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Improving Speaking and Listening Skills

Most of us take our speaking and listening skills for granted, assuming that we are doing a pretty good job of communicating with others. Nothing, however, separates the person of authority from the amateur as quickly as the ability to speak clearly, persuasively, and empathetically. Board members, managers, and business people can all benefit by learning to use the spoken word as a powerful tool for gaining and using personal power.

The following article focuses on ways to sharpen basic communication skills and become better leaders, Start practicing empathy by being aware of what your listener will value as a payoff, try to put yourself in his or her shoes. How is your listener likely to feel about your message? What pressures is he or she under? How calm and confident is he or she feeling? What kind of relationship do you two have? If the topic is controversial, is there anything that you both can agree on to begin with? Remember that people usually base actions more on feelings, opinions, and beliefs than on logic and reason. A rational approach is one that considers all the variables, and in most situations there are many variables we cannot be sure of True rationality also considers people’s emotions and other “illogical” factors. Here is a four-step sequence for persuasive communication.

1. Establish rapport. Communicate to the listener, in both words and actions, that you see the problem or situation from his or her viewpoint, too.

2. Introduce your proposal or ideas and suggest how it can help generally.

3. Try to determine what your listener’s problems are and what payoffs are important to him or her by using good questioning techniques (see the discussion that follows).

4. Follow up with details to convince. Provide the listener with evidence that your proposal can help.

Maintain your credibility by avoiding too many strong adjectives, adverbs, superlatives, euphemisms, or worn out phrases; words that imply a certain knowledge of future events; and inappropriate surprise or amazement. Watch Word Choice. Be yourself and use language you are comfortable with, but modify it to fit the situation and your listener. Choose familiar nontechnical words when talking with people who might not understand technical terms or business jargon. Make this your goal: words and statements that are as short, simple, direct, familiar, and concise as is appropriate for the listener and the situation. Use Specific language. Another barrier to complete communication is the use of vague, abstract, general language. The more specific your message is, the more likely the listener is to interpret it correctly. You have a picture in your mind of what you’re trying to get across. The more specific the language you use to describe that picture, the more likely the listener will be to get the same picture in his or her mind.

Let’s look at some comparisons: General: We have got to get on the ball. Specific: Everyone on the newsletter committee must sell at least 2 ads by July 15. General: You can bring me the stuff now. Specific: I’m ready to go over the Treasurer’s updated report now. Notice that in order to be specific, it’s important to use the names of things (“the Western Company account files”), names of people, and numbers where possible. Watch how you use indefinite words such as “there,” “that,” “this,” “it,” “thing,” “whatchamacallit,” “dilly.” Even when you use “he,” “she,” or “they,” be sure you are clear about exactly to whom you’re referring to. Use of the Active Verb Form. Active verbs generally signal a willingness to assume responsibility, a sense of being in control, and an assertive, positive approach. Active verbs are also more specific. They give more information and help the listener form a picture in his or her mind of someone doing something, of action taking place. Compare the active and passive forms: Active: I will achieve the objectives by May 1. Passive: The objectives will be achieved by May 1. Active: On the basis of my investigation, I believe that the CRP is the best choice. Passive. The investigation has led to the conclusion that the CRP is the best choice. Don’t Focus on Rules.

The typical bureaucrat uses a variation of the logical approach when he or she keeps falling back on company rules or company policies as the reasons for decisions and instructions. Although some people will seem to go along, you’ll get more cooperation if you communicate the reason for a policy or rule and the payoffs for following it. This approach conveys consideration of people as human beings rather than viewing them as cogs in the machinery. At times it’s more productive to put people’s feelings ahead of following the rules or even to allow them the freedom to make their own decisions. Prepare Key One-Liners. Condense your thoughts and opinions on key issues, new proposals, and other matters and be ready to express them at appropriate times. This is one way to stay prepared, avoid being caught with “egg on your face,” and come across as an intelligent, well-informed, decisive, and assertive leader or manager. Keep on top of issues that may come up in meetings or in chance encounters where you may have only a few minutes to communicate. Formulate your position and phrase it in one clear sentence. Write down these key one-liners and keep them up front in your mind. Avoid False Assumptions.

