One Secret The Best Communicators Understand.

This post can now be seen, along with new content, on Frances Evesham's Blog.

I can hear you sigh: if only there was one simple rule for good communication skills. One cast-iron guaranteed way you can find the right thing to say to help you get that job, deal with your teen’s sulks, know when to argue and recognise when to apologise.

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Well, worry no more. There’s one communication skill that outweighs all the practice in the world in making eye contact, nodding and matching people’s leg-crossings.

Not that those things don’t help you communicate better, of course. They do. But they work because of this one special gift we can all share.

Have you guessed it yet?

Ok, for those of you who didn’t already scan down the page to peek, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy. The big E.

The magic silver bullet you need to succeed. 

Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, understand his point of view and imagine what he’s thinking. Or, as Native Americans (possibly) have said, “to walk a mile in another man's moccasins.” Or woman's, obviously.

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When you understand the person you're talking to, you can tailor your messages to suit them. If they're cross, you may use a calm voice to deflect their anger. If they're worried, you could ask what's wrong, or if they're anxious, you may want to offer support.

Now I hear you wonder why, if this fabulous gift is out there and free of charge, we aren’t all grabbing it and working our silver-tongued magic on everyone from the car salesman to our toddler with a tantrum.

The answer is that although some degree of empathy seems to be hard-wired in our brains, making use of it is a skill, and like any skill, it takes hard work and practice to grow it. Lots of practice. Plus determination, focus, time, effort and all the other difficult stuff you thought you could leave behind when you left school.

Oh, I feel your pain (laughs cruelly). You thought it was going to be easy.

On the other hand, you can work on it while you watch TV, trawl through Twitter and flirt with Facebook.

When you feel empathy, when you understand the way the other person thinks, you react in a way that means something to them. In the simplest terms, it means you don’t laugh when someone tells you their cat died. You may be a dog person, and think all cats are witches’ familiars, but you know enough about the cat’s owner to feel at least a little of their sorrow.

Obligatory cat picture © Marilyn Barbone | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Empathy comes more easily to some than to others, like all human traits.Work to improve your empathy and you’ll find your communication skills develop automatically.

Find out what other people feel and think by watching them and listening to them. Their body language gives you plenty of clues. Here are a few hints:

1              She tends to look at the floor rather than at you: she’s paying attention to how she feels inside, she may be shy, not confident, may even be upset.

2              He makes great eye contact: he feels happy, confident and friendly.

3              She folds her arms: whoops, she’s anxious or nervous, or wants you to keep your distance.

4              He strokes his hair or touches his face: he cares what you think about him.

5              She speaks in a high voice: she’s nervous, or likes to be like a little girl (think Minnie Mouse).

There are hundreds of types of body language. Don’t forget to watch conversations between others or on the screen to pick up some clues. Learn to recognise ‘tells’: the tiny movements or the eyes, or hands, or facial muscles people use that give them away when they’re nervous, telling lies or trying to sell you something. That’s how poker players operate.

Once you see how someone feels it’s far easier to talk to her.

Why not do a spot of people-watching, next time you’re on the bus or in a restaurant?

What have you noticed people doing that gives you a clue about them? I’d love to hear your stories.

Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses: Tiptoe Through the Minefield of Non Verbal Communication

This post can be seen on the new Frances Evesham's Blog along with new content.

Around the world, we smile, hug and kiss, shake hands or bow when we meet. Our arms, bodies, voices and faces all have a role to play in meeting and greeting. How strange that we behave so differently, depending where we live.
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It's easy to undermine our communication messages if we don't take care. For example, Mary thinks hugs are warm and cosy. She throws her arms round someone when she's pleased to see them, because she loves them, or maybe wants to comfort them. Sadly, though, as a serial hugger she doesn't always realise when the huggee is uncomfortable.

When she hugged Diane, her cousin stood still and stiff, waiting awkwardly until she finished. It wasn't because she doesn't like Mary. It's just that people don’t behave like that where she comes from. She'd have preferred a simple smile.

Learn a little about the culture of the person you greet. The Chinese, says blogger Hsin-Yi, don’t hug. They prefer to nod and smile, even when greeting an old and close friend after years of absence. Even fond mothers don’t hug their daughters, but show their love in practical ways, like in the food they cook.

In South America, on the other hand, hugging’s just not quite enough.  Warm and friendly, Brasilians and Argentinians like to plant a couple of warm kisses on your cheek, along with a hug and a pat on the back. Men kiss men there, so northern Europeans may have to deliver something more than their usual handshake, brief eye contact or (very) restrained hug. 

In other parts of Europe, the French and Belgians kiss once, twice or three times on the cheek, depending on familiarity or even the part of the country. Walk into a room here and you’ll find yourself passing from one person to the next, kissing each cheek separately. 

Helpful hint: try putting your left cheek forward first when you kiss to avoid untidy nose-bumps.

Northern Europeans may prefer the sort of hug that makes sure no body parts actually touch, or the “mwa-mwa” air kiss. Without the body contact, it’s often eye contact and a warm smile that shows you care. You could try the politician's favourite handshake, where you clasp the other person’s hands with both of yours, or grab their forearm at the same time, but beware of seeming controlling or condescending.

