“Um, Ah, If I Wrote Like I Talk, Then Like, Ah…”

Can you imagine how painful it would if we had to communicate in writing the words we actually speak? Come to think of it, this might be precisely how educators go about transforming the horrendous language skills some people have.

I was conducting a mock interview not long ago with a person who was pretty sure their interview skills were top-notch. While they had great content to share from their present and past to prove they had the experience to compete for employment, what they also had was a constant use of the words, ‘like’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’. At one point, I actually realized I had shifted from evaluating the strength of their answer to counting the number of times they used these three words.

So why do people consciously or unconsciously overuse these words? I believe the words, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ are used most often to hold the speakers place in the conversation, while their brain accesses memory files and arranges their thoughts in a meaningful way so that when the spoken words are uttered, it sounds coherent. It’s as if the person is saying, “I’ve got something else I want to add, just give me a moment to organize things in the way I want to share them; here it comes…right, I’m ready.”

Every now and then this kind of behaviour creates for the speaker a real unexpected problem. The overuse of, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ can cause a person to finish a thought and then the mouth almost instinctively throws in one last, ‘um’. The listener’s interest is piqued as the speaker has something further to add, so they themselves go silent and wait with anticipation to whatever is about to be said. The problem? The speaker who uttered the dreaded ‘um’ has nothing further to add whatsoever, and so lamely says something like, “Ah, it’s okay.”

What I find most interesting myself as someone who is often on the receiving end, is that the speakers either know they have this habit as others have mentioned it to them, or they are completely oblivious to this habit. They may say therefore, “I know, I know it’s a bad habit; everybody tells me!” Or they say, “Really? Wow! I had no idea!”

Here’s the thing about your language skills: you communicate much more than words alone. When you listen to someone, words combine with tone, body language, voice intensity, vocabulary, facial expression, eye contact etc.; all of which strengthen or detract from the content of the message you are delivering. If for example someone says, “Help me please, I’m desperate” and has a strained expression, their words are barely audible but intense and their eyes a wide and fixed on ours, – we do not doubt their plea. However, were they to say, “Help me please, I’m desperate” while shrugging their shoulders, grinning ear to ear and the words uttered in a mocked tone, then we might be left with an impression they aren’t really serious.

It’s the same when we overuse the word, ‘like’. “Could you like, help me, ’cause like, I’m – you know – like, desperate.” Is the visualization in your head right now of the person uttering this sentence a young, poorly educated female? If I told you it was really a university educated senior management person in the commodities sector would that image seem genuine? No probably not. So how we communicate does conjure up things we associate with people who talk a certain way.

Therefore others who hear us make assumptions about our education level, our professionalism, our income level, our intelligence; all from our vocabulary. Lest you think that it is wrong of people to make all these assumptions and judge you based on these alone, don’t exclude yourself from judging others based on the same criteria. As we listen to others speak, our minds take in all this data and access past memories and experiences we have had dealing with others who have appeared to us to be similar. In a matter of seconds, we think, slang = casual, overuse of ‘like’ = valley girl, overuse of ‘um’ and ‘ah’ = slow thinker. Of course these associations might not match your own experience, but they might match other people; people who are interviewing you for a job, or deciding whether or not they can help you in some way.

One way to change how you are perceived if you wish to do so in the first place of course, is to simply pause and be silent instead of using the dreaded, ‘um’ or ‘ah’. Silence is actually very effective when used in speech as it shows you are reflective.

If something is similar to something else, by all means say that this thing is like that thing in a comparative sense. However saying, “This apple is like amazing!” isn’t any more effective than just saying, “This apple is amazing!” The word, ‘like’ in this sense is unnecessary and inappropriate. Do yourself a favour and stop overusing it and using it in the wrong context.

The wonderful thing about your language skills is that unlike so many barriers to employment or promotions is language is entirely within your control to use and improve. Not only should you choose your words wisely, you can improve your skills in this area as you can with any other skill.

Then, you’d be like, totally amazing.

Activity: Listen To Your Words

Pay attention to the words you speak in the coming day or two and see if the words and phrases you use in everyday speech are revealing more about you than you had thought.

