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Basic Communication Skills
The Importance of Basic Communication
A business is in constant contact with its customers, whether on the phone, in writing or face to face. All these forms of communication – particularly face-to-face contact – are important in making sure your customers are satisfied.
We are also constantly communicating with colleagues and suppliers, and good communication skills help us to respond to instructions and inquiries promptly. This is important – not only in our own work, but other people’s job performance, may depend on how effectively we respond.
To become better communicators, we must first be aware that in today’s world people are subject to stress and strain on a daily basis. We need not only to be aware of this, but also to accept that it is so. It is not your fault that your customer’s dog was bitten by a tick this morning, making her late delivering her children to school, and thus late for work and a very important meeting, so that by the time she comes across you at your desk she is in a highly irritable state! It is your fault, however, if you take her mood personally and behave defensively or aggressively towards her.
From the moment of birth, we are subject to a wide variety of influences in our lives and the person we become is the sum total of all these influences. Starting with our genetic makeup – the factors that we inherit from our parents and have no control over – we learn and adapt as we grow. Our upbringing, level of education and cultural background all contribute to making us the people that we are. The environment in which we live also has a strong influence on the way we look at things.
So, when communicating with other people, the thoughts and feelings we express are based on our accumulated personal history to date. This is an important point to keep in mind when seeking to communicate effectively. A person’s feelings and opinions are very real and valid to them. If your feelings and opinions differ from those of your neighbours, it does not make theirs invalid or wrong – just different!
Good communication skills involve:
- recognition and acceptance of the differences between people
- the ability to exchange points of view intelligently
- the ability to reach a clear understanding of the other person’s needs
- the ability to reach mutually beneficial conclusions.
How Communication Works
Is the communication process really just a simple matter of speaking to someone, and of having them speak back to you? If it were, most conversations would be very boring. A conversation like this would have no tone or inflections in the voice. The face would show no expression and the body would be absolutely still, making it very difficult for the listener to ‘read’ the other person correctly.
You will notice I use the word ‘read’, not ‘hear’. Communication is not just a matter of the words that are heard and said. It is what is not being said that gives us a true picture of what is actually going on. We also need to ‘read between the lines’, to look for the inner meaning that lies behind the speaker’s words.
True communication is a composite not only of the words that are spoken but also of the many forms of non-verbal communication that take place.
Some of these are:
- the way the voice is used – tone, pitch, volume and rate
- body language
- facial expressions
- physical presentation.
It is entirely possible to say one thing and mean another! Good communication skills will help you to read between the lines and work out what’s really going on. If our intention is to reach a solid understanding of what another person is trying to convey to us, there are several things that need to be considered.
Communication is one of the most important skills we learn in life. We spend most of our time communicating in some form or other. It begins from the moment we wake up, dealing with our partners and children, discussing what to eat, what to wear and what we are going to do today. It continues all day long – talking to colleagues and customers, reading reports and letters, coming home to talk about our day. It goes on throughout our entire life.
Think about this: you’ve spent years at school, where they taught you how to read and write. Your parents and teachers spent years teaching you how to speak. How long have you spent learning how to listen?
Listening is, arguably, the most important of the communication methods as it allows us, if done correctly, to understand completely what is being said to us. If we understand completely, then there is little room for misunderstanding! One of the greatest barriers to effective communication is conflict. Conflict arises out of misunderstanding. We misunderstand people because we have not fully understood what they have been trying to tell us.
Listening is not something that comes easily. Most human beings are quite self-involved – while we are interested in other people, our own needs are often more important to us than the needs of others. This tends to make us concentrate more on what we are saying, or what we intend to say, rather than focus on what is being said to us. So we need to spend some time learning how to listen effectively. This is not something that will happen quickly but with good intentions and a lot of practice it is a skill that can be acquired.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Steven Covey tells us that listening takes place on several levels:
Let’s take a closer look at these to see what they involve and how we relate to them ourselves.
