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Talk Your Way to the Top: Why Old-School Communication Skills Are the Competitive Edge New Grads Need

June 07, 2014

Millennial_commsYou've just graduated from college and are (justifiably) proud of your accomplishment. But as you head into the workforce, don't expect your new credentials or your great GPA to do the heavy lifting for you. Geoffrey Tumlin warns they don't matter nearly as much as your ability to articulate, influence, persuade, and connect. These days, innovation and collaboration rule, and without the skills you need to do both, even the most prestigious degree is just a piece of paper.

"What stands out to hiring managers are great communication skills," says Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. "Can you pitch an idea to a supervisor? Can you build a consensus among group members? Can you build rapport with a client

"Gen Yers will need much more than 'just an education to get the attention of hiring managers and bosses," he adds. "Any new grad who struggles with communication will need to boost those skills in order to get ahead."

Below, Tumlin shares eight communication lessons from the book that will give you the competitive edge you need, now and throughout your career:

Take a daily dose of higher-order communication. Most new grads are highly skilled users of social media, text messages, and email. But these modes of communication are characterized by expedience and convenience — it's easier to send messages this way than to call or to communicate face-to-face.

"Not all of our communication can happen effectively along lower-order channels," says Tumlin. "Sometimes we need to do difficult things with our communication, like resolve a conflict, persuade someone who's reluctant, or convey a complicated idea. When we reach for our more difficult and time-intensive higher-order communication skills, we can't afford for them to be rusty. That's why everyone should practice higher-order communication every day.

"Even though it takes longer and is more difficult, walk over and talk to a co-worker instead of sending an instant message. Call a friend and congratulate her on getting a new job instead of posting it on Facebook. And go visit your client instead of writing him an email," says Tumlin. "In these situations, you'll be using higher-order communication, but the stakes will still be relatively low. You won't be under the pressure and stress that will come when you have to deal with more difficult issues face-to-face. These daily doses of higher-order conversations will keep your face-to-face and your real-time communication skills sharp, so that you’ll be able to tackle high-stakes situations successfully."

Talk (and type) like your grandmother's watching. While words can build our work relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless email, or a hasty remark can — and does — land people in hot water all the time.

"A quick and effective way to improve your communication is to pretend like your grandmother — or someone else who brings out the best in you — is standing by your side when you are talking or typing," Tumlin says. "Acting like someone you respect is looking over your shoulder will give you the pause you need to get in front of ill-advised words and provide the space you need to self-correct when you're frustrated, agitated, or confused."

Expect less from technology (and more from people). Because technology does a lot for us, it's easy to overestimate its role in our success. But our enthusiasm for what our digital communication tools can do shouldn't cause us to lose sight of the people behind the tools. Our devices don't possess the communication abilities we think they do.

"A tech-centered view of communication encourages us to expect too much from our devices and too little from each other," says Tumlin. "We assume that hitting 'send' means we've communicated, when really, the other person may not have understood the message at all. Even with the most powerful connection and transmission devices in human history in the palm of our hands, communication doesn't happen until the other person understands."

Listen like you're getting paid for it. The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression but made it harder for anyone to listen. Between emails, social media, and texts, there's just too much communication junk getting in the way. Our thoughts are scattered, our minds wander, and ever-present distractions make it difficult for us to focus on the person right in front of us. We need to make a concerted effort to reinvigorate our listening skills.

"Listening decisively improves communication, and that fundamental lesson is one that's easy to forget in our frenetic multitasking environment," says Tumlin. "The funny thing is that people tell us all the time about what they value, what they want, and what they’re worried about, but we're often too busy thinking about what's in our inbox or who just texted us to absorb much of what they're saying. The 'old school' behavior of listening will help you become a much better communicator and become far more knowledgeable about the people you work with."

Assume you're a terrible questioner (and set out to fix it). Most of us have poor questioning skills because we don't think twice before blurting out a query. But questions aren't neutral; they are powerful communication tools because they change the trajectory of a conversation. As you've probably noticed, questions often make conversations worse. Even "simple" inquiries can go awry. "Is this your final report?" or "Did you call John in accounting about this?" can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.

"Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions," says Tumlin. "In general, the more you query to hammer home a point or to satisfy a narrow interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. Use your questions to open up a conversation and learn about the topic you're discussing. If you take your questions as seriously as you take your new job, you'll dramatically reduce the friction caused by faulty questions."

Act like every interaction might be important. Nothing kills a conversation faster than someone who doesn't care. And it doesn't take much more than folded arms, a disapproving scowl, a sigh of boredom, or a well-placed eye roll to make someone feel like what she's saying just doesn't matter. And the company newbie, who needs to establish connections all over the office, can't afford to prematurely shut the door on any relationships.

"Conversations are often unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and occasionally exhilarating," says Tumlin. "We simply don't know which of our interactions might be vital to us — or to someone else. Words we painstakingly arrange may fall completely flat, while a chance encounter might lead to a vital breakthrough or to a crucial relationship we never anticipated. Because we never know what might happen, the wise course is to act as if every interaction is important."

Don't "be yourself." "'I was just being myself' sounds harmless, but it's often an excuse to indulge in bad interpersonal behavior," says Tumlin. "Authenticity is good in spirit, but in practice it often torpedoes our goals and harms our underlying relationships.

"I'm not suggesting that you become a fake, just that you don't cloak impulsive —and counterproductive — communication in the fabric of 'being yourself,'" says Tumlin. "The overwhelming feeling that you should say something is usually a warning sign that you shouldn't. Smart communicators don't blurt out dumb things and then try to cover their tracks by claiming authenticity. That's not what will endear you to your new colleagues."

Let difficult people win. Your co-worker Jane loves to argue. Your colleague Jim is incredibly stubborn. Your client in Albuquerque is always moody. Whether they're controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person spark frequent confrontations. Even if you fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Jane's arguments, you won't match her debating skills. You won't change Jim's mind on anything. And you'll be unsuccessful in your efforts to offset your client’s mood swings. Don't lock horns with difficult people," says Tumlin.

"At the end of a conversation, a difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position," he points out. "Only a commitment to let go of your desire to 'win' by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. Let difficult people win. And when you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It's really all you can do."

Tumlin concludes: "Your communication — productive or unproductive, healthy or dysfunctional — is a major factor in how successful you will be in any job. For the kinds of productive and meaningful interactions you want — and need — at work, pack a few communication ideas you didn't learn at college in the pocket of your new suit to show you have the communication skills to succeed in business environments where innovation and collaboration are king."

Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, an organizational development company; the founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations; and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013).

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