How Positive Communication Skills can Open the Doors to Better Opportunities
Did you know that people form an opinion about your abilities and motivation based on small cues in what you say? These cues can make a big difference on whether you get to work on boring or exciting projects. Learn how to be more confident in your communication and express yourself more positively and confidently.
Without any further explanation, have a look at this mini quiz.
You have been given a big task with a pressing deadline and are asking two colleagues for support. This is what they respond.
George: “Oh, I fear I have never done that before. Happy to help, but maybe you should ask someone else.”
Walter: “Cool. It sounds interesting. Would you mind giving me a little more background, and I’ll get started right away.”
Whose help would you more confidently take?
You need to finish a project proposal by the end of the day, but there is also this report due. You are not going to be able to do both in time, so you decide to ask a colleague for support.
Jane: “Um, not sure, I have some other things to do first. I can see if I can squeeze it in between.”
Carl: “Yes, I will help you. I will shuffle a few things around to make time for it. I will get the report to you by 3 pm.”
Whose help would you prefer to take?
You are explaining a great idea that you had last night to your team member. Your colleague Joe cuts you off and starts, “The problem is …”.
Later, you explain the same to your colleague Susan. Her response is, “Wow. That is a really challenging opportunity. Please, tell me more about it.” Who would you prefer to discuss the idea more with?
The situations above represent typical work scenarios. When you get a request for support, the first few seconds of your response will eagerly be scanned for signs of your motivation to support. Similar is the case when asked any question. People will also try and assess your competency based on your answer, including people whose opinion you care about. Even if this is not always valid, it will be true for the person making conclusions.
Let’s go back to the quiz. In a small survey that I have conducted, over 80% of respondents answered A, B, and A. Which responses did you favour? Are your responses similar? Why is this? More importantly, what are the implications of these different communication styles?
The simple conclusion is that you have a great deal of influence in being part of exciting projects. Your first response can make the difference, especially if it’s a positive response.
If you doubt that, re-read the questions I have asked: “Whose help would you prefer to take?” or “Who would you prefer to discuss the idea more with?”
If, like most people, you have chosen A, B, and A, you would have been guided by the other person’s response. Bosses and managers are humans, like anybody else. They too will be influenced by your answers.
What is the reason behind it?
In these situations, people are primarily assessing two characteristics from your responses:
- Your competency to support them
- Your motivation to support them
It makes sense that we subconsciously scan for these signals. You don’t want to spend time and energy with someone before you find out that the person is either unwilling or unable to help you.
Imagine you are driving somewhere remote and asking someone for directions. Who would you trust more: someone who responds confidently, or someone who appears insecure? You want to be sure that you are heading down the right path before you invest your efforts into it.
The better you know someone, the more information you can base your judgment on. However, the subconscious mechanism is always running in parallel. Others judge you in the same way, and that is your opportunity. Getting your language and your first response right, you can create the right impression of yourself.
What can you do better?
Let’s review the situations to see how to make a more positive response.
Basically, both are saying the same thing. Let’s assume Walter hasn’t done this task before, just like George; why should he spell it out? George’s response is failing to instill confidence. Opposed to that, Walter sees it as an opportunity and displays his willingness to support.
Avoid using phrases like, “Um, I fear,” and so on. Express challenges as opportunities and offer your support. If you don’t have the experience, figure out a way to learn how to get the job done. This is a great way to sound confident even in areas where you are lacking skills, just by your first response.
Does Jane sound like a person who is willing to help (see, “…if I can squeeze it in.”)? This really does not sound like she thinks your request is of importance. Obviously, it’s a clear indication of a lack of willingness. Carl, on the other hand, is going out of his way to help you.
Who do you think will build up a reputation of being helpful? Even if not every request for support is an exciting one, by showing your general willingness, you increase chances to get asked for support on more exciting tasks and projects.
Instead of “squeezing in,” point out when you can help:
“I am happy to help you once I have finished this test report for Sean this afternoon.”