For starters, you should be cautious of the word, “just”. This word suggests you have a poor opinion of yourself; that you have low self-esteem, and you aren’t living up to your potential. All that from one single word? How is that possible you ask? Look at these two sentences:

  1. I’m a Receptionist.
  2. I’m just a Receptionist.

The first three word sentence is an assertion or statement of fact; I am a Receptionist. The second sentence on the other hand, with the insertion of a single word four letters in length, ceases to become a statement of assertion and pride. Now you are implying that the position of Receptionist in your view is a lowly one, and it almost comes out like an apology; “I’m sorry but I’m just a Receptionist.”

By the way, don’t get hung up on the title of Receptionist. This has the same impact if you say, “I’m just a Line Cook”, I’m just a Manager”, “I’m just a Musician.” You can’t utter the sentence with the word, “just”, inserted and not have it sound like you are downgrading both the position and yourself.

Another word that creeps in silently but betrays you if you use it is the word, “if”. Suppose you are job searching. You might catch yourself saying, “If I get an interview…”, “If I get a job…” The far more assertive statement is, “When I get an interview…” When I get a job…” Removing the word, “if” and substituting it with the word, “when” changes your sentence from a possibility to a certainty. “When I get an interview”, communicates your belief that it’s not up for debate whether you will or won’t get an interview, it’s just a question of time. The word, “if” suggests you might get an interview but you might not – you’re not sure.

Another word I see many people use in their cover letters that betrays them is the word, “believe”. Now if that word stood alone, it’s a good word, and has been used successfully by many people as their creed or motto. It implies that if you believe, then what you want will come about. Fine. However, watch the word in action in the following sentence and tell me now how it changes your perception of someone’s self-confidence: “I believe I am the right candidate for this position.” The way this could be read is that you believe it but it may not be the case. Remove the first two words of that sentence and you get, “I am the right candidate for this position.” That’s assertiveness – not aggressiveness or boasting; it’s a claim you’re making and you then back it up with examples of that market yourself positively.

There is a slang word that has slipped into everyday language so frequently, a growing number of people don’t even know that using it reveals them when they speak. They continue to use it which can suggest a limited vocabulary which in turn could suggest a low education – possibly less than grade 12. The word is, “youse”. “Youse have a great company”, “I’d like to work with youse guys.” The word doesn’t exist; stop using it.

Did you notice in the last example I used the word, “guys”? I find it amusing and interesting that someone can speak to a group of men and women, or indeed a group of women exclusively, and then say, “I’ll see you guys later.” Save the word, “guys” for males. Consider using, “people”, or “all”, or even just remove the word, “guys”. “I’ll see you later.”

The use of the word, “guys” indicates a familiarity or friendship when used in the context above. You may not find that using it in all situations is appropriate or welcomed. “I’d like to work for you guys”, doesn’t communicate a professional respect for the employees you are speaking with. It detracts from your self-marketing and you may actually create the opposite impact on your listeners where they want to distance themselves from you and the assumption of casualness you are making. Next you’ll be telling the interview, “I’ll be waiting for your call pal.” DON’T DO IT! I’M KIDDING.

Finally, try to catch yourself using or forgetting to say the words, “please” and, “thank you”.  When someone does something for you – anything from opening a door, being your reference or granting you an interview, express your thanks. No gushing suggested, no boot-licking, just common personal and professional courtesy. If you request something of someone, use the word, “please.” “Would you please stand as a reference for me?” Could we move the meeting to Monday please?” “Is it possible to have an afternoon interview please?”

Language skills are vitally important to how others perceive you; they are a part of your brand. Your use of words can accelerate your career or hold you back, prompt a job interview or keep you from meeting with an interviewer.

Listen to yourself and listen to others around you. Language is a learned skill. Work on getting some words out of your vocabulary and other words in. Like anything else, you can improve on your language skills with practice.

Starting Dialogue: An Example

Yesterday I found myself scheduled to spend my day in our drop-in employment resource centre instead of running a workshop. These days are good mental breaks and diversions from planning, running and evaluating workshops and are a welcomed change from time-to-time.

