Enhancing Communication Skills

By | November 8, 2004

An insurance agency’s main function is to serve as the conduit to collect and transmit information between insurance companies and their clients. In other words, communication is what an agency produces and sells. So having great communications skills will help make one successful in this industry.

Communications skills are important
The purpose of communication is to get your message across to others. This process involves a sender, a receiver and some mode of transmissions (verbal, written, physical, etc.) and leaves room for error. Messages are often misinterpreted, which causes confusion, hostility, false expectations and counter productivity. A message is only successful when both the sender and the receiver perceive it in the same way.

Despite of the increasing importance placed on communication skills, many individuals continue to struggle with the inability to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectivelywhether in verbal or written format. Poor communication skills make it nearly impossible to compete effectively in the workplace and prevent career progression.

There are three key presuppositions that are the foundation of understanding communications.

First, every person will have his or her own experience about reality. They may choose to share this experience with others through language or other modes of communication.

Second, the meaning of our communication is the response we get. In any interaction there is the intent of the communicator and the response it elicits. The meaning of the communication is not the intent, but the response.

Third, communication is redundant. Words are just one mode. There are visual cues, tonal cues and physical cues in all communication. In fact, one study demonstrated that words are only 7 percent of communication! The tone of voice is about 38 percent and body gestures are about 55 percent of communication. On the telephone, words become 27 percent and voice tones a whopping 73 percent of communications.

Barriers to communication
Communication barriers can exist at every stage of the communication process. Barriers come from the sender sending mixed signals, senders offering too much information too fast or poor interpretation of feedback. Effective communicators lessen the frequency of these barriers at each stage of this process. It is important that both the sender and receiver take responsibility for effective communication.

As the sender, one needs to establish credibility. In the business arena, this involves displaying subject knowledge, understanding the audience and the context in which the message is delivered. If one has a great message yet considered not credible, the message will be lost or diminished.

The message, whether written, oral or nonverbal communications will also be influenced by the tone, organization, what is communicated and what is left out. Screaming at someone to say hello will draw a poor response, just as mumbling a caution to someone in danger. The sender needs to use the most effective way to communicate to the receiver.

When a message is delivered to a receiver the sender often will expect a variety of reactions with the hope of getting the most favorable one for their intent. However, the receiver enters into the communication process with his or her own interpretation, experience, ideas and feelings that will influence their understanding of the message. This will dictate their response, which can often be different from the expected response. When the sender ignores or misinterprets the response, miscommunication occurs and barriers are built.

Nonverbal communication
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you “say” it. Nonverbal cues are very powerful. Remember 93 percent of communication doesn’t come from words. In addition to the tone of voice, the cadence and speed of speaking, the sender needs to be aware of communication through eyes, gestures, posture and appearance.

The sender needs to be mindful of his or her own nonverbal cues. In American culture, there is a common understanding of most nonverbal cues. But keep in mind some people will always have a different interpretation. People from other cultures often have a big difference in opinion on nonverbal cues. And be aware of other people’s personal space. Do not invade their personal space by getting too close and do not confuse communications by trying to exchange messages from too far away.

Building rapport
Rapport is the essential prerequisite for successful communication. When a condition of rapport exists, the possibility for respect, regard and influence increases. This is the “carrier wave” phenomenon. Rapport is the medium through which communication and connection can occur.

Rapport is neither the ability to be sympathetic, nor does it mean being liked (although sympathy and pleasant interactions are often erroneously taken as evidence of being in rapport), but is the ability to symmetrically respond to another person’s model of the world.

Rapport is a relationship based on understanding, appreciation and respect. It is a gift of the possibility for communication, freely offered from one human being to another. No two people understand the same word, same sentence, same movement, or same behavior in the same way. Nevertheless, we constantly apply our own concepts when understanding the meaning of another’s experience and behavior.

Each person is an individually organized “reality.” There are no two people with the same reality. People’s concepts of reality are usually out of conscious awareness. In order to understand another person from their point of view, people must be able to walk in their model of the world, i.e., pace their experience.

Two ways to enhance rapport are mirroring, matching and backtracking. If a person is really in sync with someone else, they automatically start moving in the same way and may catch themselves matching body positioning, tone and even speed of communication.

When a person is not in rapport with someone, especially in a sales situation or a difficult employee situation, matching body positioning (as if they were looking in a mirror) and slowing down their speed and matching tones will greatly increase the likelihood of an increased feeling of ease with the person they are communicating with.

Also, doing backtracking, which is saying their exact words back to them, especially when uncovering the other person’s needs, will make them feel they are truly “heard” versus putting personal interpretations and spin on what they are saying. It makes listening a true job, but is well worth the other person’s good feeling of being listened to.

Matching breathing is powerful, but at first very difficult to do. Matching breathing automatically helps match energy levels and build rapport.

Pacing and matching voice tones, speed and quality (resonance) for rapport are especially powerful on the telephone. Matching voices simply means to sound similar to the other person and speak at their speed, tone and volume.

Match a person’s “chunk size.” Some people are really big thinkers. They think and talk in increasingly global and abstract terms of the big picture and the whole story. Their statements are often ambiguous and general.

On the other hand, there are detail people. These people cover all the facts, needed or not. Talking in small concrete details to big thinkers will not build rapport, the same as being abstract with a detail thinker. They just can’t perceive or process concepts at that size.

Chunking for rapport means matching the size of people’s conceptual processing and thinking at their level of detail.

Communication rule
Each agency should have the following basic rule regarding communication. Each person is responsible for the proper, timely and efficient transfer of his or her communication. The staff is not off the hook because they were afraid to talk to management or that their issues did not matter. Management is not excused because they did not have the time to listen to staff, properly analyze the issue or provide resolution to a problem. Management needs to have an open door policy to hear what employees have to say.

Set aside a specific time for meetings and regular communications. This allows time for everyone involved to prepare. Keep in mind that listening is oftentimes a much more productive form of communication than talking.

In Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” he discusses how it is important to “win people to your way of thinking.” Don’t force your ideas on others. Pay attention to nonverbal cues and barriers that might be forming. Use mirroring, matching and backtracking for an improvement in rapport and enhanced communications with others almost instantly. The key to being a good manager is to be a master communicator.

Bill Schoeffler and Catherine Oak are partners in the consulting firm, Oak & Associates.The firm spe-cializes in financial and management consulting for independent insurance agents and brokers. They can be reached at (707) 935-6565, bill@oakandassociates.com, or www.oakandassociates.com.

About Catherine Oak

Oak is the founder of the consulting firm, Oak & Associates, based in Northern California and Central Oregon. Oak & Associates. Phone: 707-935-6565. Email: catoak@gmail.com. More from Catherine Oak

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Insurance Journal West November 8, 2004
November 8, 2004
Insurance Journal West Magazine