Contributor: Michael Parker
Informal conversational skills are natural to any good networker. Unfortunately, under the pressure of a formal presentation or tough negotiation, these skills can desert us as we try (perhaps too hard) to impress.
To counter this, it is important to remind ourselves what these skills are, and then consciously work on them so that our natural best self is always in action. We will find that the essential skill is that of listening.
If we forget to listen we miss out on the power of listening.
Recently Andy Murray, one of the best tennis players in the world, was explaining to journalists why he chose a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo, over the stone-faced Ivan Lendl. For him, the reasons were not gender-related. It was simple: “She listens to me.”
In other words, before rushing to offer advice and bringing her undoubted wisdom to bear, Amelie took the time to listen – listening to understand where he was coming from, what was his mood, what were his thoughts, what were the underlying issues? Then and only then did she respond with her thoughts. Her empathetic listening led to a working relationship built on trust that has contributed to the most successful period of Andy’s career.
Listening in a competitive or stressful meeting can be difficult if we relentlessly ram our messages into the audience, focusing only on what we want to get across and going into transmit mode, while not realizing our message is not being received.
In a relaxed, open conversation where there is genuine dialogue, listening is continuous, and this manifests in the natural use of the pause. We don’t just pause for effect or thought; we pause to check that our words are being heard and that our audience has time to take them in. (Unless we are poor one-way conversationalists, in which case networking may not be the wisest career choice.)
The good news is: you can practice the pause. You can do this on your own, or better: rehearse with someone acting as your audience (the way an actor rehearses to a director). As you pause more, and as this becomes natural, you will appear, and become, more confident. You will find it gives you time to listen and think, which is critical when tough questions come at you.
In music, it was Debussy who said, “Music is the space between the notes.” In this context, we can say, “Pitches happen in the pauses.”
Pauses encourage listening by both the speaker and the audience.
The pause is not new. Cicero, an ancient Roman philosopher and orator, pointed out to his students over 2000 years ago:
“Pauses strengthen the voice. They also render the thoughts more clear-cut by separating them. And leave the hearer time to think.”
Michael Parker is the author of It’s Not What You Say: How to Sell Your Message When It Matters Most. He is also the former Vice-Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi London, and now coaches private clients on their pitches.