Now I find you can do one of two things while you are scheduled to staff that area. You can on the one hand circulate around the room, engage visitors in conversation and spruce the place up a little by tidying up etc. On the other hand you can choose to sit at the staff desk and deal with people as they approach you. I generally opt for the engaging style myself, but on most days you’d find me doing a mix of both.

So it was when I was at the desk printing off some job postings that a woman came up asking to use the stapler. Rather than saying, “Help yourself” and returning to my task, I said, “Help yourself. Hey is that your resume? Would you like me to cast my eyes over it for you?”

That initiative; the decision to engage with the person, start a conversation and extend an offer of assistance is such a small thing. I point it out however as a tangible example of a decision to simply and effectively start a conversation, creating an opening where a user of your service can voluntarily choose to also engage or not.

Now in this instance, the woman handed her resume over and sat down. I was immediately conscious of trying to accomplish two very different tasks simultaneously. First and most obvious, I began to scan the resume, looking for ways to strengthen it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I started to size up the person sitting across from me. How open was this stranger to my feedback? To what degree was she able to grasp, understand and be receptive to the changes I was recommending?

Starting with a suggestion to not staple the two pages together that collectively made up her resume, we went through content, grammar and spelling, layout and format etc. All in all we spent about 15 minutes there together until she left to return to her computer and input the suggestions before leaving.

A chance encounter? Maybe. What if she hadn’t needed that stapler and had brought her own? What if someone else had been there instead of me, or I had been too caught up with something else and she came and left quickly just using the stapler without asking at all? Was it fate?

If you break things down, a lot of things go into that 15 minute engagement. She started things off by taking the initiative to approach me and had the manners to ask for use of the stapler which created the possibility of a conversation. I made a decision years ago to engage people where I can and find opportunities to start conversations so it was natural to initiate the offer of help and she was wise enough to accept feedback.

Furthermore, like peeling back layers on an onion, as things were pointed out on her resume to correct, improve, add to or re-format, she was patient and open enough to accept the comments made, making further and more meaningful suggestions possible. Had she been defensive, close-minded or downright impervious to new ideas and dismissed the ideas presented to her, I’d have been less helpful and would have hoped for a better reaction another day.

As someone else needed assistance after our 15 minutes together, she returned to her computer station. I made another decision to go ’round and saw she was in the process of already implementing the ideas I’d given her. That initiative on her part to implement the ideas presented also shows me her wisdom. Wisdom I say, but not because the ideas were mine, but because the ideas and suggestions are borne out of experience accumulated over many years, current best practices, and supported through evidence of job seekers getting interviews when using those ideas themselves.

I wanted to share this encounter with you precisely because it is such a small thing to accomplish. Whether you are the professional employee in a position assisting others, or you are a job seeker, you can interject yourself in either position and see how the engagement process works from both perspectives. What I find noteworthy is that unlike some interactions, this one started off spontaneously without any stress leading up to the conversation.

You might feel mounting stress for example were you to book an appointment with a resume professional or a career counsellor. You might agonize over having your work criticized, judged and by association being judged yourself. If you are a quieter, reserved or introverted person, you might not have the assertiveness to even initiate contact and seek help. These opportunities are in front of you everyday however. Instead of lamenting or beating yourself up over missed opportunities yesterday, jump in and risk a conversation today. You could start with, “Can I use your stapler? Would you mind looking this over?”

On my side of the desk, remember colleagues that there are opportunities before us each and everyday. They don’t always present themselves in scheduled appointments, and can often start as chance encounters. It’s about being in position, having the knowledge, looking and acting receptive to help and serving.

A pretty simple encounter broken down.





Sharing Skills With Your Co-Workers

I sent an email out to my co-workers just yesterday, asking if they’d be interested in a lunch and learn session next week on the subject of social media and LinkedIn specifically. Lunch and learn for those of you that don’t already know is literally where you bring your lunch and eat while someone is making a presentation.

It is known to me that at least some of my co-workers are skeptical of social media, a little gun-shy about putting their personal information out there, and others who do get it might still have reservations about what it can do for our clientele; many of whom are not technologically savvy.

This kind of volunteerism, sharing a skill you have with your co-workers so that they personally and ultimately their clients can benefit has a huge upside. For starters, if you are trying to get noticed in your organization, standing up in front of your peers and facilitating a session gives others a chance to see you in what could be a new role. Speak well, answer questions with intelligence and provide a safe room for questions and you may get a few folks thinking of you in ways they didn’t before.

