PR people need a few theories and models to help get to grips with the bigger picture and why communications matters. But for most of us we need to get on with it and be able to deliver material results. Here we look at some of the practical skills we need to master in order to do the job well.
If we look at job descriptions for PR and communications professionals, the skills required can be sorted into three broad groups
Finally being assertive is essential for any professional and PR practitioners particularly need this skill in their role as consultants so we’ll look at this as a practical skill.
Building rapport by listening, questioning and observation of body language
As communications specialists we are likely, through our careers, to work with a wide variety of people, particularly colleagues and clients. We may also need to conduct research with target audiences, by interviewing them on a one-to-one or small group basis. We may also need to work with and interview case history subjects in order to obtain material to write up afterwards. So skilful questioning and listening, along with competent note and minute taking, are all essential skills.
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We may take a brief in a relaxed and supportive environment on an aspect of business that requires a planned and proactive communications strategy. Or we may take a briefing when an issue has gone live or an incident has taken place where people are rushed, anxious and concerned, where we are expected to come up with a professional, immediate reactive response.
Some briefings are excellent and all the information is there: a written version supplements a verbal briefing; there is complete openness; questions are answered thoroughly. Other briefings are partial, thin on detail, assumptions are made, the verbal briefing is poorly delivered, and sometimes the person taking the brief is – and feels – less senior and so potentially rather intimidated so the right penetrating questions may not be asked or assumptions go unchallenged. Mistakes get made this way hence the ability to handle a briefing competently is vital.
During a briefing we often need to get a lot of information out of people quickly and efficiently. And to do this we must be active listeners as well as skilled questioners. We must be able to concentrate on what’s being said and to sometimes draw out what really matters. We need to hear what the client – whether an internal or external client – is anxious about, is excited about and what the core business issues really are. Listening is an active skill, not a passive exercise. Listening is more demanding than speaking, in terms of concentration. Because we lead busy lives, we can be distracted by other thoughts and this can get in the way of good listening. You have to get into the right frame of mind to listen.
There are three levels of listening
Peripheral Listening Done at subconscious level, formal and informal situations – ‘cocktail party syndrome’ – eg at party, restaurant
Apparent Listening We do it all the time – look like we are listening but not really concentrating
Active Listening Concentrating on the message being transmitted by trying to understand not only what is being said but how and why it is said
Most people talk at c.125 words per minute but think at four times that speed. So listeners have spare mental capacity (which they could use to make useful notes) but which in practice means they can also go off on one, their minds can wander, they daydream and are distractedâ€¦unless they concentrate and listen actively.
People feel unimportant, insignificant and disrespected if they sense their ideas, concerns, feelings and not being paid close attention or being taken seriously. But not only can the working relationship suffer, the ineffective listener can simply get things wrong! If you ask a question and get the answer you were expecting, you make assumptions and so miss some enlightening, new or additional important information. If you are busy getting your next question together in your mind you won’t be listening to the current answer.
Prepare to listen. If you can, do some research/reading before you go into a briefing session. For example read last year’s PR programme, an annual report, the latest media coverage and so on. Get into the right frame of mind – Win:Win is what you should be aiming for, even if previous meetings with those briefing you have been challenging. Observe participants’ body language and speed of speaking (to pick up clues about areas of concern, urgency and any anxiety). Don’t make assumptions but observe and “tune in” to the people involved.
Sit to see. A fundamental point but having clear visual contact will aid concentration. Don’t forget that placing your back to the sun means that the person you’re listening to may not be able to see your eyes or facial expressions clearly. Likewise you want to see them clearly too. We gain so much more information if we ‘listen’ to body language too.
Avoid distractions. Apart from worrying about how much you have to do, other distractions can interfere with concentration; open plan offices, external sound, glass walls, television screens and mobile devices that people can’t get their eyes – and attention – away from. Be careful about these interfering with your concentration when you are listening.
Show empathy and build rapport. At the opening stages of a briefing it’s useful to show empathy so that rapport is built with the other person. Empathy is an attempt to understand the other person, to understand how the person feels and thinks and sees the world. It’s getting a sense of their perspective. The issue is not to agree, disagree, or make judgements but to make a genuine effort to understand how the person briefing you sees the opportunity or issue. Look at it from their point of view – and then add your own perspective as a communications consultant. At the start of a meeting use similar – or ‘matching’ – language and body language to assist in building rapport. Show you are interested in the subject so that the person briefing you feels more inclined to engage and communicate back.