One of the most common barriers to communication is false assumptions about yourself or your listener. People frequently assume that the listener knows more about the content of the message than is actually the case. We can become so involved in a situation that it’s easy to forget how unfamiliar a listener may be with important details. we therefore leave gaps in our messages, causing the listener in turn to act on incomplete information. Allow for Face-Saving. The listener may or may not be aware of gaps in a message. Someone who is aware may be unwilling to ask for more information for fear of appearing ignorant or stupid. As the speaker, then, it is often crucial that you make sure your message is clear and complete. For example, you can say, “Let’s review. Will you give me your interpretation of what I just said so I can be sure I have covered everything?” On the other hand, when you are the listener, don’t resort to face-saving tactics when you are unclear about a message. Feeling free to say you don’t understand can be a sign of confidence. Certainly no one signals a lack of confidence more dearly than the person who is pretending to understand.

Provide Closure. Have you ever talked with someone who jumped from one topic to another, perhaps switching back and forth among topics? Some people even interrupt themselves in midsentence to digress to other topics, confusing and frustrating their listeners. Listen to yourself. Do you usually stick with the topic until discussion of it is complete before moving on to another matter? If you find it difficult to stay aware of your conversational patterns, tape-record yourself. When you play back the conversation, make notes on speaking habits and patterns that need improvement. Do this periodically until you have cleared up any poor speaking habits.

Maintain Relationships. Keep communication lines open and let your people know you’re interested in them as people through the appropriate use of small talk. Be warm and friendly while maintaining an air of professionalism. Consider using brief references to interesting current events or to the listener’s interests, hobbies, family, home, pet, or vacation or holiday activities. By giving people this type of personal attention in the hallway, on the elevator, during breaks in meetings, and in other routine encounters, you can maintain relationships with little or no extra time cost. The person who discusses only business can get the reputation of being more a machine than a human. Take Initiative. In addition to taking the initiative to maintain personal relationships with people, you must also let them know what’s going on in the company or the association and what you’re thinking–if you expect them to let you know what they’re thinking. Although some details may have to be kept confidential, you should communicate as much as possible about every phase of the group’s operations to as many people within the group as possible. Take stock. Are you expecting your people to read your mind? Maybe they should know you need that report by Friday, but chances are they don’t.

Get the Feedback You Need. The key to getting feedback is letting people know you’re open to it. People will give you the feedback they think you want, not what you need, unless you can accept criticism from them, help them bring facts and ideas into proper focus, and ask them for data properly. When you ask for data, let people know why you need it and what you plan to do with it. In that way you’re more likely to get exactly what you want in the best form for your purposes. Helping others bring their ideas into focus is the key to getting good feedback when you meet to discuss problems, plans, or the progress of projects. Don’t just have a vague discussion. Get people to focus on specific questions: What are we going to do? What other information do we need to get? Who is going to do what and when? At the end of the discussion, ask for a summary. Once you get it, ask for a one-page memo itemizing what has been covered and agreed upon. Accepting criticism without resentment is necessary if you want honest feedback that helps you lead your team to top performance. If you ignore or punish critical feedback, you’ll probably become isolated from the effects of your decisions and therefore make increasingly poor decisions. The subordinate who is willing to tell you that you’re going in the wrong direction may be far more loyal than the one who keeps telling you how wonderful your decision is. Such honesty may also indicate strength and self-confidence. A major obstacle to getting constructive criticism from people is a lack of clearly stated, specific objectives. This lack prevents a subordinate from intelligently discussing how your decision affects others’ performance. Another major obstacle is fear that you will react badly. You can help your people overcome this obstacle by training them through example.


Saying the right things to the right people at the right time requires good listening skills. For example, the ability to determine when it’s best to just listen and when it’s best to become actively involved in a situation is important to the effective manager or leader. Most of us can profit from spending some time on improving our listening habits and skills. The ability to communicate empathy, encouragement, and acceptance of the speaker depends mainly on what you don’t say. The ability to phrase questions effectively as well as to identify and follow up on the speaker’s key points depends on your level of verbal skill. So does the ability to help the listener identify, analyze, and express her or his thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and behavior patterns. Finally, you must depend on your own judgment about the degree of personal involvement that is appropriate to your role as listener.

Developing the Art of “Being with” another Person. Perhaps the first step in improving listening skills is becoming aware of the importance of simply “being with” another person. This is an art that can be especially important in listening to subordinates. When you meet with subordinates on a one-to-one basis, it’s important to give them your full attention. First, put everything else aside and concentrate on merely being with that person–without adding anything to or taking away from the experience of just being there together. Take in everything the person has to communicate, both verbally and nonverbally and absorb it as fully as possible. Don’t try to evaluate it as good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. Let the person know you are taking in the message. If parts of it are unclear, ask questions or feed it back in your own words to check for understanding. Once you are sure of the message, you can evaluate its validity and appropriateness, its effects on achieving objectives and cooperating as a group, and other factors. Absorb first; evaluate later.