Another benefit is that in sharing your skills, you upgrade the knowledge and ultimately skills of others. With a shared understanding of the subject matter, you’ll be undermined less. Undermined? Definitely. Suppose for example I was in this case extolling the virtues of social media for a job seeker and one of my peers chirped in by saying that they personally don’t think it’s all that necessary and just a fad for upper level business professionals. Now they haven’t ever done this just to be clear, but as an example it works. All of a sudden the job seeker might not want to put forth the effort required to take my advice, and I sure wouldn’t appreciate having my suggestions cut out from beneath me. Intentional or unintentional, that remark may come out of ignorance of social media itself and how to best exploit it.

Another benefit is that the employer need not incur the cost of bringing in some social media guru who in the end might not be as effective as you. After all, you know your business and if you know social media, you know best how to utilize it. Without knowing your business, clientele and their capabilities, no one from outside is as best positioned to maximize this tool as maybe you yourself.

Now think about your own business whatever that is. Surely there are people on your staffing body who have expertise and skills in certain areas which exceed those skills had by most others. Is there a person who is up on the latest trends, seems to be the go-to person when it comes to technology itself, or just knows how to use the advanced features on the photocopiers!

Instead of doing nothing at all which has the impact of keeping knowledge from being shared, or paying someone to come in and share knowledge but at a price, why not initiate your own lunch and learn activity? Now not everyone is going to jump at the chance to get up in front of their peers and lead a session. I get that. Some people would rather sign up for root canal.

Surely however, there are at least a few people who would be willing to speak with some of their co-workers (a voluntary participation over lunch, not mandatory) about something of interest to their co-workers on a topic they themselves know something about.

Take me now. In doing a short presentation on social media in general, and LinkedIn specifically, I’m hoping to demonstrate to my peers how best to help them help our clients. After all, if someone has heard of LinkedIn but doesn’t really understand it, they are not going to be able to sell it as an effective tool to be used in networking and job searching.

As the business my colleagues and I are in is helping others gain and sustain employment, we should be looking for tools to use that give them a competitive advantage. With social media being so prevalent and common these days, using it actually levels the playing field somewhat rather than giving them an advantage. The advantage is already being enjoyed by their competition!

Suppose however you are a clerk who knows how to add your digital signature to documents produced by the printer or the digital photocopiers. I would think that more people in your office would like to know how to do this too. Why not set aside 20 minutes of your lunch and gather those interested so you can walk them through how to do this. 20 minutes…no formal teaching role just standing at the photocopier…showing them what you know…that might be possible?

Again, think of your role in your present job. What do you know that others would benefit from knowing? If you are in Management why not float the idea of your talented workers sharing their knowledge with each other – say once every two weeks. Then step back and let it morph and grow on its own. Book the room, then sit at the table just as one of the gang and see what you can learn. You might be enthusiastically impressed. Skills on the front-line don’t always need to come from those at the top.

Conversations With Young Adults

If I were in the position of being a Professor in a University or College, or if I found myself commanding the attention of any young people in fact, I’d tell them that above all the other skills they could master, communicating effectively through conversation would top my list.

The stereotypical young person is pretty savvy with most forms of electronic devices; they use cellphones with ease, have I-pods and or I-pads, tweet their friends, and are knowledgeable when it comes to using various apps. However, put away the electronics, turn off the phones and start a real conversation and often a weakness arises.

Now to be fair, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to every young adult I know. But with some, once past the surface issues such as the weather, health, recent school performance and known personal interests, I’ve observed a lack of comfort engaging in meaningful conversation. I can read the expression on their faces as they blankly look off to the left or right, the tight forced smiles which come as they strive to survive a conversation as if they are being interrogated.

Maybe it’s the intimidation factor of being young and talking with older people in general. Is it having a lack of things to talk about or not knowing what to share or ask? I do give young people credit for being information smart. Once a topic is introduced that they have discussed in school for example, they can readily give you their own take on what was presented and what they think of it. In fact, these moments wash over them like a wave of relief when they can share what they know.

