Rapport reboot: the new rules of communicating in a digital world

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Technology is expanding the world we live and work in – and by extension the need to extend our repertoire of communication skills and the emotional intelligence around them. Guest columnist Ally Yates, author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business discusses five key principles for improving communication in the digital world…


Artificial intelligence is fast moving up the list of priorities on the business agenda. The reality is that an increasing proportion of work is being claimed by machines. Far from sounding the death knell for workers, though, this creates new employment opportunities and the prospect of more interesting and value-adding work. The smart money for survival is on re-skilling — our ability to unlearn some of the behaviours that have served us up to now and to learn new ways of working. Fundamental to this, is the need to extend and exploit our repertoire of communication skills: for example, how we generate ideas; communicate our emotional intelligence, resolve dilemmas and confront our largely reflexive thinking. These are essential skills to thrive in the digital economy, as we strike a balance between being effective and being human. So how can you make a start…?


Be curious, not judgmental

Edgar Schein, a former MIT professor, talked about “humble enquiry” being fundamental to building trusting relationships in the workplace. However, many workplace cultures value ‘telling’ over ‘asking’. It’s how people demonstrate expertise, authority and control. Yet what worked before isn’t necessarily what will work now, or into the future. It isn’t enough to rely on our bias, even though that’s the brain’s preference. The smarter operators will focus more on exercising their curiosity. They’ll abide by the mantra: Tell less, ask more, ask better. And although this sounds simple, don’t be deceived. Listen in to the conversations between colleagues and notice how much people tell and, when they do ask questions, how often their questions are loaded with a solution or opinion. Real curiosity requires an open mind and a willingness to listen and explore.


Create an ideas meritocracy

The boss isn’t the only person who can come up with good ideas. However, traditionally, hierarchy has triumphed over innovation. Attempts to tap into resources at lower levels in business has led to initiatives like the ‘ideas box,' which rarely gets opened, let alone addressed. Instead, we should be tapping into our wider organisational resources, asking people for their ideas, giving permission to experiment and co-creating new possibilities.


Our brain is wired to spot errors, so it’s easier to pick faults in an idea than it is to explore it. Train your brain and your business to respond more effectively: if you actively seek ideas from other people, discipline yourself to build on their proposal or challenge yourself to identify the three ways in which the idea is a positive one.


Summarise regularly

The pressure is on to be more agile, adaptive and innovative. This applies as much to how you behave individually as it does corporately. The big risk in working at speed is that we lose clarity. Paying attention and summarising what’s been covered is a business-critical skill — and that isn’t going to change. The reality is that we usually pretty bad at it. Instead of attending to what’s being said, we default to rehearsing what we want to say next. It’s all about ‘my perspective’. Taking the time to listen and accurately summarise what’s being said demonstrates your willingness to be other-centric and lifts the level of shared understanding, as well as avoiding costly errors. More haste, less speed.


Be heard

It’s a generalisation, but it’s more often true: women are more reluctant than men to get their voices heard. Tom Schuller’s book, The Paula Principle, explores how and why women work below their level of confidence. And while it’s true that many men do experience a lack of confidence, it is arguably more prevalent and more noticed in women.

Getting a word in edgeways can be challenging for even the most skilful communicators. This three-step process will increase your chances of success:


  • Give a non-verbal indication that you want to get into the discussion. You can lean forward, indicate with your hand, nod with your head and/or make eye contact with the speaker or the chairperson in a way that communicates, ‘I have something to say’.
  • Label your behaviour. A behaviour label prepares the audience that you want their attention, for example: ‘Can I just make a suggestion?’ or ‘Can I add something here?’ or ‘May I ask a question on this point?’
  • Use the behaviour you labelled: make your suggestion, add your points or ask your question, thereby claiming the airtime successfully.


Collaboration is key

Our increasingly digital world is characterised by diverse and dispersed teams, with no single person having all the answers. To uncover and harness the value of remote workers, communication has to turn up a notch. This doesn’t mean being louder, or repeating yourself, just in case people didn’t get it the first time. Rather it means ensuring that you establish clear rules for working together. Create a shared direction, take time to build familiarity and trust — especially since you don’t inhabit the same office or share the same coffee machine — and lead with questions.


Collaboration also requires us to connect with new people. Resist the temptation to dive headlong into the task. Instead, spend some time getting to know the people you’re going to be working with. In this way, you can establish where common ground exists. You can also better understand how your new colleagues prefer to work, harnessing their strengths and jointly agreeing how you’ll bridge the weaknesses.


As digital systems allow businesses to restructure the traditional relationships between workers, resources and customers — to drive down costs — we need to invest in helping people take advantage of the opportunities for driving up the quality of their interactions.


Ally Yates is an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach – and author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business. She is an award-winning expert on behaviour analysis and the interactions that define us. www.allyyates.com

Follow her on Twitter at @Allyyates_UC