Communication skills are trainable, yes, but with any new skill it takes practice until you get proficient. If done effortlessly and totally naturally, then your technique will be dynamite. Like when learning to drive a car, you know you’ve got it when you don’t need to think about it. Unconscious competence, they call it. It’s a long way from conscious incompetence where you know you can’t do it, but at least that’s safe.
The bit in the middle is where the danger lies: conscious competence, when you can do it if you concentrate like hell. This happens when you have just learned a new skill and is normally where a training course leaves you. At this point you sound slow, deliberate and unnatural, so be careful. You need practice. If you really want to know if you’ve got it, try it at home. Your loved ones will spot it straight away when you come across all Martian.
I did some production management way back. If you think getting listings in a supermarket is a tough sell, try persuading a team of Bristolian dockers to move on to permanent night shift. Once achieved, we all did a customer service course and were given a technique called ’empathetic listening’. It entailed repeating back the last part of a sentence to someone to keep them talking.
Bullshit: talk about a little knowledge being dangerous! In the right hands this may be good but it’s way too ‘psychiatrist’. Most people are so quickly rumbled coming across as devious and manipulative. Two guys tried it at home and reported back. One was beaming and said: ‘I got my leg over!’ Yep, there’s an insight. The other got into a fight and got kicked out. Emotions can run deep with personal life. Mostly, thank goodness, we are only dealing with professional situations.
Don’t get fancy, be human. Listening is easy, you just need to be interested. Asking questions is natural when you mean to help. So long as there is no divisive game-playing, just take a risk, have a go. How bad can it be? But please, be yourself, use your own terms and keep it natural. I always insist delegates return for an embedding day after training to deliver that proficiency — because buyers hate Martian psychiatrists.