Daniel Webster once wrote, “If all my possessions were taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication, for by it I would soon regain all the rest.” Truer words were never spoken.
It’s amazing how much of a difference small changes in our language can have on our ability to influence, persuade, motivate – or even just get along better with people.
Twenty years ago, a retail client of ours allowed us to do a little experiment. We wanted to see if we could change the number of customers who reflexively said, “No thanks, I’m just looking,” when engaged by an employee. In ten stores, we had employees begin their interaction with the traditional, “Can I help you?” In ten other stores, we had employees begin with, “What can I help you find today?” A subtle difference, but the outcome was profound.
In the “Can I help you?” stores, a little over 60% of customers responded that they were just looking. In the stores where we added the “what” prefix, fewer than 40% of customers responded that way. Wow.
In another instance, a few years back, we had front line employees of a financial institution make a subtle change in how they gave direction to customers. Instead of giving an instruction, they were asked to frame things in the customers’ best interests. So, for example, instead of saying, “You’re going to have to talk to a loans manager about that,” they would say, “Our loans manager will be able to help you with that better than I can.” Again, the impact on customer response was remarkable.
Making small changes to the way we communicate can influence every aspect of our lives. You can say to your spouse who would like to go to an Italian restaurant, “Yabut you always want to eat Italian food. I want sushi.” Or, you could say, “I know how much you love your Italian food, but can we try sushi tonight?” You can say to a child, “You’re doing this wrong,” or you can say “You might find it works better if you do it this way.” Little changes can have big results.
We Are Judged On Our Language Skills
Like it or not, people judge you based on your language skills. Think about the first impressions you’ve gotten from people you’ve met. In a very short period of time, you might assess them as intelligent, nice, narcissistic, funny, arrogant, friendly, shy – any number of characteristics. A large part of that has come a subconscious interpretation of the way they speak.
It’s not an easy skill to master, because there is a situational component to effective communication skills. The most successful people you will meet have the ability to make subtle changes to their language based on the people they are speaking with and their environment. They recognize that while more formal language may be effective in a boardroom, for example, it has the potential to be counterproductive in relaxed social settings.
So how do we improve our language skills? The answer is awareness. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of your own speech patterns. Watch how people respond to you and others. Learn. Try different tactics. Be willing to change your approach. The payoff in both your personal and professional life will be huge.