What do businesses, everyday people and hostage negotiators all have in common? The answer is a constant need for effective communication.
Recently, I was able to sit down with ex-international hostage negotiator and author of the upcoming book on communication tactics and techniques – Nicky Perfect. Together, we will be revealing the core principles of communication you need to master in order to influence and inform others in business and day-to-day life, especially in today’s virtual world.
Communication is something I think we all take for granted. Most of us think we are pretty good at it and don’t give it much thought at all.
That’s certainly what I thought until I heard what Nicky had to say on the subject:
Lack of communication can lead to crisis
Nicky: “In the 15 years I spent travelling the world, teaching and being involved in national and international negotiations, one of the biggest lessons I learned was that we all have some sort of crisis in our life at some stage. In many cases, this crisis is driven by one fundamental issue – loneliness.
Loneliness, in my experience, is the biggest killer out there. People who have reached the end of their line tend to feel that they can’t talk to anybody about what they are going through, even though a lot of the time they are surrounded by friends and family.
As a result, the feeling of loneliness and despair develops, and they begin to isolate themselves more and more, which leads to awful situations occurring.
In a lot of the hostage situations I worked in, the crimes originated from a fear of loss. This could be the loss of a relationship, loss of a job, house, etc. But whatever it may be, it’s these compounding effects that lead us into an internalising dialogue of turmoil, which means we can no longer see things clearly and start acting out of sorts.”
It seems that, for Nicky, the inability to communicate effectively was an underlying issue in a lot of her cases. However, these are extreme cases. I wanted to find out if there are any parallels between these people at the end of their rope and those who are functional in society. Nicky provided an insightful, and rather alarming, answer:
We make assumptions based on our beliefs
Nicky: “People probably struggle with internal crises a lot more than we realise. I used to think I was a pretty good communicator until I started in negotiation. Once I started, it quickly became clear that every conversation I was having, more or less, was about me and what I believe to be true.
This self-focus occurs naturally in communication because we tend to make assumptions about what’s going on with the other person based on our values, beliefs and experiences. For example, sometimes people’s actions are not congruent with what they are actually saying.
When you walk past somebody in the corridor and ask them how they are doing, sometimes you’ll get a reply of ‘Oh, it’s ok’ or ‘Alright I guess’. Often, we’re so wrapped up in our own world that we move on from that conversation without giving it any more thought.
We’ve learned, especially in UK culture, to put a brave face on and not worry about it, or at least not show that we’re worried about it. As a result, we end up internalising our problem, and that’s when the crisis starts to form.”
There isn’t enough helpful information out there
Knowing that there are a lot of people out there, potentially in a similar crisis to Nicky’s most extreme hostage cases, came as a real shock to me. Throughout the pandemic and the lockdowns we have been facing, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of news or education on how it’s affecting our mental health and what we can do to prevent people from the kinds of crises mentioned above.
Through her book, podcast and business, Nicky has been pioneering new ways to think about how we communicate with each other in order to limit the effects of internalising fears and worries during this pandemic.
With COVID-19 still keeping us in isolation, I asked Nicky for some advice to help each other, and ourselves, in an isolated, virtual world. This is what she said:
Maintaining the human touch – five minutes a day
Nicky: “According to recent research, people are working much longer hours from home. They don’t have that work structure any more, and don’t take the breaks they used to. There is no opportunity to go put the kettle on and have a coffee with somebody, so they do not have that human interaction. Yes, they have Zoom calls, but we are social beings and need human interaction to thrive.
Fortunately, I don’t live on my own, but for those who do, they can go days without ever seeing another human being! They’ll get up, do their Zoom meetings and get to work, which eats, a lot of the time, into their evenings because you can’t go out and have a drink after work. This kind of isolation and loneliness is something we all need to be more aware of.
Whenever you can, it’s important that you are able to have that element of human contact. We need to check in with each other and have those ‘coffee around the watercooler’ conversations as best as possible. When we talk about hostage negotiations, that is an extreme, lifesaving skill, but spending five minutes a day with somebody, and being present for them, can potentially prevent a major crisis from happening too.”
The growing struggle to find time
Nicky’s advice here is all too true, but the sad thing is, even finding five minutes these days is easier said than done. With everyone adjusting to online life, more and more is being packed into our days. We don’t have the downtime of a commute or organised breaks throughout the day; we just keep ploughing on with work.