Ignoring- Ignoring is the worst form of listening, as it is not actually listening at all. We ignore the person who is speaking to us and make no effort to hear what they are saying. This is a very negative listening attitude as it makes communication completely impossible.
Pretending – Here we pretend we are listening but, in reality, we’re very busy and only giving attention with ‘half an ear’. We make all the correct ‘uh-huh’ and ‘okay’ sounds in the right places but we are actually concentrating on reading a report or shuffling papers. This is also a negative listening attitude – even though you may appear to be listening, you’re not really, and the person trying to talk to you will sense this.
Selective listening – We hear only those things in a conversation that we want to hear. Schoolchildren and spouses are particularly good at this! John comes home from school and his mother says, ‘Go upstairs, put your bag away, tidy your room, do your homework and then you can watch TV’. John hears ‘Put your bag away… and then you can watch TV’! This, too, is a negative listening attitude and can cause a great deal of frustration.
Attentive listening – Attentive listening is considered by many to be the highest level. Here we are doing all the right things – leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, nodding our head in understanding and generally showing interest in what the other person has to say. This is a positive listening attitude.
But we have still not quite achieved a full understanding of what the other person is saying. Human beings are basically self-absorbed creatures – we adjust the universe so that it revolves around us. What we think and what we have to say is very important to us and we focus most of our energy on this.
The average human being is capable of speaking at a rate of 125 words per minute. The brain is capable of thinking and absorbing information four times faster than we can speak. This means that, while someone is speaking to you, you have time not only to hear what they are saying but also to wonder what the traffic is going to be like on the way home from work, decide what you’re going to have for dinner and remind yourself to take books back to the library.
So, even when we are listening attentively, are we really paying attention? Or are we, while the other person is talking, already thinking about our response and silently working out what we’re going to say?
- ‘Well, if you think that’s something, wait till you hear what happened to me!’
- ‘I know just how you feel, my… ‘
- ‘That’s all very well and good, but I think… ‘
Empathic listening – The final level of listening is used by few people. What exactly is empathic listening?
What we mean by listening with empathy is listening with the full intention of really understanding the other person’s point of view. When we listen with empathy we are putting ourselves in the other person’s place. We:
- shift the focus of the conversation on to them
- show genuine interest and caring
- respect their point of view.
Listening with empathy can be a very effective communication tool. Instead of projecting our own thoughts, feelings and assumptions onto the other person, we focus instead on the thoughts, feelings and motivations inside someone else’s head and heart.
If our brains are as active as they seem to be and our minds are apt to wander off to the laundry or the shopping list while people are talking to us, how can we stop this from happening? What can we do to stay totally focused on the conversation? One method is to build ‘visual pictures’ of what is being said. By doing this, you can see in your mind’s eye what the issues are and, if there are any gaps in your understanding, you can identify them quickly and ask questions to clarify the matter. This method focuses your attention and lets others know that you are giving them your full attention.
Another way of showing empathy is to ask if your understanding of the issue is correct. You could do this by outlining what you believe you heard the speaker say and reflecting on any feelings you picked up from them. For example:
‘If I’ve understood you correctly, then, you want to be transferred to the accounts department because you feel unhappy where you are now and not sufficiently challenged.’
The speaker will soon let you know if you’ve got it right. If you have, you can move on from there to find a solution. If you have misunderstood, you continue to clarify the situation until you reach a full understanding.
If we wish to understand another person fully, we also need to ask questions. We have to find out what the other person really wants, what they are feeling and thinking. In some cases, particularly if personal issues are involved, people will not ‘open up’ immediately or completely and it takes patience and skill to extract the information you need to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement.
It’s a little like getting to the core of an onion. There are many, many layers to peel away before reaching the heart of it. Each layer is a protective shield that a person wraps around themselves and they will only reveal their true wishes and desires in stages. The layers are peeled away one at a time by asking questions. To do this effectively is an art form – it’s the difference between having a conversation with someone and interrogating them.