Encouraging People to Talk. Drawing people out of themselves requires the use of some specific skills in addition to the ability to provide a supportive atmosphere. Getting others to talk can bring rich benefits to you. It helps keep the other person at ease as he or she becomes engrossed in verbalizing thoughts and experiences. It can start the person to thinking about a topic you want emphasized. You give the person an opportunity to show what he or she knows and understands and bring out facts you might not otherwise find out about. In addition, you get the opportunity to communicate that you understand his or her situation.

Phrasing Questions Appropriately. Another key to drawing people out and to pinpointing information you need is skill in phrasing questions. Open ended questions are phrased so that they cannot be answered “yes” or “no”: “What do you think about this decision?” “Why are you late so often?” Use open questions when you want to encourage talk. Open questions usually begin with some variation of the “Five W’s” (who, what, where, when, and why). Closed questions, on the other hand, frequently begin with some variation of the “be,” “do,” or “have” types of verbs. They are phrased so that they can be answered “yes” or “no” or with a specific bit of data: “Do you feel this is fair?” “How many committees did you serve on this year?” Use them when you want to zero in on a specific response. More examples of open and closed questions are given below.

Focusing on Important Aspects. You can guide a conversation so that the most important facts come out and the key issues are explored. Listen for key thoughts and follow up by further questioning and discussion. A key thought is an idea, opinion, or experience that is expressed by the person talking and appears to the listener to have an important bearing upon the matter being discussed, even though it may be hidden in casual comments or very brief references. Become alert to the underlying meanings of the speaker’s words, you can note key thoughts and return to them. Learn to distinguish between the content and relationship levels in conversations. Content level refers to the topic being discussed, the verbal content of the message. Relationship level refers to predominantly nonverbal messages about the way one person values or accepts the other person; it is based mainly on feelings. We feel comfortable, free, anxious, or guilty in a relationship, for example, and the other person’s messages of acceptance or nonacceptance can trigger these feelings. Messages at the relationship level usually contain the best clues to key thoughts and the important aspects of a situation.

Communicating Acceptance. Let people know that you accept not only the facts they present but the feelings and opinions they convey. If you accept only facts, you limit your acceptance, placing conditions on it. Since people’s feelings and viewpoints are what help to make them unique, you seem to be rejecting their individuality when you accept only the messages that don’t include opinions and feelings. When you communicate acceptance at a relationship level, people feel trusted and respected. On the other hand, when people feel rejected, they often respond by pushing harder, trying to prove that their feelings and opinions are justified. Messages at the relationship level tend to become pressured, accusatory, and defensive. The speaker may withdraw and withhold information. Therefore, it’s worth sharpening your skills at communicating acceptance so your people can relax and give acceptance in return. When they feel free to listen to your messages, accept them, and act on them, they may allow other, perhaps deeper, feelings to surface. Avoid the trap of thinking that acceptance of another person’s opinions and feelings is the same as agreement with them. Agreement is an alliance with the other person in his or her position that implies you feel basically the same way. Acceptance is merely an understanding that a person feels a certain way about a topic without condemning or denying the person’s right to feel that way. To be a supportive listener, you must be able to accept people’s feelings and opinions, whether you agree or not. When you and your people share feelings, opinions, and experiences rather than try to prove they’re good or right, you have a chance to begin understanding one another. Until people feel they can trust you, they tend to express themselves indirectly, perhaps by sending out trial-balloon problems. They present you with small, relatively innocuous problems. If you accept the total message and express acceptance of the total person, then she or he will probably fee safe enough to discuss more basic, meaningfuly problems with you. Effective listening, therefore, is essential to communicating at progressively deeper levels. Some typical responses that can communicate nonacceptance of a person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions are shown below. These are based on the work of Dr. Thomas Gordon. The responses illustrate the difficulty of merely listening, being with a person, and showing acceptance. Some of them may be appropriate and even constructive messages at certain times, but not when your major goal is to communicate acceptance at a relationship level. The receiver of one of these messages may become defensive and never allow you to hear anything deeper than the trial-balloon problem. Developing Active Listening Skills. This prepares you for a deeper level of involvement with the speaker once she or he feels accepted and trusts you. Author Linda Adams has described active listening this way: Active listening is a special way of reflecting back what the other person has said, to let her or him know that your’re listening, and to check your understanding of what she or her means. It’s a restatement of the other person’s total communication: the words of the message plus the accompanying feelings. To shift gears to Active Listening, you must temporarily put yourself in the other’s positions, try to get a sense of the other’s thoughts and feelings, and then share your understanding with the other to check its accuracy.

