Anyone who’s spent any time in customer service training has heard of ‘active listening’ and ’empathy.’ It sounds great in class, but isn’t always so simple to put into action when you get back to the workplace. Here are the reasons why even the ‘right’ communication skills can fail and what you can do to make them succeed.
Every time my firm conducts communication skills training, we know someone is going to object.
“That doesn’t work. Everybody’s heard of active listening. You can’t use that stuff anymore.”
And we have to admit, there’s a lot of truth in that. Everyone has heard of active listening. And it doesn’t work for many people much of the time.
But communication skills can work for your staff.
The problem usually isn’t the skills. It’s the way people are trained to use them. Learn to use communication skills effectively, and they can create happy customers and higher income.
There are two components to good communication skills: (a) the skills themselves, and (b) what you’re trying to do (your intention) when you use them. Many employees learn communication skills from manuals. And many manuals emphasize either skills, or intention but not both. And so, much of what we think of as communication skills training fails.
Here are a couple of examples:
Example 1: How active listening gets a black eye: using good skills, but with the intention to fix or change a customer
I was coaching a hospital social worker through a confrontation with a mother who was terribly frightened. The social worker was doing his best to demonstrate active listening.
“OK, I get that you’re upset. And you want to get out of here. And I want to help you. But you’ve got to go through this process before you can take your daughter home.”
The mother didn’t react at all the way he’d hoped. “I don’t want to hear all this institutional talk,” she said. “You leave me alone. I’ll sue if I have to!”
This appears to be a failure of active listening. And it is, but the problem goes deeper than that. When I paused the encounter and asked the social worker how he thought the mother was feeling and what she needed, he said, “I don’t really know. I was busy trying to get her to do what I wanted and think it was her idea.”
Active listening skills are useful, but they’re only tools. They serve the intentions of the person using them. And if you don’t teach trainees useful intentions, most will fall back on trying to fix people or change them. So you’ll be training your staff to be very effective at letting your customers know they need to be fixed or changed. And your customers will let you know how unpleasant an experience that is.
Example 2: How “understand before you are understood” fails: having a useful intention but lacking the skills to communicate it
I paused a training scenario just after an angry man blew up at a nurse. I was coaching the nurse through an encounter with a father who felt the staff was trying to hustle him and his son out of the hospital.
He told her that he worked all day and came into the hospital all night. And where did she think he was going to get the time to go through training before he took his son home?
When I asked her how she thought the man was feeling and what he needed, she suggested that he seemed overwhelmed and afraid, and that he might need some support.
When I suggested she might ask the man if that’s what he was experiencing, she turned to him and said, “You need an appointment with a social worker. I’ll set something up for you.”
This is a classic failure that comes from understanding your customer, but lacking the skills to communicate it. The nurse could describe the source of the man’s anger clearly to me. She had real empathy for him. But she couldn’t put her words together in a way he recognized as compassionate.
We’d taught her the words, of course. But like most people who learn new skills, she lacked the confidence to use them. So she, like the trainee above, fell back on trying to fix the customer. And he let her know how much he disliked being treated that way.
It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t practicing.
Both of the examples above underscore a third important component of communication skills training, namely, the practice.
The trainee in the first example was a compassionate man with a degree in social work. I’m sure he’d had ample exposure to good communication skills. It had never gelled for him before.
Once we put him in a scenario, coached him through the skills, and alerted him to the fact that he was struggling because he was trying to fix his customer instead of connecting with her (that’s the intention we teach), he developed skills rapidly. He even returned to training weeks later to report that he’d created a real difference in his life using the skills at home. He quickly became a valued mentor to others in his work group.
Communication skills are deceptively challenging. It takes no great intellect or dexterity to utter the words. What is terribly demanding is all the processing: keeping your focus on the other person despite your own discomfort, listening for the needs beneath complaints and accusations, drumming up the nerve to suggest to an outraged man that he might value some support.
What gets you through tough interactions is your confidence in your own intention and skills. And you learn confidence through practice.
In my experience, those are the keys to effective communication skills: 1. holding a useful intention like understanding the other person or connecting with them, 2. employing skills that communicate your intention, and 3. practicing the skills and intentions so you have them at hand, even when interactions get intense, especially when they do.
Find training that will provide you all three, and you’ll have communication skills that will please your customers and increase your income.
Tim Dawes, founder of Interplay, Inc., specializes in helping health care organizations exceed their strategic goals by demonstrating unexpected empathy to patients. Sign up for his newsletter at.