There are different kinds of questions. The answers we get will depend on the type of question we ask. It is very frustrating when you ask your partner brightly, ‘Did you have a nice day today?’ only to have them answer ‘Yes’. What you are seeking are details, a conversation, not a blunt one-word answer. In this case, you got a one-word answer because you asked a closed question, a question that did not require a lengthy answer. A question such as this one is also too broad to answer easily. Your partner’s day was probably very long and busy… what exactly is it that you want to know? You could start by asking about a certain aspect of the day: ‘How did the meeting with Mr Jones go?’ and so on. This is much more manageable and gives the other person a reference point to work from.
Types of questions include:
Open questions – The initial stage of most meetings or consultations is used to gather as much information as possible about what the customer wants. You should therefore do more listening than talking during this stage. Skilful questioning will give you enormous amounts of information without your having to say a great deal. This is where you ask open questions. Open questions usually begin with the words what, why, which, where, when or how and can rarely be answered in just one or two words.
Asking open questions will secure large amounts of information that you can then process and narrow down to a specific product or service to offer the customer. Again, doing this effectively takes some skill; you could ask the customer a series of open questions such as those outlined above. But this may sound a little like an interrogation. By simply asking ‘What did you have in mind?’ you are using only one question but it will probably bring you the same amount of information. You will also seem much more empathic.
Clarifying questions – Sometimes, a customer’s requirements can be very complex, making it difficult to follow their exact needs. Other customers can be very vague about what they want. So, during the conversation, you may have to clarify certain points from time to time. To do this you ask a clarifying question.
A clarifying question is asked either to make sure you have fully understood what has been said, or to gain extra information about a particular point. For example:
- ‘So what you’re saying is you’d like to… ‘
- ‘If I’ve understood you correctly, then what you want is… ‘
These types of questions can also be used during the initial stages of the meeting to fill in any gaps and obtain further information about a particular issue. A customer might be explaining that he would like to install air conditioning in all rooms of his house. You could ask a clarifying question at this point to discover whether he would like reverse-cycle air or not.
Leading questions – At some time during the consultation, you will arrive at a point where you have sufficient information to put together a product or service suggestion for your customer and you want to bring the conversation to an end. You can do this by asking a leading question. A leading question ‘leads’ the customer in the direction you want them to go – towards a commitment or a firm decision. For example:
- ‘So you agree that the Nike shoes are a better fit than the Reeboks?’
- ‘The 2.30 pm flight with Virgin will get you to Adelaide at a better time than the Qantas flight at 2.50 pm. Don’t you agree?’
As you can see, the response to a leading question will be much shorter than to an open question. These questions also lead the customer to make decisions. They can also be used to steer customers into buying one of your preferred products over other products.
In the two examples above, specific companies were highlighted for agreement. In the first one, Nike shoes were the option given for agreement over the Reebok. In the second example, the Virgin flight was placed in a better light than the Qantas one, making it the preferable choice. Both options are still available to the customer and the ultimate choice is, of course, theirs. By asking leading questions, however, you can often influence the customer to buy a product that is not only good value but may earn you extra revenue.
Closed questions – A closed question is one that requires only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, or a very short answer. This type of question usually starts with ‘do, can, is or are’. Generally, closed questions are asked at the end of a consultation when you are summarising the conversation or closing the sale. For example:
- ‘Is this what you had in mind?’
- ‘Can I go ahead and place the order for you?’
- ‘Will you be paying by cheque or credit card?’
The responses to closed questions will be short and to the point. These questions also lead the customer to make a commitment.
Non verbal communication
In addition to the spoken language we must learn to read non-verbal language as well. Non-verbal language is made up of the subconscious signals that we send out together with our spoken communication. For the most part we are not even aware of the fact that we are sending these signals and that we could, therefore, be undermining our own efforts by (unknowingly) appearing untrustworthy or insincere.