Conversation fundamentally is a two-way interaction. If one person is doing most or all of the answering and one is doing most or all of the questioning, it’s trying on both people; the one to keep coming up with questions and the other to keep answering. There are some things one can do to improve the flow of conversation.

For starters, create an atmosphere or environment where questions and conversation in general is encouraged and safe. If you were hosting a University placement student, you’d do well to introduce them to everyone, and to have told everyone prior to their arrival who they are and to have encouraged everyone to welcome them and make them feel comfortable. It’s hard enough on anyone when you meet many people at once. Having one person specifically prepared to play host also gives the student someone to adhere to and look for support and guidance from.

As a young adult, it’s also good practice to keep up on some current affairs in the news. Being ‘in the know’ about some major news story can readily give you the feeling of inclusion; you’re able to participate from a position of knowledge in a conversation. If you don’t know what’s being discussed, you are again in the position of being informed or taught, and that separates you again from those around you.

Sometimes when I’m sitting with young adults in my workplace, I’ll ask them a question such as, “What would you like to ask me? – no question is too bold or off the table.” This allows them to ask anything, go anywhere, and because the invitation has been extended, the conversation begins. Sometimes it’s a tried and true, rehearsed kind of question like, “How did you get started?” Fair enough. Their young, I was once young and in their shoes, wondering at that time how to get started myself. Be prepared to answer or volunteer this information for a young person.

People generally like to talk about themselves, what interests them and share things they find interesting. One thing a young person can do – all of us in fact – is consciously make an effort to ask about the person we are talking with. If you turn all your conversations back to you and how you are doing, what you are feeling and what you hope to do etc., that gets tiring real fast. It’s important to ask about others, how they are doing, feeling and what they are up to.

You can and should practice just talking. Get beyond one syllable answers and really engage in conversation. Every parent can probably identify with the teen/young adult where the conversation goes like this:
“Did you have a nice day today?”
“Learn anything new?”
“Not really.”
“How are things generally?”
“Fine. I’m going to my room.”

Come to think of it, we can probably remember being on the other end of that conversation too if we are old enough. That wasn’t so much a conversation as it was a mandatory daily interrogation where both parties go through the motions; the parent struggling to engage, the teen or young adult seeking to disengage at the first opportunity without being overtly rude. Neither leaves feeling entirely satisfied.

The world of work demands verbal communication skills. Few people can just turn the art of being a true conversationalist at will like a light switch. You’re going to need to speak with co-workers, clients, customers, your boss, folks in other departments, on the phone, in-person. People skills take time to truly master and the sooner you start, the more you enhance the skill – as with any skill.

Love to hear your thoughts on this.

Help Yourself; Read

We are increasingly moving towards living in a society where we get our information in short bursts; and whether by design or by choice people are reading less and needing to be stimulated more often. If War and Peace burst were to burst on the world stage in 2015 for the first time I have to wonder if the general populace would have the stomach to even do more than flip through it in a bookstore let alone read a few pages and certainly not the complete vast book it is.

We do however an injustice to ourselves if we fail to read and it hampers us unknowingly when we express ourselves either in writing or verbal communication. I’m afraid when it comes to writing cover letters, resumes and being able to effectively market ourselves in job interviews, many find themselves handcuffed and unable to express themselves to the extent they would like to do. Many have lamented, “I know what I want to say, I just can’t get it out.”

Now I am not perfect with respect to written communication, and while seldom at a loss to verbally express myself, there are times when my vocabulary is tested. Yet while I admit such shortcomings, I still assert my communication skills to be a strength of mine in most situations. But this piece is not about me; it is directed at any and all who have lost or never had much interest or love in reading.

Here is the thing; when you read on a regular basis you get introduced to new words and discover their meaning. New words and the order in which they are arranged spark new thoughts, some of which may challenge your beliefs, and from that we grow and learn new things. Reading can spark change, take us to places we otherwise would never go, and even in reading non-job related pieces for sheer pleasure, our own vocabulary expands. The consequence of reading on a regular basis then allows us to better communicate ourselves when in the company of others, and so you come to my point in including this appeal in an effort to help readers of this blog in their job searching and career advancement.

