If you want people to listen to you—really listen—it may be time to take up juggling.
Not literally, of course, but successful communication requires you to be good at a number of things, some of which may seem counter to the other.
There really is no absolute formula for great communication. Depending on circumstances, your assessment, and perhaps the advice of others, you need to be flexible, emphasizing one skill at a particular time while staying aware of the others.
But without the ability to be all four whenever the need arises, no one will take you seriously. Here’s why:
Largely, we are hired for our expertise. That’s what we’re selling. We offer something we know more about than the client so we must lead the process, which is not always as easy as one thinks.
Those of us who are strong interpersonally might lean so strongly toward collaboration that we neglect leading the process because we assume the client is like us and wants to share everything. Those who value autonomy value their space and may be inclined to give a client space—not always a bad thing, but this risks not staying connected enough.
The best way to establish our authority and avoid the need to overtly exercise it is to communicate proactively with the client. That means staying connected even when there isn’t anything critical to be communicated. Maintaining the relationship requires staying in touch, asking open-ended questions so you can anticipate problems, demonstrate your commitment, and lead.
At first glance, authority and collegiality might seem different, but they are actually two sides of the same coin.
Although we are charged with leading the process, we must also collaborate, which requires us to be open and transparent as we work together. Yes, we are hired for our expertise, and that may include recognizing the clients' expertise. Listening carefully and incorporating their ideas (when appropriate) can strengthen the product.
We have a shared purpose with our clients, so it’s important to articulate and reinforce that, continually taking stock of what’s needed in the relationship: Is this a time to emphasize the collegial nature of our relationship or the authority? Both are important and not necessarily exclusive of one another.
It’s a matter of proportion depending on the circumstances. This means you have to know the client well enough to make this judgment call.
Empathy sounds very personal, and it is, though we have to guard against being too personal.
Our clients/customers are under pressure, they have responsibilities and forces at play that we can’t always be privy to, but we must make sure they know we do truly care.
Without risking becoming a personal confidant, we need to create a context that permits some confidences, a line that is hard to draw. What if the client has a serious illness or a boss who berates them? Knowing these things is important but doesn't mean we have to become too personally involved.
Those who are easily empathetic can over-identify with the client and lose objectivity about the work and the responsibility to the project and organization. It’s complex to demonstrate caring on a personal level yet be accountable to the project and organization. Being mindful of all stakeholders and their investment, not just financially, is an important responsibility. This awareness and sensitivity is part of empathy.
Again, looking at empathy together with the other domains gives you a way to evaluate what is needed in what proportion, making sure you don’t naturally gravitate to one at the expense of the others.
In our client relationships, teaching means articulating a process, continually reinforcing strategy, and remembering to tell and retell the story.
When we are immersed in a project, working toward an outcome and deadline, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture: Why are we doing what we are doing right now at this time? Why is it important? How did we get here? What is guiding us and why?
My son Noah once had a client who worried about a news story that might reflect poorly on the company. The client’s company leaders thought it best to counter the story in a specific, aggressive way.
However, although Noah was sympathetic because of the negative story, he knew the approach would have violated the overall communications strategy that was in place.
In this situation he demonstrated empathy, but more so education by articulating the overall strategy, how and why it was conceived, past incidents that were similar, and other successful responses.
Providing this education at the time to the client allowed the company to make a joint decision about how best to respond—a response that spoke to the overall strategic objections of the company and didn’t overreact to the negative press.
It’s surprisingly easy to be swept up in the details, problems, and other realities of our work that we lose track of the fundamental realities of the whole.
The story we tell and reinforce must be authentic if we are to maintain our credibility. Not everyone remembers the big picture. You will find that often when you remind a client or a working team of it, they are grateful because it puts everything in context.
Robert V. Keteyian is a communication consultant and the author of Do You Know What I Mean?—Discovering Your Personal Communication Style.