next in preparation to disengage while still facing and speaking with the other.
Sometimes a speaker introduces new information in the conclusion, which can start the process all over again. If words like “in conclusion” or “okay, one last thing” are used, a set of expectations is now at play and the listener expects a conclusion in the very near future. If the speaker continues to recycle at this point, the listener’s patience will be stretched and frustration may set in. They will have mentally shifted to the next order of business, so this transition must be negotiated successfully to maintain good relations between speakers. Mentioning a time, date, or place for future communication clearly signals that the conversation, although currently concluded, will continue later. “I’m just heading to a meeting right now but I’ll catch you back on the fifth floor tomorrow afternoon, K?” for instance, allows you to respectfully disengage.
The Smartphone Era and Communication Skills
If you prefer to text rather than talk to people most of the time because that’s how you’ve (and everyone else has) been doing it throughout high school and even in college, you’ll probably find yourself at a disadvantage when entering the workforce. The reason is twofold: (1) When you enter the working world, you join several generations of adults who grew up without smartphones and therefore tend to prefer talking over texting because it’s a tried, tested, and true way to efficiently communicate understanding. Managers, coworkers, customers, and other stakeholders come with high expectations for the quality of conversational skill in the people they interact with, and have little patience for those who are years behind where they should be in basic oracy. (2) You could be addicted to technology, which negatively affects your ability to interact with people in person according to a growing body of research (Andrew-Gee, 2018; Smith, Robinson, & Segal, 2018; Brandon, 2018). Why talk to people when sending a text is just so easy and comfortable?
In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), psychologist Sherry Turkle draws on clinical research to show how profoundly dissatisfied with ourselves and each other technology has made us. Smartphones and social media apps promise to connect us more but effectively isolate us. After a decade of smartphone use, teenagers whose 10-hour-per-day addiction to screens, preference for texting over talking, and habit of filling every idle moment with media consumption arrive at college with under-developed skills in conversation, empathy, patience, and self-reflection. When teens use technology to shield themselves from the countless awkward, embarrassing, and regrettable in-person interactions that lead eventually to social competence and confidence, they enter the workforce in a state of arrested development. “Adulting” becomes a terrifying prospect compared with the protective comfort zone of the screen. Turkle’s guide offers an antidote to the socially stunting effects of technology.
Motivational speaker Simon Sinek presents similar advice to Millennials while sympathizing with them for the “bad hand” they were dealt by a “failed parenting strategy” that raised unrealistic expectations of fulfillment in a whole generation. He similarly points the blame at mobile devices for the short-term dopamine-hit micro-reward feedback-loop pleasures they offer at the expense of the long-term development of soft skills. The enchantment of social media is that it offers users an easy out from the difficult learning experiences that develop the social coping mechanisms helping them through the trials of adolescence. The devices hook you with instant gratification: “Everything you want you can have instantaneously,” he says, except job satisfaction and strength of relationships. There ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes. . . . What this young generation needs to learn is patience—that some things that really matter like love or job fulfillment, joy, love of life, self-confidence, a skill set—all of these things take time. . . . The overall journey is arduous and long and difficult. (8:08 – 9:25)
Sinek advocates for better leadership in business and industry to teach Millennials the social skills they were robbed of by constant access to addictive technology.
One practical solution Sinek offers is banning cell phones in meeting rooms to remove the temptation of using them rather than conversing with colleagues. He argues that relationships and trust are built especially through small talk about work and life before and after meetings. Additionally, innovation happens in idle moments when you notice opportunities in the world—opportunities you’re blind to when your attention is absorbed by a little screen. “We have to create mechanisms where we allow for those little innocuous interactions to happen” (12:00 – 13:05). Rather than a quick fix, steady consistency in developing social skills is necessary to bring Millennials up to speed in oracy.