Look around you and you’ll see a generation texting in 140 characters or less using social media. Instead of descriptive words that build a strong vocabulary it is essential to minimize and reduce words to their smallest denominator that still communicate the intended meaning. So words like, ‘you’ become, ‘u’. Phrases such as, ‘laugh out loud’ become, ‘lol’ to use some of the more well-known examples. Rather than berating Twitter and texting in general, for I acknowledge their appeal in marketing to the desires of people who want to say as much by saying less, I applaud on the one hand the skill it takes to communicate thought in those 140 characters.

Ask anyone who enjoys reading to share one of their favourite titles with you. When you ask them why it appeals to them so much, you will likely be told that the writing is vivid, the text rich, the words depict pictures and images in their head which they grasp, and they come to care about the characters, the fate of the protagonist. If it’s a job-related book, they will tell you how it impacted on how they go about their work, gave them pause to re-think the way they did something, or introduced them to new ideas and best practices.

Putting books and the printed word aside for a moment, think too of people you find interesting to listen to or conversely grow weary of as they drone on and on and on in some tiring address. Those of interest capture the listener with stories and examples sprinkled in their talk. Their voices vary in pitch, intensity and volume. When making a speech they need not shout to be heard but hold everyone’s ears with their content, mixing in humourous antidotes, getting serious when needed, and they can evoke laughter and tears with equal acclaim.

I would caution you too that you are in danger of revealing much about yourself whether you intend it or not just in your own choice of words which can limit you or serve you well. It’s true, for our vocabulary often reflects our education level, and in an interview you might wonder why some interviewers will suddenly ask you the name of the most recent book you’ve read. This is not a harmless, random question. It is designed to gauge your interests, your level of comprehension, your literacy and your general commitment to your own development. If you say you aren’t reading anything at present or the last book you read you can’t even remember the title of, well that’s telling on you.

Start with anything that interests you – but read. Be it a fantasy novel, a short story, a daily read of newspapers, blogs, news articles on the web – whatever you find motivates you to read more. Re-introduce yourself to a library if you can’t afford to buy books and have no library of your own. The more you read, the more you may find your spelling improves, your grasp and understanding of words becomes.

You may find in reading more that you gain a stronger ability to communicate and express yourself both in the printed word and in speaking to others. And selling yourself to a potential employer is all about communicating your value!

So What Is, “Active Listening”?

Although the term, ‘active listening’ is not new, unless you are familiar with it, you may not really fully understand or appreciate in full what it is and more importantly why it’s so important.

Active listening is a technique used in communication, especially by Counsellors and those who excel in interpersonal communications. The general premise is that you as the listener check on what you hear to the speaker; doing this by re-stating or paraphrasing what you have heard in words of your own. This confirms the accuracy of what was both said and heard, so both you and the other person have a shared understanding.

The value in this is that for the speaker, they can clarify anything misunderstood or not made clear, and ultimately feel they’ve been accurately heard in full and fully understood. You as the listener also are 100% clear that what you THINK you hear and understand is in fact what was really communicated. And it doesn’t stop at just the words spoken. The very best communicator’s and active listener’s pick up on the non-verbal communication going on which is added to the words they hear. If someone is almost lying down in their chair and propping up their head in their hands but is talking about really being enthusiastic in a slow, monotonous voice, the words and the observable body language don’t support each other, and the active listener would point this out and seek clarity.

So what’s this have to do with you personally? Well like driving a Forklift, mopping a floor, teaching a class or cooking a meal, active listening is a skill. And like any skill, you can have it or not, develop it or not, and ultimately use it or not. But unlike the other examples I mentioned in this paragraph, this skill is transferable and can applied in all interactions with literally everyone you meet, be it at home or work, social or professional gatherings.

Now think of job postings you’ve seen where it says you have to work well with other people. Working well with other people does not mean, “you do your job and shut up and let me do mine.” That’s a direct quote from someone I was discussing the idea of working well with others with not long ago. And like any other skill, the more you use it, the more comfortable you get with it, and the more natural it becomes.

