Business conversation between male and female walking along curved glass corridor.

How to feel elated by gaining better skills in important business conversations

By following the guidance in this article, you will feel elated by gaining better skills in important business conversations that will shape your future career path. These skills are easy for you to gain and to practice so you are well prepared to make the most of future situations.

This article is adapted from a Harvard Business Review article, “How to become a supercommunicator at work,” ($) by Charles Duhigg, published in February 2024, and the transcript of a McKinsey interview, “Author talks: Charles Duhigg on how the best communicators ‘click’,”  (subscription) in March 2024. In this article, we look at the advice, based on social research, of this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer on how we can start influencing better outcomes from conversations with our important stakeholders at work and generally within our lives.

“More than 75% of people report being nervous in high-stakes communication, be it planned or spontaneous.” Nevertheless, during your career, it is extremely important for you to communicate effectively in business conversations with your boss, with organizational higher-ups, your peers, your team members, and with your numerous other stakeholders – above and below. We all know from our own experience that many people are poor conversationalists. This reduces their effectiveness at work and their career prospects. However, nearly anyone can learn better skills for important business conversations.

For three years in preparation for his article, Duhigg “explored new communication research and talking to scholars” in social psychology. He concluded that taking the following key steps will enable you to become a ‘supercommunicator’:

  • Step 1. Prepare before a conversation.
  • Step 2. Ask deep questions during a conversation.
  • Step 3. Ask (and answer) follow-up questions throughout.

A real-life example: Earlier in my career, I accomplished Step 1 without even realizing. I was Corporate Affairs Manager with a hydro-electric authority that was responsible to the federal government office in the capital city about 90 minutes away along the highway. My boss, the Commissioner, and I were both due to attend separate meetings in that city at the same time, so he proposed that I go with him on the trip. I was pleased to do this (with a little trepidation) because it would give me a virtually uninterrupted 90 minutes of access to him in his busy schedule. So, I prepared a list of topics I needed to discuss with him, and discreetly referred to the list during the drive.

The drive with him went really well because our conversation, including some small talk, cemented our working relationship, and we covered a lot of ground in my agenda list (and along the highway!) because we were on a similar wavelength with the various topics we discussed. So I felt very pleased with the experience. This rare occasion has since stayed in my mind about the importance of preparing ahead and making the most of relationship skills in important business conversations.

Face-to-face conversations satisfy a fundamental human need

Most of us know that when we maintain good eye contact in conversations, we relate better to each other. Also, Duhigg notes that when we align with the language that a conversation partner uses, such as their word choices, pronunciation, and word order, this mirroring of behavior usually leads to a successful conversation or working well together. Such alignment is an important part of human communication.

Mirroring words and body language

Research on non-verbal communication has found that mirroring a person’s words and body language increases rapport dramatically.

Mirroring is the subconscious behavior that copies someone else during communication with them – in displaying similar postures, gestures, or tone of voice. It may include imitating gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, pace of delivery, accent, attitude, choice of words, metaphors, or other features apparent in an interpersonal exchange.

Mirroring gestures is an important factor in non-verbal behavior. Research by Constanza Navaretta from the University of Copenhagen, published in 2020, found that “20-30% of the head movements, facial expressions and body postures are mirrored…in first encounters,..while there are only few occurrences of mirrored hand gestures.” The conversations analyzed comprised 12 x 5-minute conversations between two people each time. Each person participated in two meetings – one with a male and one with a female. There were six male and six female participants, which is a very small number. The conclusions are definitely indicative, but would probably need to be supported by larger studies.

Mirroring happens very naturally when people are speaking. A listener will typically smile or frown or nod their head along with the speaker. Mirroring helps to show empathy. People who have lost most of an accent over time when they have moved away from their home town, will quite often find they are speaking more in that accent when they chat with someone from those earlier days (my wife does that with her sister!).

Some advice: Intentionally mirroring facial expressions may be less effective because these expressions change more quickly than body movements and behaviors. Therefore, trying to focus on and copy someone’s quickly changing and subtle facial expressions may make your response more noticeable.

Please note if you intend to mirror someone’s behavior to some extent when you consider they are important to you, be very careful not to attract their attention to your own behavioral response when you do it – so, do it gently!  If they think you are doing this as deliberately manipulative behavior, they will understandably take offense. Also, if the previous attitude of the person conversing with you has been unfriendly or even possibly unfriendly, then don’t mirror them at all. And don’t mirror negative gestures like crossing your arms. Overall, don’t try to mirror gestures too closely, because it can feel and look contrived. However, if you do realize you are naturally mirroring some aspects of their behavior, allow it to happen.

Read more in my article, “The power of mirroring body language: Building rapport and strengthening relationships,” and also my article, “How to dramatically improve your personal communication [at work].”

On the same wavelength

Duhigg notes that when two people are conversing, their pupils will start to dilate at the same rate, even if they’re separated by thousands of miles and just talking by videoconference. Their breathing patterns and heart rates will start to match each other.

Most importantly, Duhigg notes that the activity inside their brains will become synchronized – ‘on the same wavelength,’ as we say. The goal of this type of personal communication is to respond to feelings or experiences. In a conversation, a person may discuss a feeling, and may hope their conversation partner has that feeling or experience, too – even mildly. When that happens, our brains start acting similarly. That’s how we transmit information to one another. We’re designed to connect that way, and it feels great when it happens.