Practise. Take every opportunity to practise and improve your listening skills. A colleague of mine listens to Radio Four documentaries and then recalls key points afterwards and includes these in her blog posts.
Practical active practical listening techniques
One of the ways to check your understanding of what has been said is to use feedback. In your own words, repeat back to the speaker what you understood her/him to have said.
Check your understanding of what’s being said.
Help eliminate any unintended messages which the speaker didn’t mean.
Demonstrate your interest in what’s being said.
Demonstrate that you really understand.
Let the speaker think about what’s being said.
Encourage a clearer explanation of complex points.
For example, you may hear:
“It’s a sensitive situation because of the potential financial impact on the business’.
You could check understanding by responding:
“So you’re saying that there may be a knock-on effect on profitability?”
Re-statement reflects a genuine attempt to understand the other person’s point of view and helps to identify any issues that arise.
This is more than re-statement or reflection, it is drawing together the main themes and key points from what you have heard. This facility can often be essential when the briefer has given a rather rambling and incoherent brief. Summarising what you have heard will help to check back the facts and assumptions.
Summarising can also:
Indicate that you have understood what has been said.
Move the conversation on.
Make an effective break point or end to the meeting.
Establish a starting point at a subsequent meeting.
10 rules for great listening:
Try to put the briefer at ease, get them to feel that they have your attention and you will respect their thoughts.
Show that you want to listen. Look and act interested.
Empathise with the briefer.
Be patient as far as you can.
Monitor and supress any impulse to judge or counsel too soon.
Avoid argument and any implied criticism.
The ability to ask great questions is, in my opinion, one of the most crucial skills anyone working in communications should master. Great questioning helps you get the information you need: to prepare a sound PR proposal, to understand the opinions, thoughts and feelings of a stakeholder, to write a focused report, to assess a situation, to get to the heart of the matter. The right questions achieve clarity, promote reflection, enhance creativity and help work out solutions. As you get more senior and are responsible for coaching and mentoring others, great questions are a key way to help people reflect and learn. Whatever the context, great questions show you are listening and paying attention to your subject. It’s not simply a question of the right questions either; it’s also the way you ask them – so pay attention to your tone of voice and body language too.
Using the Right Questioning Style
Open questions help the other person define the opportunity or issue and to explore it. They provide factual information and the other person’s thoughts and possibly their feelings behind it. Open questions can also generate thinking and reflection and ensure that focus is kept on the issue. Well timed open questions can change how someone looks at an issue too and can help identify actions to take. Open questions are always a good place to start a discussion or a briefing as they do exactly that – open up the dialogue. Open questions most often start with “What,” “How,” “When” and “Where” or ‘Tell me aboutâ€¦’
What can I/we do for you?
What do you think the opportunity is?
What’s your role in this issue?
What have you tried so far? What worked? What didn’t?
Have you experienced anything like this before? (If so, what did you do?)
What can you do for yourself?
What are the business needs?
How will that benefit the business?
What is important about that?
What is holding the business back?
What if you do nothing?
What is this costing?
How much control do you have in this situation?
What options do you have?
What support do you need to assure success?
What do you need us to do for you?
What do you hope for?
What’s preventing you from …?
If you could change one thing, what would it be?
How will you know you have been successful?
What does success look like?
Imagine a point in the future where your issue is resolvedâ€¦how did you get there?
What would you like to ask us?
Journalists use these open questions frequently when interviewing subjects for features and news pieces: Did youâ€¦? Are youâ€¦? What’sâ€¦? How manyâ€¦? Whereâ€¦.?
Depending on the situation, be careful when asking open questions that begin with “why.” A ‘why’ question makes people feel defensive, accountable to justify their actions. You do need to ask ‘why’ questions – to clarify causation especially when working out what has happened if an incident has taken place – just be careful of the phrasing so it doesn’t look like any blame is being apportioned and that it doesn’t sound like finger pointing.
2. Closed questions can be used to check facts, or as a summary. Use them sparingly as they tend to elicit simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. ‘Have you toldâ€¦â€¦? ‘What I think I’m hearing isâ€¦ is that right?’
3 Clarifying questions help you and your subject understand the key point and get to the “bottom line”. They can uncover the root cause of issues. These are especially useful when conducting research interviews and doing in-depth profiles of case histories. Ask questions about the person’s point of view, perspectives, beliefs, values and actions. Great provocative questions can prompt light bulb moments which can shift things positively and quickly. ‘When you launched your brand what what did you imagine would be the impact on your life?’ ‘When did you first consider you had achieved success?’
4. Reflecting questions enable the questioner to clarify what has been said and to get the subject to talk freely and in depth. Reflecting questions call for the questioner to engage in ‘active listening’. Using their own words you encourage further information. Reflecting questions often begin:
‘You said thatâ€¦’ ‘ You sound as if â€¦.’ I get the feeling that â€¦.’
5. Extending questions are used to invite further explanation and to prompt a further answer:
‘How else couldâ€¦?’ ‘ Could you tell me more about..?’
6. Comparative questions are useful where the questioner may need to compare a situation on a before and after basis:
‘What has it been like sinceâ€¦?’ ‘What difference has â€¦..’
7. Hypothetical questions may allow the subject to explore ideas and issues in a non-threatening theoretical environment:
‘Imagine a future whereâ€¦how would you feel?’
‘If you were faced with the same situation again would you do anything differently?’
8. Rephrasing or paraphrasing may be used when the questioner is not clear what the subject thinks, feels or means and allows you to play back what has been said:
Are you saying thatâ€¦?’ ‘Let me see if I understand the problem completelyâ€¦’
9. Linking questions are useful for picking up clues but depend on active listening. The question is formed by picking up an earlier response from the subject:
‘You mentioned earlier thatâ€¦ how would youâ€¦?’
Leading questions (a sub-section of closed questions) should generally be avoided. A leading question is asked in order to lead another to a pre-determined answer or conclusion. This sort of question comes across as dishonest and manipulative. You can recognise leading questions because they are statements that can often can be answered “yes” or “no”. That said, journalists may use leading questions in interviews
‘You’re a Conservative, aren’t you?’ ‘How did you react? Were you furious?’ ‘How much money went missing – more than a million pounds?’
Assumptive questions (which can be annoying but, if phrased well, can get into interesting areas) are also used extensively by journalists.
Were you educated in a private or state school? How many redundancies will there be? Are you married or single? (when the answer may be neitherâ€¦) When did you last beat your wife?
Direct, suggestive or loaded questions – which are manipulative but are often used again by journalists to provoke a response and add tension into proceedings
Scientists have proven that cigarette smoking cause cancer so why should manufacturers be allowed to continue to promote them at all?
What sort of person would disagree with campaigns to control birth rates?
Ghandi said non-violent protest was the only way – don’t you agree?
Academics often use ‘Socratic Questioning’ to facilitate investigation and dialogue. The US-based Foundation for Critical Thinking published a paper in 2006 by Richard Paul and Linda Elder that defined nine types of Socratic questions, useful for critical enquiry
Questions of clarification
What do you mean by X?
What is your main point?
How does this relate to X?
Could you put that another way?
Could you say more about that?
Why do you say that?
Let me check I understand – do you mean X or Y?
Can you explain that further?
Can you give me an example?
Would this be an example of X?
How does this relate to the brief/issue?
Is your basic point X or Y?
What do you think David meant by that remark? What do you believe he actually meant?
Questions That Probe Purpose
What is the purpose of X?
What was your purpose when you said X?
How do the purposes of these two people vary?
How do the purposes of these two groups vary?
What is the purpose of addressing this question at this time?
Questions That Probe Assumptions
What are you assuming?
What is Karen assuming?
What could we assume instead?
You seem to be assuming X . Do I understand you correctly?
All your conclusions depend on the idea thatâ€¦.. Why have you based your reasoning on X rather than Y?
You seem to be assuming X. How would you justify taking this for granted?
Is it always the case? Why do you think the assumption holds here?
Questions That Probe Information, Reasons, Evidence and Causes
What would be an example?
How do you know?
What are your reasons for saying that?
Why did you say that?
What other information do we need to know before we can address this question?
Why do you think that is true?
Could you explain your reasons to us?
What led you to that belief ?
Is this good evidence for believing that?
Do you have any evidence to support your assertion?
Are those reasons adequate?
How does that information apply to this case?
Is there reason to doubt that evidence?
What difference does that make?
Who is in a position to know if that is the case?
What would convince you otherwise?
What would you say to someone who said ?
What accounts for ?
What do you think is the cause?
How did this come about?
By what reasoning did you come to that conclusion?
How could we go about finding out whether that is true?
Can someone else give evidence to support that response?
Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives
You seem to be approaching this issue from perspective. Why have you chosen this perspective rather than that perspective?
How would other groups or types of people respond? Why? What would influence them?
How could you answer the objection that would make?
Can/did anyone see this another way?
What would someone who disagrees say?
What is an alternative?
How are Ken’s and Roxanne’s ideas alike? Different?
Questions That Probe Implications and Consequences
What are you implying by that?
When you say , are you implying ?
But if that happened, what else would also happen as a result? Why?
What effect would that have?
Would that necessarily happen or only probably happen?
What is an alternative?
If this and this are the case, then what else must be true?
Questions about the Question
How can we find out?
Is this the same issue as ?
How could someone settle this question?
Can we break this question down at all?
Is the question clear? Do we understand it?
How would put the issue?
Is this question easy or difficult to answer? Why?
What does this question assume?
Would put the question differently?
Why is this question important?
Does this question ask us to evaluate something?
Do we need facts to answer this?
Do we all agree that this is the question?
To answer this question, what other questions would we have to answer first?
I’m not sure I understand how you are interpreting the main question at issue. Could you explain your interpretation?
Questions That Probe Concepts
What is the main idea we are dealing with?
Why/how is this idea important?
Do these two ideas conflict? If so, how?
What was the main idea guiding the thinking of the character in this story?
How is this idea guiding our thinking as we try to reason through this issue? Is this idea causing us problems?
What main theories do we need to consider in figuring out ?
Are you using this term ” ” in keeping with educated usage?
Which main distinctions should we draw in reasoning through this problem?
Which idea is this author using in her or his thinking? This there a problem with it?
Questions That Probe Inferences and Interpretations
Which conclusions are we coming to about ?
On what information are we basing this conclusion?
Is there a more logical inference we might make in this situation?
How are you interpreting her behaviour? Is there another possible interpretation?
What do you think of ?
How did you reach that conclusion?
Given all the facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
How shall we interpret these data?
Understanding body language
Non-verbal communication is often the way we show the emotional side of our relationships with others. Effective body language works alongside our spoken words in order to convey meaning more clearly.
Give positive signals by
Arriving on time
Show you are committed to the aims of the meeting
Show interest in what is being said
When you talk in the meeting give everyone some eye contact by moving your eyes around the room
Try and control the tone of your voice so that it is calm and unflustered with variation in tone and pitch
Pick up signals from other people’s body language
You can watch other participants and try to assess their thoughts and feelings even if they are not saying anything. Some important signals to look for are;
Eye contact – people who are looking at you are likely to be listening. People who look away from you when you talk to them may be nervous
Body direction – usually in meetings everyone sits facing the chairperson. If someone turns their body away they may be unhappy with what is happening, changing direction completely or possibly pushing their chair back may show a great degree of dissatisfaction
Posture – this can be interpreted in many different ways. Sitting back may be a sign of disinterest or of being relaxed. At an informal meeting sitting on the edge of the seat may be an indication of fear or tension.
Head movements – the obvious ones are the nod or shake of agreement or disagreement. Most people will unconsciously nod or shake their heads and this provides you with a lot of information.
Facial expressions – again at a meeting facial expressions such as smiling frowning questioning are often unconscious and can reveal information about what the person is thinking.
Body language clues that often reveal what’s going on with the listener
Smiling, open and positive gestures, standing or sitting close, lots of eye contact, nodding, tilting head = empathy and rapport
Sitting with crossed leg towards you = defensiveness, distrust
Sitting with crossed leg away from you = willingness to trust
Rigid or tense body posture, staring eyes, clenched fists, clasped hands, tightly folded arms, foot tapping, finger pointing = anger, aggression, irritation, nervousness,
Downcast eyes, hand over mouth, frequently touching face, shifting weight from one leg to another, fidgeting = nervousness
Picking fluff from clothes, pulling at ears, stifled yawning, gazing around the room = boredom
By developing awareness of the signs and signals of body language, you can more easily understand other people, and more effectively communicate with them.
The difference between the words people speak and our understanding of what they are saying comes from non-verbal communication, otherwise known as “body language”.
There are sometimes subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – movements, gestures, facial expressions and even shifts in our whole bodies that indicate something is going on. The way we talk, walk, sit and stand all say something about us, and whatever is happening on the inside can be reflected on the outside.
By becoming more aware of this body language and understanding what it might mean, you can learn to read people more easily. This puts you in a better position to communicate effectively with them. What’s more, by increasing your understanding of others, you can also become more aware of the messages that you convey to them.
This article will explain many of the ways in which we communicate non-verbally, so that you can use these signs and signals to communicate more effectively.
How We Communicate
A famous study by Albert Mehrabian found that non-verbal language makes up 55% of how we communicate in face-to-face interactions. He also concluded that we communicate as much as 38% of our message through our voice (tone, pitch, and so on), with as little as 7% through the words we actually say.
Understanding and recognizing the signs and signals that make up this 55% can help you when you communicate with others. There are times when we send mixed messages – we say one thing yet our body language reveals something different. This non-verbal language will affect how we act and react to others, and how they react to us.
So, let’s take a look at some scenarios, and see how body language influences your perception and reactions.
First Impressions and Confidence
Recall a time when you met someone new at work. Or think about the last time you watched a speaker deliver a presentation.
What were your first impressions? Did you sense confidence or a lack of confidence in them? Did you want to associate with them or not? Were you convinced by them?
Did they stride into the room, engage you and maintain eye contact or were they tentative, shuffling towards you with eyes averted, before sliding into a chair? What about their handshake – firm and strong or weak and limp?
Moving along in the conversation, did they maintain solid eye contact or were they frequently looking away? Did their face appear relaxed or was it tight and tense? What about their hand and arm movements? Were their gestures wide, flowing and open or were they tight, jerky and closed?
As you observe others, you can identify some common signs and signals that give away whether they are feeling confident or not. Typical things to look for in confident people include:
Posture – standing tall with shoulders back.
Eye contact – solid with a ‘smiling’ face.
Gestures with hands and arms – purposeful and deliberate.
Speech – slow and clear.
Tone of voice – moderate to low.
As well as deciphering other people’s the body language, you can use this knowledge to convey feelings that you’re not actually experiencing.
For example, if you are about to enter into a situation where you are not as confident as you’d like to be, such as giving a big presentation or attending an important meeting, you can adopt these ‘confidence’ signs and signals to project confidence.
Let’s now look at another scenario.
Difficult Meetings and Defensiveness
Think of a time when you were in a difficult meeting – perhaps a performance appraisal or one where you are negotiating deadlines, responsibilities or a contract. In an ideal world, both you and the other person would be open and receptive to hearing what each other has to say, in order to conclude the meeting successfully.
However, often, the other person is defensive and doesn’t really listen. If this happens during an appraisal meeting, and it’s important for you to convey to your colleague that he or she needs to change certain behaviors, you really want them open and receptive to you so they take on board what you are saying.
So how can you tell whether your message is falling on “deaf ears”?
Some of the common signs that the person you are speaking with may be feeling defensive include:
Hand/arm gestures are small and close to his or her body.
Facial expressions are minimal.
Body is physically turned away from you.
Arms are crossed in front of body.
Eyes maintain little contact, or are downcast.
By picking up these signs, you can change what you say or how you say it to help the other person become more at ease, and more receptive to what you are saying.
Equally, if you are feeling somewhat defensive going into a negotiating situation, you can monitor your own body language to ensure that the messages you are conveying are ones that say that you are open and receptive to what is being discussed.
Working with Groups and Disengagement
Have you ever delivered a presentation, and had a sense that people weren’t really buying into what you had to say? What about working with a group to facilitate a consensus on responsibilities and deadlines? Was everyone on board with the ideas, or did some appear disengaged?
Ideally, when you stand up to deliver a presentation or work with group, you want 100% engagement with all concerned. This often doesn’t happen on its own, though. But you can actively engage the audience when you need to if you’re alert to some of the typical signs and signals of people not being engaged. Some of these signs and signals include:
Heads are down.
Eyes are glazed, or gazing at something else.
Hands may be picking at cloths, or fiddling with pens.
People may be writing or doodling.
They may be sitting slumped in their chairs.
When you pick up that someone appears not to be engaged in what is going on, you can do something to re-engage him or her and bring their focus back to what you are saying, such as asking them a direct question.
And while this is going on, make sure that your own body language is saying what you want it to.
Of all the non-verbal body language that we may observe, being able to tell whether a person is lying or not will stand you in good stead.
Some of the typical signs and signals that a person is lying include:
Eyes maintain little or no eye contact, or there may be rapid eye movements, with pupils constricted.
Hand or fingers are in front of his or her mouth when speaking.
His or her body is physically turned away from you, or there are unusual/un-natural body gestures.
His or her breathing rate increases.
Complexion changes such as in color; red in face or neck area.
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