Words are powerful tools of communication. Indeed, word choice can easily influence the thoughts, attitudes, and behavior of the people listening to us. Similarly, proper attention to the language of others can give us insight to what it is that they are really saying, helping us to respond appropriately and effectively.

In this module, we will discuss important verbal communication skills like the art of listening, asking questions, and communicating with power.

Listening and Hearing: They Aren’t the Same Thing

Most people can hear, but few can really listen.

Hearing is simply the process of perceiving sounds within our environment. The best way to illustrate hearing is through the biological processes involved in sensory perception. Specifically: our ears pick up sound waves around us, sends signals to our brain, and our brain in turn tells us what the sound is and where it is coming from.

Listening, on the other hand, goes beyond simply picking up stimuli around us, and identifying what these stimuli are. Listening involves the extra steps of really understanding what we heard, and giving it deliberate attention and thoughtful consideration. It may be said that listening involves a more active participation from a person than simply hearing.

Here is an example to illustrate the difference between hearing and listening:

A secretary entered her boss’ office and presented her boss with a copy of the schedule for the next day. The secretary told the boss that she has a packed day for tomorrow, and that she only has an hour of break time for the whole afternoon.

The boss, busy studying a report, merely nodded to the secretary, and motioned for her to place the schedule on her desk. The boss continued to study the report as if there were no interruption. In this case, the boss simply heard what the secretary said; the boss paid just enough attention to make an appropriate but non-committal reaction.

Had the boss been listening, her reaction would have been different.

She would have set aside the report she was reading and paid 100% attention to what the secretary was saying. She could also have processed the implication of the message. For instance, upon learning that she has a packed day ahead, she could have arranged for her lunch to be delivered, or noted to herself that she needs to get a good night’s sleep.

Taking the extra step to move from hearing to listening can enhance a person’s interpersonal relationships in many ways. Listening promotes a more accurate and deeper understanding of a person’s communication, helping a responder to provide the most appropriate response. But more so, when you’re listening to a person, you communicate to them that you value not just what they are saying, but their presence as well.

Asking Questions

If communication is the exchange of information between two or more people, then questions are a way to elicit the specific information that you are looking for. But more so, well-crafted questions make for an engaging conversation. It can establish rapport, spark interest, and curiosity in others, break new grounds, and communicate your own sincerity in learning what people around you have to say.

Here are some tips in asking questions effectively:

  • Ask! First of all, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Sometimes shyness, concern over making a faux pas, or fear of being perceived as a busybody, can keep us from asking questions. While some subject matters are not appropriate conversation pieces in the early stages of a conversation (we will discuss this later, in the section on Levels of Conversation), there’s nothing wrong in asking questions per se. Start with your inherent curiosity about people, if you’re genuinely interested in a person, you won’t run out of things to ask.
  • Ask open questions. There are two kinds of questions based on the scope of the answers they elicit: closed and open questions.
    • Closed questions are questions answerable by yes or no. Example: “Are you happy with today’s presentation?”
    • Open questions, on the other hand, are questions that require a qualified response. Open questions are usually preceded by who, when, where, what, how, and why. Example: “What is it about today’s presentation that you find most engaging?”
    • Open questions are more effective than closed questions because they evoke thoughtful consideration of the subject and creative thinking.
  • Ask purposeful questions. There are different reasons why we ask questions, and it is important that we take note of our purpose in asking a question. Doing so can help us frame our questions better, and keep the questions relevant.

    For example, we can ask questions with the goal of making the other person feel at ease. Questions like these should be phrased in a pleasant, non-threatening manner, and involves subjects that the other person is likely to be interested in. Example: “That’s a lovely blouse! Where did you get it?”

    Some questions are designed to challenge the other person’s thinking, and encourage a lively debate or deliberation. Questions like these should be phrased in a way that is focused and process-oriented. It can also challenge existing assumptions about the subject matter. Example: “How do you think a leader can better motivate his team?”

    In other times, questions are meant to encourage a person to join an existing discussion. The goal of these questions is to invite participation, as much as gain information. Example: “I find Matthew’s approach very refreshing. What do you think, Frank?”

    For better effectiveness, think of what you and the person you’re talking to needs in your stage of relationship, and ask him or her questions that can address that need.

Communicating with Power

Power in communication refers to the ability to influence, persuade, or make an impact. A powerful communication is associated with self-confidence, credibility, and effectiveness.

The following are some ways you can communicate with power verbally:

  • Stick to the point. Powerful communication is not about saying as many things as you can in a given period of time. Rather, it is about sticking to what is relevant to the discussion, and getting your message across in the shortest — but most impact-laden — way possible. Get rid of fillers like “uhm…”,
    “you know”, or “actually” in your delivery, and avoid off-topic statements. Just provide the bare bones — the ideas your audience would be most interested in knowing, or the ones that promote your intentions best.
  • Don’t be too casual. Note that phrasing appropriate when talking with friends is not necessarily appropriate for business-related meets. The use of slang, street talk, and poor grammar can detract from your credibility, especially if you’re mingling with potential clients, employers, and business partners. Events that require you to come across as impressive may require the use of industry-specific jargon and a formal tone — so adjust accordingly.
  • Emphasize key ideas. Stress the highlights of your communication. For example, people who are delivering a sales pitch should emphasize the main features of their product or service. Those who are presenting their opinion on an issue should explain the crux of their arguments, and build from there. Even if you’re merely expressing interest or congratulations, make sure the person you’re talking to would remember what you have to say. Emphasis in verbal communication comes in many ways, including repetition of key points, giving specific examples, accenting particular adjectives or nouns, or even directly saying that “this is really a point I want to emphasize.”
  • Tailor-fit your communication to your audience. A powerful communication is one that connects with one’s audience. In this case, minding the readiness, attention, age, and educational level of your audience is very important, so that you don’t overwhelm or underwhelm them. Social skills are primarily about flexibility; the better you can adjust to changes in your audience profile, the better off you’ll be.
  • Connect. Power in communication is sometimes determined by the quality of your rapport with others. You may need to “warm up” your audience, make them comfortable, and show them that you sincerely want to talk with them. The more others see you as “one of them”, the better their reception of anything that you have to say will be.

    Your non-verbal communication can be a big help in connecting with others.