Improving Your Conversation Skills
If anything in the above paragraphs sounds true to life, the onus rests largely on you to improve your conversation skills with all the advice that is available (ironically) on the very devices in question. For instance, Celeste Headlee, a talk-radio host and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter (2017) provides insight with her well-viewed TEDtalk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation (2016). Headlee’s main points have been summarised below.
- Be Present: Devote your undivided attention to the person you’re speaking with and don’t multitask. You won’t have to pretend to pay attention by nodding and making eye contact if you’re doing that anyway by actually paying attention. The worst offenders are those to whip out their phone and engage with it rather than the people around them, called “phubbing” (for “phone snubbing”) (Ducharme, 2018). Though you may feel that you can get away with phubbing by discreetly hiding your smartphone under the table, your conversation partners know exactly what you’re doing when all your attention is on your lap.
- Be prepared to learn: A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue where you simply unload your opinion on someone and receive nothing in return except for the satisfaction of dominating them with it. In certain situations, such as a TEDtalk itself, you give up your right to speak because of the faith that you’ll learn much more by listening to a wise speaker who needs time to get their points across.
- Ask open-ended questions: The more vague your questions are (starting with the 5 Ws + H), the more freedom you give your conversation partner to answer on their own terms, whereas very specific questions limit the possible answers. If you ask “How did that make you feel?” for instance, you’ll get a more expressive answer than if you limited your speaker to a yes or no answer with a question like “Did that make you happy?”
- Go with the flow: Respond to your conversation partner’s main points rather than with some digressive story you were reminded of by one of their minor points. When you respond in that way, it reveals that you haven’t been listening past the part that inspired the barely relevant thing you feel contributes to the conversation, though it really doesn’t move the conversation along so much as derail it.
- Admit to not knowing: Make your confession of ignorance an opportunity to learn rather than claim to know something you don’t.
- Honour the uniqueness of their experience: When the speaker relates something that happened to them, resist the urge to make it about you by equating their experience with yours. If they’re talking about grieving a death in the family, for instance, don’t dishonour that information share by responding with how you felt when your dog died. It’s not the same.
- Cut yourself off before repeating yourself: If you have only one point to make, “hit it and quit it” rather than spin your wheels saying the same thing over and over, even if you change the words.
- Stay out of the weeds: Rather than struggle to offer up all the details (the names, places, dates, etc.) and digress on minutiae, focus on your main points.
- Listen: A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue, and therefore requires that you actively pay attention to what the speaker says in order to understand it rather than to merely reply to it.
- Be brief: People are busy and have things to do, so if your conversation detains them for longer than they have time for, you will stretch their patience. As Headlee says, “A good conversation is like a miniskirt: short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”
Headlee concludes that these tips are all variations on being interested in what people have to teach you (TED, 2016). If you add the following to Headlee’s advice, you stand a good chance of improving your conversation skills.
Mirror the Speaker
You may have occasionally caught yourself automatically imitating your conversation partner’s posture, facial expression, and manner of speaking. When they look relaxed or lean in, talk slowly because they’re calm or speak quickly because they’re in a rush, or widen their eyes with excitement, you follow suit in every case. Coined the “chameleon effect” by psychologists, mirroring is unconscious physical behaviour motivated by our desire to fit in so our conversation partner identifies with and likes us (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). It supports the cliché that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Though it happens unconsciously, mirroring deliberately has been found to be especially effective as a sales technique and in job interviews, though only if the person being imitated doesn’t notice the imitator doing it. If you can be subtle and natural about it, intentional mirroring forces you to read your conversation partner’s verbal and nonverbal messages closely. Done effectively, mirroring benefits both speakers by building the trust and rapport necessary to collaborate effectively or close a deal (Shellenbarger, 2016).
Correctly Pronounce Words and Names
Speakers should be careful with pronunciation, especially with words they rarely hear, if ever. Mispronunciation can negatively impact your reputation or perceived credibility. Instead of using complicated words that may trip you up, choose a simple phrase if you can, or learn to pronounce the word correctly before using it in a formal interactive setting. If you think you’ll stumble over a word like archipelago, for instance, just use a synonymous phrase such as island chain.