If it helps to illustrate the opposite, think how often you are talking to someone in your own life and pick up signs that they are really listening or they are but don’t really get what you’re saying at all. “Ugh, you don’t understand! You never listen!” is the kind of thing you may recall people saying to you personally, and what they are saying communicating is that you really aren’t actively engaged in listening and sincerely don’t understand. The result is the other person leaves in frustration, and the message they take away is that you either don’t care enough to give them your full attention, or you didn’t really listen.

When listening to someone, a good idea is to minimize distractions so that the only communication you are engaged in at that time is the person speaking. Think of a Counsellor who closes their door to others, turns their chair away from the computer, pulling it up to a comfortable distance sitting facing their client, and leans slightly in so they are fully focused on the person they are seeing. That client gets the message very clearly, “I’m giving you my full attention and ready to listen.” I was out for dinner with four other people last weekend and in noisy restaurant it was impossible to participate much in a conversation going on at the other end of the table. I knew I was only catching bits and pieces, and felt frustrated in not giving my full attention to others when they were speaking – it was hard work!

And here’s the most significant thing to be gained from the practice of active listening. When someone knows they have been heard correctly and understood, they say more, and what they say is usually deeper, more meaningful, and ultimately more beneficial because the layer of trust has been reached. When someone says, “Wow, she’s good, she really listens”, what they are really saying is that the person is an effective active listener. But who says that?

You hear effective active listeners clarify often. “So what I hear you say is…” or “What you’re saying is important and I want to make sure I’ve got it right. You’re saying…” Now of course good listeners don’t want to interrupt and sound like they have hearing issues by constantly saying, “If I hear you correctly…” And a no-no for many people who are openly up is to say, “What you’re really trying to say is…” That projects you as some all-knowing superior being, and suggests the person isn’t expressing themselves well, and you may be right or wrong.

The next time you are having a conversation, really listen to the other person, minimize interruptions and give them your full attention. Check on what you’ve heard, and avoid the temptation of naturally forming what you want to say as soon as the other person gives you an opening. When you check on what you are hearing, you’ll have a solid contribution to add to the conversation.

How good is your 30 Second Commercial?

Go to any networking event, meet anyone new for the first time, and within seconds, you’ll undoubtedly be asked some version of the question, “So what do you do for a living?” The clock starts now, and you’ve got a short period – approximately 30 seconds to explain concisely what it is you do in a way that the other person can make sense of it.

First let’s look at why people generally ask what you do for a living. The most often cited reason is that quite frankly people want to know where you stand in relation to them. Can you be useful to me? Do we share any common areas of interest? If you find you have something in common, it gives you something of mutual interst to continue the conversation. While it’s true that meeting someone who does something completely foreign to you is an opportunity to learn, most people initially find areas of commonality easier and more profitable as a starting place to begin a conversation. For example, if I’m in the business of helping others gain employment, I’m likely interested in meeting with other Employment Counsellors and Career Counsellors and discussing our approaches to helping others through the subject area.

Okay, so having established the reasons behind the reason the question gets asked early in a first meeting, it would seem to be worth thinking about the quality of your answer as you are going to be asked the question frequently. Give an answer that’s too short and concise and people will move on to others if they don’t feel like probing. Here’s a poor example of an exchange:

“So what do you do for a living?” (Genuine interest)

“Oh I’m a plumber.” (Minimum requirement, question answered)

“Nice to have met you” (Conversation over, time to move on to someone else)

A much better respsone to the above would be to indicate your professional role as a plumber but to elaborate and show some enthuisasm for what it is you do, or how it’s unique in some way from other plumbers. Consider this:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“Plumber by trade. My area of expertise is in working with older properties, bringing them up to today’s code requirements while respecting the integrity of century properties”. I take enormous pride in my workmanship, and working within clients budgets. I know folks want service people in and out and they only want the work done once; right the first time. If I’m your plumber, you’ve got one less thing to worry about.”

Now that’s a 30 second pitch! See this question as an opportunity not to be missed to sell yourself. In the above answer you get the profession, attributes of pride, respect for customers, quality work, and you’re left with a snappy closing statement to leave a branding impact on you.

Think about what you do then for a living, and how you can improve your answer to this question. You might find people are more interested in you and your business and they might remember you more. That’s worth something. Never throw away this opportunity to make a solid first impression.