Non-verbal communication can take on a variety of forms. Some of these are;
- Body language such as gestures
- Tone and pitch of voice
- Rate of speech
- Culturally specific communications and customs
When communicating with other people, we encode our message with a whole range of signals that will either support our words, or show up our insincerity (we don’t mean what we say). These signals can be ‘seen’ in a lot of different ways including;
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
Eye contact is an important component in communication. It indicates that a person is listening to you and is interested in what you’re saying. It’s a good sign of a positive listening attitude. Some who will not meet your eyes makes you feel uncomfortable and leaves you feeling that you may not be able to trust them. Having said that, you should be aware that in some cultures ie; Japanese and some Middle Eastern countries, too much eye contact is considered staring and therefore rude.
Gestures are also a way of judging what a person is really thinking and feeling. A person who is open and honest about what they are saying and doing will use ‘open’ gestures, for example; arms outspread and palms upward – indicating they have nothing to hide. People who are uncomfortable, or defensive, may be seen crossing their arms and leaning back, touching their nose or mouth, loosening a collar or shifting sideways (away from you). Other gestures indicating negative feelings could include shuffling of papers on a desk and glances at watches.
Gestures in isolation, can be misread. A person crossing their arms is not necessarily being defensive, they may simply be cold. We should therefore look for groups, or ‘clusters’ of gestures. For example, a person with crossed arms, no eye contact and leaning away from you could very well be hiding something from you.
Handshakes are another form of non-verbal communication that we deal with almost on a daily basis. Handshakes can be dominant, subservient or neutral depending on how the hands are clasped – hand twisted to clasp on top is dominant, hand on bottom is subservient, while hands that are clasped side by side are neutral.
Facial expressions are usually easy to read, but can also be misunderstood.
- A smile isn’t really a smile if the person’s eyes are not involved in the process.
- If a person looks interested but their eyes are glazed over – are they really as interested as you think?
- Frowning – indicates that a person doesn’t understand or is getting annoyed
Facial expressions will also indicate if a person is tired or not feeling well, if they are very happy or sad about something and so on.
Tone and Pitch of Voice
The tone and pitch of a person’s voice can be excellent indicators of their real thoughts and feelings.
Tone means how the voice is used and can be filled with enthusiasm, arrogance, whining, demand, pleading etc and can tell, despite the words actually spoken, what a person’s frame of mind is and how receptive they are to what is going on.
Pitch means how loud, high or low the voice is used. The higher the pitch (compared to their normal speaking voice), the more emotion is generally involved. This can be positive – with enthusiasm and excitement for example, or it can be negative – a voice raised in annoyance or anger.
Rate of Speech
The rate of speech is also a good way of telling a person’s actual feelings. The faster the rate of speech, the more emotion involved. This can, once again, indicate enthusiasm or anger and we need to look for the clusters of gestures. A person might speak fast naturally, but if the fast rate of speech is accompanied by a high pitch and aggressive body language such as sweeping arm movements – then the person is very probably upset!
How do conflicts happen? They often occur when we let emotions get in the way, or when we misunderstand someone. We adopt a ‘negative listening attitude’ and erect barriers that stop the communication process. For communication to flow freely again, these barriers must be recognised and removed, or overcome.
Some of the communication barriers we encounter are;
Not paying attention – Customers or colleagues who are trying to communicate with you will feel ignored and frustrated if you allow yourself to become distracted. Not paying attention to them is rude and unprofessional and stops the communication flow. The result of this could be the loss of a customer, a complaint about you to your manager or loss of respect. Do not allow yourself to be distracted – focus your attention on what is being said and really listen to your customer or colleague. If you must interrupt the conversation to answer the phone, or speak with another staff member, excuse yourself.
Not looking at a person – Maintaining reasonable eye contact with the person you are communicating with is very important. It shows you are paying attention and that you are interested. By not looking at the person who is talking to you, you are indicating lack of interest and making them feel uncomfortable. They may think you are not honest or trustworthy – you may be trying to hide something from them.
Interrupting – Interrupting someone when they are talking is a major barrier to good, two-way communication and could cause conflict. Once again, you are indicating that you are not interested in what they have to say. Breaking into what they are saying to make your own thoughts known, or worse, to finish their sentences for them is no way to gain a proper understanding of the other person’s needs and expectations. Allow them to finish what they are saying. If, for some reason, the conversation needs to be wound up, take control by asking leading or closed questions that allow for short answers only.
