5 communication skills we lost in the digital age
Photo credit: Edgar Libório
Have you felt uncomfortable going into a professional conversation lately? The answer is probably “yes” and it’s no wonder. Interpersonal communication is a highly complex skill that takes years of practice and can be quite overwhelming. Unfortunately, the advent of digitalisation has made it increasingly easy to avoid the uncertainty and immediacy of communicating with people in person. Even more so, mobile devices draw our attention away from our surroundings into a cacophony of information, opinions and enticing visual content.
It comes as no surprise that the generation still using phones for their original purpose has communication skills which are becoming increasingly rare in today’s workforce. While new recruits are time efficient, tech savvy and always online, they are the antithesis to the colleague who can sell a fridge at the North Pole, but would not know how to put the sale in the system. So which of these interpersonal skills are still essential in a digital world and should be part of the synthesis?
1. Starting a conversation
Pulling out our smart phone and typing away or just staring at the screen is an effective repellent to any spontaneous conversation. This tactic is so popular because talking to strangers in person is hard. If you are socialising online, you can read people’s profiles before you contact them, you can choose how much of yourself you want to disclose, you have time to craft your responses and most people stay within their thematic comfort zone, also known as filter bubble.
You often have none of these advantages when striking up a conversation in person. Yet, there are wins that justify taking the plunge. The biggest opportunity here is to get to know someone well-outside your social circle and area of expertise. This will allow you to learn something or get a new perspective on a topic.
Of course, it might turn out that the person next to you at the bus stop doesn’t have a lot to offer. Considering that small talk is free, the ROI on becoming a frequent conversationalist is still convincing. The worst case is that you practised an important skill, since making conversation is useful when opening meetings, networking or negotiating.
You will quickly find that plucking up the courage to start a conversation is only the first step. The key is to focus on the other person. So stop using your phone as a shield and put it away completely. Asking questions and being an active listener are essential soft skills to create context. People will react differently to an attentive listener and share information more willingly. By not imposing your opinions or timeline, asking questions and giving feedback you will increase your understanding of your counterpart and lay the foundation for a good relationship.
3. Finding middle ground
In professional communication, you will often rely on people with different goals, priorities or processes. This requires mental flexibility and open-mindedness, both of which can no longer be taken for granted when you consider the polarised political debates and general outrage culture of recent years. However, compromise, constructive debates and respectful negotiations are the pillars of lasting and fruitful business relationships. Building on your listening ability, the key skill is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and to understand their perspective. After all, finding the best solution to a problem in business starts with understanding everyone’s needs.
4. Addressing an audience
Taking the other person’s perspective is not only important to understand their needs, but also their perception of you. We are constantly improving our presence online, but what impression do you make in person? This is especially important for addressing an audience when giving a presentation or in a meeting. People will appreciate your professional competence more if you deliver it convincingly. Annunciating clearly, making eye contact and paying attention to your body language can go a long way in making that sales pitch or taking the lead on a project.
5. Embracing confrontation
People disagree. We all know this from dealing with family, neighbours and even complete strangers. And of course disagreement is part of professional life, too. “Confrontation” sounds aggressive, but avoiding disagreement only allows it to fester rather than resolving it. Because communication involves more than just words, letters or emails can often be taken the wrong way. It is better to pick up the phone or arrange a meeting in person when you feel like conflict is on the horizon. Being able to start the conversation with some small talk will ease any tension and allow for a more constructive exchange.
Quick fixes to improve your communication skills
- Ask questions: This is a skill you should practise daily.
- Take your phone out of the conversation: When you are talking to someone, put your phone away or step away from your computer, so they know that they have your undivided attention.
- Deal with uncomfortable topics in person: If you feel like someone might take your email the wrong way, arrange a meeting in person or, in a pinch, pick up the phone.
- Make eye contact: Adjusting your body language takes a lot of practice, so start with this one thing. Making eye contact while you speak will show that you are sure about what you are saying and makes it easier to gage the reaction. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but will become quite natural with a little practice.