What your words say about YOU

“So, like, I totally thought my last boss was like, well, you know not cool. I mean, am I right? He was so, well, mean! Like, he just isn’t like youse guys, all cool and stuff. So yeah, glad he’s in the rear view mirror.”

“Hmmm….well I think we’ve heard enough to make a decision. We’ll be in touch.”

The words we use to communicate with others often conveys a second message which often becomes the primary message received by those with whom we are talking. The actual message we might want to communicate is understood however, the language, the use of slang, curse, wit, puns, the verbage, the vocabulary also suggests our education level, our intelligence, our upbringing and our professionalism – or lack thereof.

If you want to improve your oral communication skills, there are a number of courses, classes and sources of information, (many of them free) that you can access. Contact school boards for adult education classes and do some academic upgrading, a College, or even look in the phone book under literacy. Organizations such as the John Howard Society often have literacy programs, and if they don’t, they certainly will have a community organizations directory which they will use to find one for you.

I was working recently with a client who used the term, “youse guys” several times in a few sentences. He was surprised to learn that “youse” isn’t an actual word, and when I mentioned this to him, he was grateful to be informed of this. In an interview he had a few days after our conversation, he apparently caught himself about to use the incorrect word a few times, and refrained from doing so. He thanked me afterward and never once did he feel ridiculed or ashamed – all to his credit. I suspect the reason for this is that he realized my intent in pointing this out to him was for his betterment, not my amusement. Accepting advice that is intended to be helpful and well intended is a sign of wisdom and maturity so good for him!

I myself had it pointed out that I used the word ‘irregardless’ from time to time and it should be, ‘regardless’. Oops. We can all learn and that’s a positive thing!

So in your daily conversations, do your best to use proper language. Even if you feel you have the ability to speak eloquently in an interview but outside of it you can revert to slang etc., you might be surprised to find that your language skills either enhance or limit your ability to move up in a company even after you pass probation.

Likewise contain your enthusiam to be bombastic if this applies to you!

Knowing when to be quiet

There is an effective technique that many interviewers use that centers around the use of silence.

 Has this happened to you? You’re in an employment interview and after you’ve given your answer to a question, there is an extended period of silence from the interviewer. This silence is sometimes used by interviewers to purposely create tension; to gauge your reaction to a stressful situation so they can actually see first hand how you will react. Other times, the interviewer is collecting their thoughts, mulling over your last response, internally checking to make sure they have correctly heard what you have just said, digesting your answer as it were.

There’s nothing worse than feeling your anxiety rise in response to the stress, and then just as the interviewer appears to be ready to ask another question, your mouth opens and a, “and” or a “um”…. comes out. Now you’re backed into a corner of your own creation, as the interviewer posies their pen ready to right down the next insightful comment you make – and you’ve got nothing. You couldn’t outwait the interviewer and now have to wing it, trying to dig deep into your past experiences to come up with another example to support your last point, or even perhaps another way of answering the question last asked. If only you could have relied on your first answer and outwaited the interviewer!

This, “gotcha” moment can be avoided if you first do a few things and learn to trust in a process. First of all, do your homework and know both yourself and the position you are applying for. Standard stuff really, but know how your skills and personal attributes will fit with the company. Secondly, listen to the question and give your brain a moment to reflect on the question asked and then the various options for choosing the answer the question. Once you have decided how to answer the question, proceeed with confidence. When you have said what you wanted to say, fight the urge to add a few things more, and exhale slowly.

If you do think of something that is critical to add to your answer, then allow it to appear as if you were giving the interviewer a moment to complete writing what you’ve just said earlier, and avoid starting your next point with the dreaded, “uh” or “um”. In other words disguise your next and last point as having always been intended to be shared, not just thought up on the spot under pressure.

Sometimes you may be able to gauge the strength of your answer from the reaction of the interviewer via a smile, a wink, a nod, a laugh. Sometimes interviewers keep the expected answers close to their chest giving away nothing. Either way, don’t get distracted from your main focus of intelligently answering questions asked with confidence, a smile, some enthusiasm, and do your best to project an image of that of someone who will be a nice addition to the company you are applying to work for.

Knowing when to stop talking is just as effective as what you DO say.