“The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying not “What a lovely sermon.” but “I will do something!”
-St. Francis de Sales
It’s been said that “The difference between manipulation and influence is the intention.”. This is absolutely true, however if you are unable to fully convey your intentions, people will never know who you are and what you stand for. Mastery of the art of communication is perhaps the surest way to succeed in life. Even if you’re not in a leadership position or a position to exert that much influence, you still need others. This is a rather comprehensive list (which will be expanded upon later) because we feel the ability to connect with others is so vital that you cannot get by in life without it. Today we’ll give you the first four.
1. Credibility The word “credible” stems from the Latin term credere which means “to believe”. However the original meaning is ascribed to the speaker, not the speech. Credibility is based on 3 things: a) your personal history (including the history of your relationship with your audience) b) the connection between your words and your actions and c) personal appearance. History is important because people will remember how you make them feel, not necessarily what you say. In terms of the congruence of your words and actions, even if you have a sketchy past with your audience you can resolve your reputation over time. Richard Nixon was defeated by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. The American public had simply dismissed him as a player in politics. However, after the tumultuous presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, Nixon was able to win a landslide victory in the subsequent 2 elections. After Watergate shattered Nixon’s reputation, he was still able to emerge a decade later as an elder statesman who still substantially influenced politics. Finally, personal appearance is absolutely mandatory in order to influence. It may seem trivial but it’s not. If you are giving a sales presentation or are at a listing appointment, you must look the part. As my friend and former coach Tom Ferry said, “What do you want them to think of you the second they look through the peephole?”. Look the part. Even if your clients are informal or “casual” in their attitude or appearance, wear a tie, drive a decent car, and maintain an acceptable level of fitness. Appearance will not substitute for competence, but setting the stage to your “likeability” factor by wearing nice clothes (not flashy) and having a formal (business-like) demeanor shows respect and will always make your prospective audience feel important. Ensure you enhance your credibility by affirming the fact that it is who you are. In Southern California where “business casual” is flip-flops and a t-shirt, I still wore a tie when on appointments. Many clients would say that it was unnecessary for me to “dress up” for them. My response was always that I wasn’t wearing a tie for them, I was wearing it for me.
2. Consistency Your message must always reflect your set of values which do not change with time or exposure to other ways of life. The importance of one value vis a vis another may shift, but your core values are hard-wired and unchanging. And by “values” we mean honor, truth, acceptance, tolerance, etc. not things such as “having a nice house” or “being good at sports”. Even though your beliefs may change, your values will not. This is why your goals need to be rooted in your values.
People are not turned off by hearing the same thing over and over again. If your message is being presented to a fertile audience, consistency will make them feel secure and knock those on the fence to one side or the other. For example, a huge misconception about Adolph Hitler’s appeal to Germany was the “Big Lie” theory which people assume is “If you tell a lie big enough, people will believe it.”. That’s only half of it. What Hitler knew to be true was if you tell a lie big enough, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. There’s a reason why the Romans said that repetition is the “mother of study”. Consistency is the principle which reinforces principle # 1, credibility. Now matter how good looking you are or the value of what you have to say, if your message changes repeatedly, you will never be believed.
3. Context If consistency is a mark of credibility, context is crucial to acceptability. If a neo-Nazi says the same thing over and over again and appears to genuinely believe in what he’s saying, he can radically misquote or convert the meaning of what he’s saying, even if he’s quoting a fact or a person verbatim. A quote from one of Shakespeare’s plays you often see on t-shirts is “First, kill all the lawyers.”. Lawyer-bashing aside, that sentence was uttered by an anarchist in the play who was plotting to overthrow the government by destabilizing society. So despite Shakespeare’s homage to what he thought was an honorable profession, the exact words have been converted to the exact opposite of their original meaning.