This active listening sequence consists of these steps: 1. You receive the other’s message, verbal and nonverbal. 2. You translate the message and get your sense of what the other is trying to communicate. 3. You feed back your understanding of the other’s message, saying in effect: “Here’s my understanding of what you’re feeling or experiencing. Am I right?” 4. The other person then reacts to your active listening response, confirming clarifying your understanding of her or his message. Here’s an example of active listening: You (I-message): I think you did a good job with that presentation, but I disagree that we should forego putting up the new security lighting in favor of hiring additional security personnel. The budget just won’t cover the difference.

Peer (resistance to message): That’s a pretty pessimistic point of view. I’m really surprised to hear you say that.

You (shifting gears to active listening): I see you are upset about what I said. I’m interested in knowing more about why you feel the way that you do.

Peer: I believe we need to give our members the additional sense of security that only the presence of more security personnel will provide.

You (active listening): It’s important to you that the additional security be personnel not equipment, right?

Peer: Yes, and one reason it’s important is because the marketability of our property is going to suffer if we don’t act immediately to create the image that this is a safe community to live in. The personnel are more visible evidence of this security.

You: (another I-message) I see your point; however, the safety reports we’ve been looking at indicate that for the type of problems we’ve been having, lighting is the best actual deterrent.

By shifting gears to active listening after an assertion, you can constructively explore value differences. Avoid assuming what other’s motives are, however. Frequently you can cool down a potentially volatile argument without either party backing away from her or his own feeling. You encourage rational discussion of controversial issues. Being an active listener gives you a chance to communicate understanding and acceptance of a person’s ideas and feelings, and it gives the speaker an opportunity to correct you if you have misunderstood. When you use this skill, people will feel more comfortable about bringing ideas and problems to you and sharing deeper thoughts. They’ll be able to talk through their feelings and subsequently to solve many of their own problems.


When You Make This Response:

Ordering demanding: “You must try . . . ” “You have to stop . . . “

Warning, threatening: “You’d better . . . ” “If you don’t, then . . . “

Admonishing, moralizing: “You should . . . ” “It’s not proper to . . . “

Criticizing, blaming disagreeing: “You aren’t thinking about this properly . . . “

Advising, giving answers: “Why don’t you . . . ” “Let me suggest . . . “

Praising, agreeing: “But you’ve done such a good job . . . ” “I approve of . . . “

Reassuring, sympathizing: “Don’t worry . . . ” “You’ll feel better . . . “

Persuading, arguing: “Do you realize that . . . ” “The facts are . . . “

Interpreting, diagnosing: “What you need is . . . ” “Your problem is . . . “

Probing, questioning: “Why . . . ?” “Who . . . ?” “When . . .?” “What . . . ?”

Diverting, avoiding: “We can discuss it later . . . ” “That reminds me of . . . “

Kidding, using sarcasm: “That will be the day!” “Bring out the violins . . . “

Are You implying This Message?

Don’t feel, act, think that way; do it my way.

You’d better not have that feeling, act, or think that way.

You are bad if you have that feeling, act, or think that way.

You are wrong if you have that feeling, act, or think that way.

Here’s a solution so you won’t have that feeling, act, or think that way.

Your feelings, actions, and opinions are subject to my approval.

You don’t need to have that feeling, act, or think that way.

Here are some facts so you won’t have that feeling, act, or think that way.

Here’s the reason you have that feeling, act, or think that way.

Are you really justified in having that feeling, acting, or thinking that way?

Your feelings, actions, and opinions aren’t worthy of discussion.

You’re silly if you persist in having that feeling, acting, or thinking that way.


Open Closed

Who is in favor of the reorganization? Are most of the budget committee members in favor of the reorganization?

What information did you get? Have you got the information?

Where is the best place for the new Is this the best place for the new machine? machine?

When did you first notice the Has the communication problem been communication problem? bothering you for long?

Why do you dislike the new schedule? Will the new schedule interfere with your job?

The Promotable Woman: Becoming a Successful Manager Revised Edition by Nora Carr-Ruffino. [C] 1985 by Wadsworth Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Common Ground, September/October 1989

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