This is clear and doesn’t leave the other person in limbo. She can then decide if that is suitable.
Again, there is no real difference in what your colleagues say. Both aim to point out challenges they see. Joe starts straight by pointing out difficulties and problems; whereas Susan withholds judgement and asks for more information.
By remaining open-minded and seeking to understand first, you are inviting people to share their thoughts and listen to your opinions. This can be a great way to get more involved in new opportunities.
What about you?
So far, we have been talking about other people. Now, ask yourself what is your first response? Observe yourself over the course of one day. Do you exhibit motivation and competency? What is your style under stress? What are your default reactions to unexpected ideas or questions?
What can you do better?
Starting conversations with a positive response is a great way to instantly connect to others and present a motivated image of yourself. It’s the first step to becoming the person others love to work with.
Let’s have a look at the following communication styles.
What sounds better? Here are some things you can do better instantaneously
~~~ Yes, but ~~~
“Yes, but…” (followed by a list of problems)
“Great point, how about …?”
~~~ I can’t ~~~
“I am happy to …. Would you mind giving some background?” or
“Please tell me more about it so that I can find out how I can help you best.”
People often say: “I am not sure” / “I can try” / “I can’t promise…”
What if you said:
“I will,” and then focus on what you can do? For example, “I can help you do that as soon as I am finished with this market analysis, which I expect to happen tomorrow afternoon. Does that suit you?”
Imagine the difference between saying:
“I have never done that before”
“Sounds like a worthwhile challenge,” and then figure out a way to do it.
~~~ The problem is ~~~
“The problem is…”
“I will find a solution…”
And what about this:
“Some of the challenges I am happy to help you with are…“ and add a list of potential solutions to the “problems.”
“I see a few challenges there, but nothing we can’t master working together.” How great does this sound?
~~~ Unfortunately ~~~
Consider the differences between:
“Unfortunately, I can’t help you…”
“Glad you asked,” and, “Happy to…. as soon as I have finished task xyz….”
~~~ I disagree ~~~
“How about we consider some other viewpoints?”
“We have tried that before,”
“We have past experience that will help us do it better this time.”
~~~ Not my job ~~~
If you’re approached about something beyond your usual responsibilities, what sounds best?
“…Not my job.” / “…Not my responsibility.”
“A great opportunity to get Fred involved,” (whose responsibility this is). You could also say “Can you give me more background about how this aligns with our group’s responsibilities?”
“I appreciate you asking me. I am working on tasks that are closer to our department’s responsibilities and don’t feel I can help you with this. This falls more under the responsibility of department xyz.”
Be clear with your positive communication either way
Of course, you can’t and shouldn’t support any random request just to appear supportive. Answer requests that don’t align with your priorities, responsibilities or your timeline in a clear and polite way. For example:
“I have got a number of high-priority tasks over the next few weeks and don’t feel I could give this the attention it requires.” If you know someone who can help with it, point this out. I recommend not the over-used, “Ask someone else” unless you can give a specific name.
Make sure that you only promise what you can commit to. If you are uncertain if you will have the time, commit to a very defined, small outcome that will help the other person most right now. You can say:
“I can see this is important to you. Since I am very busy over the next days, what is the one point that would help you most right now?” Depending on their answer, you can now either clearly commit or let the other person know when you can start working on it.
Being able to answer requests clearly depends a lot on you. Have your priorities clear. If you are unsure what your role is or your priorities are over the next weeks, then you will always appear insecure in your answers. At the end of the day, your communication is an outward projection of what’s in your mind and your self-image.
Once you are clear about your priorities and what you want to stand for, you will know which tasks to support. As a general rule, it is better to help less people with higher-value tasks than supporting many people with little, urgent tasks (and burning yourself out).
By doing all this and delivering what you promise, you will build a great reputation. Start using the right language that paints a great image of you, which aligns with your skills and ambitions.
Learn more about communication skills
Check out our other articles on communication skills (or download our free ebook that has all related articles)
By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.