Effective, sophisticated communication involves a variety of factors. But if you’re going to remember only two things about how to communicate well, remember this: keep it positive, and keep it precise.
Keep it positive
Why don’t political smear campaigns work? Two reasons. First, our evolutionary instinct tells us that communication is a tool for common advancement. We react negatively to negative messages because they don’t resonate with us as much as positive ones do. Second, smear campaigns are inauthentic, and we recognize them as such. Just as we have a naturally aversive reaction to one person attacking another, we’re also suspicious of such tactics because our natural human radar makes us wonder whether the candidates chose to criticize their competitors because they couldn’t think of anything positive to say about themselves.
In one popular Archie story, Reggie tells Archie that, to improve as a basketball player, he must tell himself repeatedly how awful he is. Archie heeds this advice, and of course his performance declines. Coach Clayton sees Archie practicing one evening, telling himself again and again how horrible he is, and correctly suspects Reggie as the culprit behind the ruse. At the coach’s insistence, Archie instead begins communicating positively with himself and visualizing success. In his next game, he lights up the scoreboard. Reggie, seeing this, starts telling himself how horrible a competitor he is, and of course his play goes sharply downhill.
Think about where your own communications tend to fall on the positive-negative scale. Use the tool as it’s meant to be used—in a positive and constructive way—and others will respond accordingly.
Keep it precise
Generic communications, because they are harder to respond to, cause two problems: they produce anxiety, and they inhibit dialogue. When someone asks you something nonspecific, like, “So what’s new?” it puts an unfair onus on you to keep the conversation moving forward. If you have nothing to say, the conversation stalls, or ends. But when they say something like, “So where do you stand on sushi?” it starts the dialogue with substance and specificity, making it easier on you as an interlocutor.
Think about whether the way you communicate causes tension and pressure, or promotes natural discourse and momentum. How often do you start interactions with broad, open-ended questions that immediately put pressure on the other party? On the other hand, how often do you help the other person by asking direct questions or providing specific information they can easily respond to?
Generic communicators tend to say things like, “What’s up?” and “So what else?” A more seasoned communicator will say things like, “I hear the offshoring project is on track. What are your three key takeaways so far?” or “Do you have time at 2 pm today? I’d like to spend 45 minutes getting your input on the next phase of the marketing initiative, specifically with regard to two customer segments.”
Keep it positive, and keep it precise. The result will be more fruitful interactions with your colleagues, and with your customers.