Three steps to develop better skills in important business conversations

Duhigg says that mastering each of the three steps below can help you become a top communicator — able to get through to almost anyone by gaining better skills in business conversations:

1. Prepare before a conversation

This helps you reduce anxiety about conversing with others. In an experiment, participants were asked to jot down a few topics they would like to discuss ahead of a conversation:

“This exercise took roughly 30 seconds, and often, the topics written down never came up once the conversation started.” But simply preparing a list made conversation go better. There were fewer awkward pauses, less anxiety, and participants said after afterwards they felt more engaged.

You can use this strategy at work before speaking with someone new, particularly if you’re feeling anxious or nervous about the encounter. Apply this in a wide range of circumstances, for example when you’re meeting your new manager, trying to connect with a peer you want to better engage with, or you want to proposed a catch-up with a manager from another department about a joint project.

Just before a conversation starts, think of a few topics you might like to discuss. Both work-related and non-work-related topics are okay. You can keep it general: What your colleague did over the weekend, what they thought about last night’s football match, or what projects they have on their plate at work.

The benefit of this exercise is that even if you never talk about the topics on your list, you have them in mind if your conversation starts to lag. By anticipating what you’ll discuss, you’re more likely to feel confident and prepared to have a useful exchange that impresses the other person. By gaining these better skills in business conversations you will also benefit in your own personal conversations with family and friends.

2. Ask deep questions during your conversation

Business conversationWhen your conversation is underway, raise one or two deep questions to help you get to know your colleague in a meaningful way. According to Duhigg, a deep question asks someone to describe their beliefs, values, and experiences in ways that reveal something about themselves beyond the simple facts of their lives:

It can be as light as “What would be your perfect day?” or as heavy as “What do you regret most?” Some deep questions may not even seem deep at first: “Tell me about your family” or “Why do you look so happy today?” Nonetheless, they are deep because they invite others to explain what makes them proud or worried, joyful or excited.

If you’re struggling to think of a deep question in mid-conversation, remember that nearly any question can be remade into a deep question. Duhigg offers the following suggestions:

  • Question: Where do you live? | Deep question: What do you like about your neighborhood?
  • Question: Where did you work before here? | Deep question: What has been your favorite job so far?
  • Question: Where did you go to college? | Deep question: What was the best part of college?
  • Question: Do you have kids? | Deep question: What’s your family like?
  • Question: How long have you lived here? |Deep question: Where’s the best place you’ve ever lived?

It’s a lot easier to ask a deep question than we think, according to Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago. “Like when I’m on a train, talking with people commuting to work, I might ask them, ‘What do you do for a living?’” “And then I might say, ‘Do you love that job?’ or ‘Do you have something else you dream of doing?’ And right there, you’re two questions in, and you’ve gotten to somebody’s dreams.”

Here are a few prompts to guide you during your own conversations:

  • Ask about someone’s beliefs or values (“How’d you decide to become a teacher?”)
  • Ask someone to make a judgment (“Are you glad you went to law school?”)
  • Ask about someone’s experiences (“What was it like to visit Europe?”)

These kinds of questions don’t feel intrusive. They’re invitations and offer respect to another person to share their beliefs about education, what they value in a job, or reflect on their choices, rather than simply describing their work.

3. Ask follow-up questions

People quite often amaze me with their poor conversation skills. Example: Recently I dropped off my car for its regular mileage service. While I was dealing with a staffer at the counter, I heard the man beside me say to the other staffer that he hadn’t driven his car much lately due to having cancer treatment. His staffer immediately replied, “My dad is recovering from a cancer operation, and he… bla bla bla.” He went on to describe his father’s cancer history without following up in any way to the customer’s personal disclosure. Terrible conversationalist! Just as well the firm is good at servicing cars, or they might have lost the customer.

To keep a conversation going, both parties need to connect. Deep questions are great for strengthening a connection because because they offer an invitation — without overstepping into a demand — for someone to reveal something personal. You can then keep the conversation flowing.

Harvard researchers in 2016 found how best to do this. They found that during successful conversations, people tended to ask each other deep questions, but also: The best conversationalists asked follow-up questions that showed they were listening.

Follow-ups are a signal that you want to know more. They allow self-disclosure without it seeming like narcissism.

One of the Harvard researchers, Michael Yeomans, pointed out that one of the best things about follow-up questions is that they offer us an opportunity to reciprocate. For instance, let’s say your conversation partner finishes answering your deep question, but fails to ask a question in return. You can keep things flowing by answering the same question you have just put to the other person – as it relates to you. Then you can follow up with another deep question.

Try to match the other person’s vulnerability, or openness, and find what you have in common. Even if you come from different backgrounds, you probably share values, beliefs, and experiences.

This is often how we connect with people— by asking someone how they feel about something, and then following up with comments that reveal how we feel from our point of view. Duhigg notes that mastering these new skills:

…can help you build lasting connections with people at all levels of your organization — connections that go a bit deeper than your typical professional relationship… These relationships are critical to increasing your visibility and influence. Ultimately, they can help you grow in or beyond your role.

By learning and applying these better skills in important business conversations you will become more effective in your professional life.

Source

Charles Duhigg is author of Supercommunicators (US$30 at Penguin Random House), and the New York Times bestsellers The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker and was previously a reporter at the New York Times where he won a Pulitzer prize for explanatory reporting.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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