But sadly, misquotes and failure to appreciate the context of communication is not only the province of the uneducated or ignorant. When Admiral Stockdale was Ross Perot’s candidate for Vice President he committed the cardinal sin of looking bad on television. Adm. Stockdale was one of the most senior POWs during the Vietnam War and endured captivity for ten years being routinely beaten, tortured, and dehumanized. Yet when he appeared on television for the Vice Presidential debate he opened with “Who am I? Why am I here?” in the tradition of the rhetorical Greek philosophers. He was attempting to persuade the American public to ponder the meaning and importance of their decision to vote. Yet his questions meant to persuade were met with peals of laughter because his audience assumed he was catering to their belief that he was too old and senile. When he asked one of the moderators to repeat the question and admitted that it was because he had to turn his hearing aid up, the audience once again showed that they had made up their mind by bursting out in laughter again. Admiral Stockdale was hard of hearing because he had his eardrums broken so many times from beatings that he was practically deaf without his hearing aid. A sad example of context being misconstrued to suit beliefs vs. the truth.
4. Compassion People will not care until you show them that you care. Assuming you do, you still have to relay the fact that you value their concerns not by coming up with an answer right away, but by affirmation. You can validate someone’s concerns without validating the accuracy of those same concerns. Compassion also does not necessarily mean support. For example, when polled, most Americans (slightly over 60%) say that they feel that gay marriage should be allowed. However, almost every ballot initiative for the legalization of gay marriage is voted down nationwide. First of all polls are notoriously vague and easily manipulated (more on that later) and secondly, feeling sorry for the suffering of others is not the same as consent. We’re not being political, we’re illustrating the stark difference between consent and compassion.
An excellent book which speaks to affirmative communication is “How to Talk to Your Kids (So that they’ll listen)”. Although the techniques are tailored to children, the principles remain the same. Affirmative (in the sense of validating) communication looks like this: When someone expresses a concern, you must first show empathy towards them, NOT sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, empathy is showing understanding of what they’re going through. If a client or friend approaches you with a fear, you should show them you care by stopping what you’re doing, sit near them, and listen. Hearing is being able to know what they’re saying while thinking of something else (what to say next, what you believe they’re thinking, etc.). Listening is a concrete pause in action and words and making direct eye contact (this can be conveyed over the phone as well).
The next step to affirming someone’s concerns is to agree with how thinking about the concern makes them feel or how disturbing the concern would be if it actually materialized. Do not move on before adequately and meaningfully conveying that you’re taking what they’re saying seriously, no matter how invalid or remote. Do not under any circumstances show or infer that the concern is foolish or even highly unlikely. If someone approaches you with a fear (which is what a concern is), that thing which “only happens to other people” has suddenly become very real. Real enough to be a possibility in their minds and if you don’t show a willingness to understand the gravity of what they’re saying then you’re also displaying an unwillingness to act should it happen (whether that’s true or not). A person’s core need before anything else, love included, is to feel valuable, to feel important. If you dismiss someone’s concerns in any way, you’re showing them (in their mind) that they’re not worth defending or helping. This is not only in the perception of a child but also adults. For example, if you’re at a listing appointment and people are worried about the volatility of the market, and your initial response is “don’t worry about it”, they won’t even listen as to why. If you’re giving a presentation to a board, and you respond to a question with you’re view that what is being brought up “would never happen”, you’re going to make that person look childish in front of his peers. If you make the chairman look childish in front of his subordinates, you’ll be swimming upstream from that point onwards.
The final step is to recommend a solution by first asking them if they have any ideas or recommendations themselves. Don’t ask them if they’ve already thought of any (as in past tense) because that will give the impression that you think they’re being impulsive or anxious. Even if they are, try to collaborate with them in finding a solution. Guide the discovery process and try not to appear to have all of the answers. If they’re part of the problem solving process then they’ll feel better about the partnership they have with you and because of an increased sense of control, they will feel better about the future. Never forget that you are a leader. And leaders are about persuasion, not convincing. Your primary asset, the thing you must always represent and remember, is what Napoleon said regarding leadership: “Leaders are dealers in hope.”.
In summary, if you lack credibility, you’ll be seen as a bore. If you lack consistency, you’ll be seen as confused. If you lack context, you’ll be seen as a charlatan. And if you lack compassion, you’ll be seen as an enemy. The 12 Principles of Successful Communication may seem like a lot to keep track of. But they’re not stages in the communication process. All of them are continuous and complimentary of one another. The good news is if you’re honest towards yourself and others and honest about what you can and cannot do, you will never fail. If honesty is the foundation of your communication style then you may have to rehearse what you have to say, but not what you mean.