Conversing one-on-one reminds me of writing by hand—they're both modes of communication that have been eroded by the electronic screens that are perpetually in front of our faces. There's an important distinction to be made between these two modes. Poor penmanship is not likely to hurt your career, but poor conversational skills likely will hurt your career, particularly if you classify yourself as a professional communicator.
As a member of PR News' editorial team, I'm lucky enough to have plenty of opportunities to keep my conversational skills fairly sharp. I do use my telephone several times a day in the workplace, usually speaking with presenters for PR News' live events and sometimes even for old-fashioned reporting. At our events I get to practice the art of face-to-face communication with people I don't know, or have met only once or twice. Like playing a musical instrument, you have to keep working at it to be good at it.
While I'm well aware of my own foibles as a conversationalist, lately I've observed some self-defeating tendencies in others. I'm going to mix up some of my own flaws (I'm working on them, I promise!) with some of those I've observed in others, and list them here. Do you recognize any of them in yourself?
Pretending a question wasn't asked in a conversation: Notice that I didn't write "not answering a question directly." Some questions are impertinent or too probing, and even when they're fair questions you might not feel comfortable giving a direct answer. A good conversationalist at least acknowledges the question that has been asked.
Not respecting the other person's time: When asked a question in a conversation, do you have a tendency to ramble? In a business setting it's best to keep your responses brief and to pause often to allow your interlocutor to offer a follow-up question or comment and otherwise redirect the conversation.
Not asking questions: This is a dead giveaway that you're overly focused on yourself and your own concerns.
Asking questions but not listening to the responses: Your interlocutor can see the glazed look in your eyes and can hear, if you're on the phone, your keystrokes.
Sharing personal information about yourself without being prompted to with a business associate or colleague whom you barely know: We've all witnessed conversations in the professional realm that come to an abrupt halt when someone mentions an annoying relative, unfortunate dating experience or minor ailment. It's awkward in the extreme. I'm sorry I even brought it up. Let's move on.
Winging it with gusto when a conversational topic veers into unfamiliar terrain. No one is a master of all fields and topics. You're bound to be led into unfamiliar topics of conversation with virtual strangers in the business world. In such cases, it's best to say little or nothing at all, and simply listen and learn. Nobody likes a know-it-all—in particular, a phony know-it-all flying by the seat of his pants and slinging jargony double-talk.
—Steve Goldstein, Editorial Director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI