- Want better communication? Stop talking.
- Think technology will help? Expect less from technology and more from people.
- Want to go forward? Start by backing up.
- Think being yourself is the answer? Think again—it’s an excuse for Neanderthal behavior.
- Ever been told that asking questions helps? Questions actually make many conversations worse.
- Want to meet aggression with force? Bring a stick to a knife fight instead.
Geoffrey Tumlin makes all of these counterintuitive suggestions—and more—in his new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating. Suggestions like this pull me in and force my brain into arguments with my assumptions. Studying great communicators is something I have done my whole life because I’m always interested in better ways to connect, to understand, and to listen. Geoffrey’s book doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with practical advice to improve our communication in the digital age.
Geoffrey Tumlin is a communication expert and an organizational consultant. He’s the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting, a communication consulting firm, and the president of On-Demand Leadership, an organizational development company. He’s a West Point graduate who also holds a PhD in communication from the University of Texas at Austin.
Geoff, your book is packed with advice from beginning to end. As you point out, good communication = good relationships = good life, so improving our communication helps us in all aspects of our lives. How has communication in the digital age challenged us and changed the game?
The fastest way to improve your communication is to stop talking. –Geoffrey Tumlin
The digital communication revolution of the last two decades has given us more ways than ever to connect with each other. The paradox is that these new capabilities have combined with our innate love of communicating and have led to hypercommunication: our inboxes overflow, our phones incessantly vibrate with text messages, and it’s difficult to keep up with the ceaseless conversations on social media. To cope with our increased communication loads, we’re sending more messages than ever, but we’re spending less time on each message. Our hypercommunicating environment doesn’t lead to productive and meaningful connections; it leads to rushed, distracted, and error-prone interactions. The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time should have ushered in the golden age of communication. Unfortunately, it has all too often scattered our attention, strained our relationships, and degraded our interactions. Our challenge is to turn that around so that the most powerful communication devices in human history don’t come between us; they bring us closer together instead.
Let’s focus on the three guiding habits you say are critical in the digital age. Tell us more about each one of these habits and how to put them into practice.
It’s important to remember that these are guiding habits, not rigid orders. If you adopt these three behaviors, and if you incorporate them into your interactions, your communication will steadily improve. These three guiding habits will be like a tide that rises to lift all of your relationships.
Listen like every sentence matters; talk like every word counts. –Geoffrey Tumlin
1. Listen like every sentence matters.
The fastest way to improve your communication is to stop talking. Less talking provides the space for more and better listening, and listening forces us out of an I-based communication perspective and into a we-based perspective. When what I want to say is at the front of my mind, there’s no guarantee that we will communicate. But if I’m listening, you know that I care about what you’re saying (even if I don’t always agree with you). And when you know that I care, the conversation opens up for a productive and meaningful connection.
2. Talk like every word counts.
The digital communication revolution has made it seem like words are cheap because we can beam them across the planet at virtually no cost, but our words are actually more powerful and more “expensive” than ever before because of their increased reach and permanence. An email sent in anger, a hasty social media post, or a frustrated text message can haunt us for weeks, months, or even years. Since there’s no surcharge on most of the messages we send, it’s up to us to remember that words might seem cheap, but communication—the lifeblood of our civilization—is priceless.
3. Act like every interaction is important.
Think back to the conversations that have made a major difference in your life: the coworker who said just the right thing when you were about to throw in the towel, the relative who pulled you aside to say that she believed in you when you felt like no one was in your corner, and the friend whose concern helped you put a serious problem in the right perspective. Conversations that make a difference are often hard to see coming, but they happen because someone puts in the effort to connect. We need to be that person. I’m the relative who can share a kind word, you’re the coworker who can lend an ear, and we’re the friends who will be there when someone needs us. We don’t know in advance which of our interactions might be vital to someone else. The only prudent course is to act as if every interaction is important.
In working with organizations, what’s the most common problem you see occurring time and again?
The most common problem is assuming that what’s immediate is also important. The daily avalanche of messages facing people in organizations makes it easy to play communication checkers all day—sending and receiving dozens of messages that feel important but that really aren’t—while our chess game, the more important conversations we need to have, withers. The result is that tactics trump strategy, and what’s easy takes increasing amounts of time away from what’s harder but much more important. Spending another thirty minutes each day responding to emails probably won’t change the trajectory of my company or my life. But spending thirty minutes in deep thought about looming problems or emerging opportunities just might.
First, we have to come to grips with and start resolving our own bad communication habits so that as parents, the foremost communication role models, we aren’t setting a bad example. Second, we need to teach children that communication isn’t just something that we do; it’s how we make our life. That will help them begin to appreciate why words matter. Third, we need to help children develop both their digital and their face-to-face communication competencies. Like us, they will need both sets of skills to flourish.
Would you share just one suggestion for working with a tough communicator? Let’s say the argumentative person who goes for the jugular immediately and doesn’t seem to let up.
Don’t take anything that a difficult communicator says or does personally.
The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time should have ushered in the golden age of communication. Unfortunately, it has all too often scattered our attention, strained our relationships, and degraded our interactions. –Geoffrey Tumlin
A truly difficult person—as opposed to someone who has a problem only with you or someone who’s having a bad day—is difficult with everyone all the time. If you personalize something that’s anything but personal, you’ll set yourself up for a battle that you can’t win because the difficult person isn’t going to change. Most of the time, we make our own communication problems. Difficult people are the exception— it’s them, not you. Have modest expectations and get out of conversations with difficult people as soon as you can.
Your last chapter talks about the importance of connecting with a good story. Would you share why that’s important?
Stories convey messages in the way we like to hear them, which makes them powerful explanatory tools. They also can bring people a bit closer together when they offer a window on someone’s life. If I tell you that my boss is persuasive, you hear what I am saying. But if I relate a story about the time he talked himself out of a traffic ticket and then convinced the officer to become a client, you see what I mean. If I tell you my niece is creative, you hear me. But if I tell you about the time she made a doll duplex out of pinecones, sticks, and a shoebox, you get the picture. Stories are powerful communication tools that grab attention, illustrate points, and often help people draw closer together. They are one of the most effective tools in a communicator’s toolkit.
What books are you currently reading?
I’m rereading What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith, reading Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt, and plan to read The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson on my next vacation.