Making assumptions – Assuming that you know what a person wants can also lead to conflict. For example; just because a person comes into your office wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt does not mean they cannot pay for your products or services. Allow your customers and colleagues to state their needs without any prompting or leading on your part.
Tone of voice – The tone of voice used during a conversation could start a conflict. Arrogance, demand, anger or whining all add a tone to the voice that can cause people to react negatively. When dealing with customers or colleagues, keep your tone friendly, calm and pleasant. At the very least, if you do feel annoyed, try to keep your tone of voice neutral.
Sarcasm – Sarcasm has no place in any conversation between two people and is an open invitation for conflict. There are times in everyone’s working life when you think, ‘If I am asked one more stupid question, I’ll go mad!’ but sarcasm in the face of a silly question or remark does nothing but hurt the other person and, possibly, dent their self-esteem. We often forget that not everyone knows as much as we do about our industry – in fact, most customers know very little about any industry but the one they work in. We can forgive our customers or junior colleagues, therefore, for asking questions that may have obvious answers – obvious only to someone who knows. Show patience and under standing; it’s just as easy and much more pleasant than giving a sarcastic or snide answer.
Rudeness – There is never any excuse for rudeness. A respectful and courteous attitude on your part should avoid or defuse any antagonism a customer brings into your office. Should you find yourself, nevertheless, dealing with a customer with whom you simply cannot get along, rudeness is not the solution. Speak to your supervisor or manager and ask for their advice.
Cultural differences – Cultural differences can be the source of a great many conflicts. When dealing with people of other nationalities and beliefs, it is easy to misunderstand words, gestures and customs. If you want to excel at your profession it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with some of the more prevalent customs of other cultures. On the whole, however, people from all over the world, from all walks of life and from all creeds respond well to respectful and courteous behaviour. Do not make fun of customs you don’t understand. Treat everyone you deal with, both customers and colleagues, with respect and you should do very well. This subject is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.
Once again we come back to positive and negative listening attitudes – which one will get you the results you want?
Using communication appropriately
Now that you have an understanding of how basic communication works, it is time to look at how to use communication appropriately – choosing the right method of communication for the right target audience. Beginning with who you intend communicating with, you then choose the appropriate method and level of formality.
Appropriate language and tone
The way in which you communicate with colleagues and customers will not only depend on the things already discussed but also on a few other things such as the tone of voice, the level of language and form of address used. Consideration needs to be given to;
- How well you know the person. Communication will differ greatly depending on your familiarity with the person you are talking to. With someone you know well like a team mate or a long time customer you can be relatively informal and friendly using their first name, be less formal in your tone and language, have a joke etc. With a person less well known you will need to adopt a more formal and professional approach. While it might be fine to call a younger person by their first name and joke around it is not OK to address a senior person in this manner. They should be addressed by their title and surname; for example Good morning Mr. Smith, unless they invite you to do otherwise.
- Your relationship with them. Once again, when dealing with familiar people it is fine to adopt a friendly manner but with customers, senior members of staff and so on your own personal and your organisation’s reputation and standing depend on your level of professionalism. A formal and courteous manner is therefore required when dealing with these people.
- Cultural considerations. In today’s world it is not unusual to be dealing with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world, so when communicating, particularly with people from other cultures, it is important to consider their level of English – don’t use long difficult words. Use short sentences that are easily understood.
If you are constantly dealing with people from other countries, for example in a hotel or at an airport, it is a good idea to learn about forms of address or other customs that you could adopt to make them feel more comfortable. For example when dealing with people from Japan it is a common courtesy to give a short bow, or when dealing with people from Middle Eastern countries you should not make too much eye contact as this is disrespectful and so on.
Using communication skills effectively will allow you to develop and maintain positive relationships and mutual trust with your colleagues and customers, and engender confidence in your abilities to do your job successfully.
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