Nowadays, many people are finding that 10-hour days vanish before their eyes, and we find ourselves in a situation where even a few minutes to have a chat with a fellow human is hard.
This isn’t a good place to be, and we need to make sure that we are both taking the time to check in with others and making the time we have more emotionally rooted.
With this being said, I asked Nicky for some of her expert tips on how to have more meaningful interactions – here’s what she said:
Making an effort to check in
- “If you are leading a team in any way, I’d recommend setting aside 10–15 minutes before each call you have in order to have one-to-one interactions with each person.
- Make taking breaks a natural part of your day. When you do, try to leave the house.
- When speaking to people, look out for signs that something might not be quite right and listen to the emotion that they’re displaying, not just the words they are saying.”
“We give a lot away in how we talk and how we express things. If someone is acting out of character, or perhaps they seem distracted in the meeting, you need to make sure you check in with them.
These days, it’s too easy to not be present. People aren’t naturally very good at listening anyway. That, combined with the distractions of phones, smartwatches, laptops, etc., means we must make more of a concentrated effort to communicate with those around us.
Research has shown that if we spend just 5–15 minutes a day with our child, doing what they want to do without any distractions whatsoever, the child’s behaviour improves, and the parent/child relationship is much stronger.
The same is true for partners. Even if you just spend five minutes a day and be present to listen to them, your relationship will strengthen considerably.”
We need to be able to recognise these benefits and find time to tune in to each other, because normally, as adults, it’s hard to command that kind of attention. We don’t want to seem demanding or needy, so if the other person doesn’t volunteer their attention, it’s easy to see how people can adopt that internalised way of thinking.
Say what you see
Speaking with Nicky made me realise that communicating effectively doesn’t have to be complicated. Even the smallest changes in our daily conversations can make all the difference. Here’s how Nicky explains it:
Nicky: “The most revealing part of a conversation happens at the start, during what I call ‘tip of the iceberg’ conversations. These are the cultural conversations that we have been taught to say, like ‘Hey, how are you?’ and ‘How’s it going?’.
Most of the time, this part of the conversation gets overlooked, but by giving it more attention, we can massively improve the quality of our interactions.
In these situations, I like to use the term ‘Say what you see’. At the start of the conversation, if they say they are ‘fine’ or ‘ok’ you need to find out why they are using those words.
I know a lot of people (especially us Brits) may feel awkward or uncomfortable asking why someone feels only ‘fine’, but the truth is you are unlikely to get an aggressive response by caring. In fact, most people will really appreciate you asking, and it opens up the door to a far more emotionally rooted, meaningful conversation.
So, remember to say what you see, and if something is not right, point it out.
When I was teaching negotiators, I would often have students ask me what to say to somebody who’s standing on top of a building and looks like they’re about to jump.
Well, just like in normal life, if something’s not right, you’ve got to point it out, so my response would be this:
‘We’ve been called because you’re standing on top of this building and it looks like you’re going to jump.’
Say what you see and let them talk about how they are feeling; the results will speak for themselves.
These days, we are so used to not having those open, honest conversations. We find it uncomfortable talking about emotional problems, or we are concerned we might look stupid or embarrass the other person if we are wrong, but that’s not the case.”
Changing our unconscious habits
“Effective communication, like so many other things in life, is a skill. We use it unconsciously so often that when we try and stop and use it consciously, it feels clunky and weird. But the only way we can change this is to stop and reflect on what’s actually happened. You can do this with every single conversation that you have.
Even if you just spend 5–10 minutes a day thinking about the conversations you had, try and highlight where you might have projected all your assumptions onto the conversation without actually checking in to see if you were right or wrong. If you do, you’ll be surprised at how often it happens!”
Don’t go for the quick fix
I think what we have learned here is that we need to resist the urge for a quick fix when it comes to communicating. Making assumptions from our own beliefs is habitual. Even though it may save us time, we need to take a breath from the distractions around us, take a pause, and take the opportunity to prevent a potential crisis from happening.
I hope you enjoyed this blog.
You can listen to the full conversation with Nicky and myself by tuning into my weekly podcast Interviews With Experts.
More to come next week!