The importance of pronunciation is nowhere more important than with people’s names. Some take offence to their name being mispronounced, and especially with their name being confused with a different but similar name. If someone’s name looks unpronounceable on paper, simply asking them how they prefer their name to be pronounced is better than confidently mispronouncing it.
Treat Conversations Like Volley Sports
A conversation isn’t a monologue where you fire words at a wall until you have nothing left to say. It’s more like a game of volleyball, tennis, or table tennis where possession of the speech right is exchanged back and forth. If it’s a friendly game, the objective is to volley words for as long as it’s fun or productive. This may mean asking a good question, which lobs the speech over the net to your conversation partner. They answer and can either ask you a feedback question in return or you can respond to their answer with a statement. Every time you speak, you must set up your conversation partner to be able to respond with either a statement or question, and expect them to do the same. Conversations would be frustrating if all the other person did was either spike the ball repeatedly to score points against you so that you could never touch it (i.e., delivered a monologue where you couldn’t get a word in edgewise), or just bounced the ball out of bounds every time you volleyed it straight to them—i.e., answered in a way that stalled the conversation, such as with one-word answers to your questions or bizarre statements you don’t know how to respond to. A conversation must be a dynamic process where both sides make a determined, concerted effort to keep it going until the objective has been reached or the clock runs down.
Telephone and Voicemail
The simplest form of audio-only conversation—i.e., talk stripped of all nonverbals—is a telephone call. A phone call is advantageous whenever you need the live volley of conversation with someone to sort out details in a timely manner, but are too distant from them physically to do it in person. Some make the mistake of choosing written channels like email or text, drawing out the communication process over hours or days, to discuss matters that would take mere seconds or minutes by phone. As long as you don’t need details permanently recorded in writing, the phone is an expedient channel to discuss details for any busy professional.
Though you’ve probably talked on the phone countless times throughout your life, you may not yet have had the chance to do so professionally where the expectations for competence are much higher than in social or family contexts—so much so that some executives hire professional voice coaches to help them increase their effectiveness in phone communication. The importance of audio communication in business and industry has increased with the availability of conference calls, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), voice-activated electronic menus, and voice-to-text dictation software available on most smartphones. It is important to improve your telephone skills in an age where many prefer to text rather than call.
Communicating on the Phone
When you lack the nonverbal context of your conversation partner being able to see how you say what you say, take pains to ensure that your voice accurately communicates your message. Without nonverbals, your choice of words and how you say them, including spacing or pausing, pace, rhythm, articulation, and pronunciation are more relevant than when you communicate in person. Consider these five points:
- Speak slowly and articulate your words clearly. You don’t have to slow down your normal pattern of speech much, but each word needs time and space to be understood or else the listener may hear words running together, losing meaning and creating opportunities for misunderstanding. For instance, numbers such as “18” may sound like “80” and vice versa if you’re speaking too quickly and have an accent, which could lead to disaster if you’re, say, discussing price in a six-figure real estate deal.
- Use vivid terms to create interest and communicate descriptions. Communicating on the phone or producing an audio recording lacks an interpersonal context with the accompanying nonverbal messages. Unless you use vivid language and crisp, clear descriptions, your audience will be left to sort it out for themselves. They may create mental images that don’t reflect your intended meanings and lead to miscommunication.
- Be specific. Don’t assume that they will catch your specific information the first time. Repeat as necessary, especially addresses and phone numbers.
- Show consideration for others by keeping your phone conversations private. Avoid calls in a crowded elevator, for instance.
- Silence cell phones and other devices when in a meeting or eating with colleagues. Recall Simon Sinek’s explanation for why this is important (Crossman, 2016, 12:00 – 13:05).
As the response from the receiver to the sender, feedback is also an essential element of phone conversations. Taking turns in the conversation can sometimes be awkward when you can’t see when your conversation partner is about to speak. With time and practice, each “speaker’s own natural, comfortable, expressive repertoire will surface”
(Mayer, 1980, p. 21).
Leaving and Receiving Voicemail
When you phone someone but are sent to voicemail because they don’t pick up, switching to monologue mode means that you can only get as far as the preview stage of the conversation structure outlined above. You’d still open by saying hello, your full name, and company. The limit on how much recording time you have (30 seconds? 60?—you may not know) and absence of feedback from the listener, however, means that you can really only say what the call is about in concise, clear terms. A long, rambling voice mail message may be cut off and you may not even know it. In addition, it increases the possibility for misunderstandings as you are not present to clarify based on your listener’s responses. Anything that needs discussion must be saved for the actual conversation, especially anything of a sensitive nature. Recording confidential information is potentially dangerous to you and others.
Add your contact information, even if you think the person already knows your phone number, and say it twice slowly so that the listener has additional time to get a pen and paper if they’re still looking for them the first time you say it. Imagining you were writing down your phone number. As you recite, it will help you deliver it at a listener-friendly speed. Precise pronunciation is crucial because “60” and “16” or “90” and “19” may sound the same if the rate of speech is quick or if the speaker has a strong accent.
Be prepared to receive voicemail by recording a professional-sounding call-back message that begins after about 4-5 rings. When you receive a voicemail, return the call as soon as possible. The 24-hour rule of email doesn’t apply with voicemail because the person who called you chose this channel deliberately expecting to discuss something with you “live” in a timely manner. With so many channels available, using the phone implies a sense of urgency.
Conversations have universal aspects we can predict and improve. Honing your conversation skills will help you to project a professional business image.
End of Chapter Activities
15a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
15b. Discussion Questions
- Reflect on your personal use of technology after reading and watching the videos linked there. Would you consider your relationship with your smartphone an addiction? Do you feel that it erodes your people skills and ability to engage meaningfully with other people? Write a one-page response and defend your position with evidence.
- How comfortable are you with speaking on the phone? Are you more likely to text someone than call them, even if calling would be quicker, you’re both available, and there’s no reason why either of you couldn’t just talk? Reflect honestly on why you prefer to text rather than to talk (if that’s the case).
15c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Communicating at Work
Samantha is the Sales and Marketing Director at Phoenix Cars, a luxury car dealership in Vancouver. She recently decided to expand her team and hired Dan as a junior sales associate. Dan is twenty-five years old and has minimal experience but completed his bachelor’s degree a year ago. He is dedicated and hardworking so, despite his lack of experience, he was able to master the main tasks of the job within a few weeks.
A few months after hiring Dan, Samantha noticed the following communication issues:
- He uses his phone in team meetings and missing crucial information which affects his performance
- He talks over clients during calls instead of listening to what they have to say
- He uses slangs while communicating with clients face-to-face and on the phone
Samantha doesn’t want to fire Dan because he is talented, but she is worried about the impact on clients, the company as a whole and opportunities for advancement in Dan’s career.
What advice would you give Samantha on how to solve the issues she has been facing with Dan?
15d. Writing Activity
Read this article form LinkedIn on What Millenials are lacking: Soft Skills. Summarize the video. Do you agree with the author? Why or why not?
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative and Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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Brandon, J. (2018, April 21). Forget cell phone addiction. Here’s what experts are really worried about. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/john-brandon/forget-smartphone-addiction-heres-what-experts-are-really-worried-about.html
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Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2018, July). Smartphone addiction: Tips for breaking free of compulsive smartphone use. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/smartphone-addiction.htm
TED. (2016, March 8). 10 ways to have a better conversation | Celeste Headlee [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1vskiVDwl4
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. Retrieved from http://www.reclaimingconversationbook.com/books/reclaiming-conversation-tr/reclaiming-conversation-hc