Maybe the Maoris in New Zealand manage things best with their Hongi, where they touch noses and breathe together. 

If you go to Japan, learn to bow politely, or in India you may need to touch an older relative’s feet in order to show real respect.

Your best bet is to research the country you visit carefully before you go, then spend some time people-watching when you arrive, so you can see how most people behave.

More Communication blogs:

How To Make Friends When You're Shy

How To Be an Introvert

Verbal and Non Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Golden Rules 

Five Fictional Heroes

The best fictional characters jump off the page. Full of charisma, they have a little quirk or two and maybe a fatal flaw. Who cares what they look like? Your imagination fills that in for you. Start a conversation about your favourite novel or fictional hero, though, and you may be surprised at how much you disagree with other people.

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Whether you swoon over Mr Darcy or adore Jack Reacher, maybe it’s worth wondering why he appeals so much to you. It could tell you something about your own personality and values.

Here are five male characters from fiction: do you love them or hate them?

Mr Darcy
No matter how hard I try, I do not like this Pride and Prejudice hero. He may be strong, have hidden depths of kindness and generosity, but I can never forgive him for his rudeness to Elizabeth Bennett at the Ball. Not only does he say she is not handsome enough to tempt him, but he also has no interest in women “slighted by other men.”

Now, I don’t mind him holding those views, but I do mind him talking about them in a voice loud enough for other people to hear. To me, that is cruel and unforgiveable. No amount of kindness to his sister, or even to Elizabeth’s family, is enough to make me forget that, in his heart, he does not care whether he hurts someone’s feelings.

Anyone who has ever suffered the indignity of being a wallflower at the dance, even if it was only for ten minutes, will know what I mean.

Mr Micawber
 I love this Dickens character, from David Copperfield. He is foolish, lazy and selfish,    but I forgive him everything because of his optimism. The glass is always about to  overflow, until disaster strikes. Yet, he bounces back. Something will always “turn up.”
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

My finances, like his, rely heavily on something turning up.

Jack Reacher
I feel no need to care for Lee Child’s hero. He likes himself enough for both of us. The books are fun, though.

George Smiley
John Le Carre’s fictional spy is so sad, my heart goes out to him. He’s too clever for his own good, he’s married to a rich woman who deserts him and he has no problem with killing people. I think it’s maybe the spectacles that I love. Thank you, science, for contact lenses.

Lucky Jim
Is it possible not to identify with Kingsley Amis’s downtrodden loser? As he lurches from one disaster to another, he fights intellectual snobbery. I cheer for him as he wins tiny childish battles against authority by making faces behind his boss’s back. I defy anyone who has ever done that to fail to identify with Jim.   

What does all this say about me? That I admire kindness, self-control, optimism, childish humour and the valiant underdog.I hate cruelty, self-love and snobbery.

How about you?

Writing your own fiction? Here's what Novel Writing Help has to say about creating characters.

How to be an Introvert

Jane Austen understood the power of the quiet person. Anne Elliot, her heroine in Persuasion, sits in the background to play the piano while the extroverts dance, but the hero finally learns to appreciate her quiet depths. If you find it exhausting to be part of a noisy group, or wonder how other people manage to tell anecdote after story, making the room rock with laughter, you may be an introvert, too.  
An introvert's picture of bliss? Dreamstime Stock Photo

As an introvert you may find reflection and calm more energising than the liveliness of social interaction. Not all introverts are the same. Andy longs for a remote island where he can think in peace while Mike thoroughly enjoys a drink with a few friends, and even loves a party – so long as he can take some time out to recharge his batteries alone later. You may be easily over-stimulated by noise or flashing lights and prefer to work in a silent room. Maybe you turn the TV off, for the peace, while your partner turns it on for the company.

Introverts make a difference
Whatever your preference, remember it’s OK to sit and think. Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, urges you to let go of your guilt. Although today’s world seems to value fast talkers and people who think on their feet, there’s a place for those who inhabit the other end of the spectrum. Einstein, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and Warren Buffet are all introverts who have made a significant difference to the world.

Beware of over-thinking. That can be an introvert’s curse. You may love Facebook. because it gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you want to say before posting your comments. On the other hand, you may never post at all if you consider your words so carefully that you tweak them for days, until they're no longer relevant. A would-be author can fail to get beyond writing chapter one, by spending every minute of his writing time perfecting the first 3,000 words.

How others see you
Ask an extrovert what she thinks, and you may be surprised by the way she views you. “James sits quietly through a whole meeting, then says something so profound that we all have to stop and rethink,” remarked one of James’ colleagues. Another self-avowed extrovert, Terry, said she was terrified of the introverts at work because they seemed to her to be sitting silently and judging her.

Team work
Jane, a cheerful, noisy talker, said she wished her quieter colleague, Sarah, would say something (anything) to her so they could get a dialogue going. She likes to hone her ideas aloud, while Sarah prefers to think things through and only speak when she feels she has something useful to say.

Would Jane and Sarah make a great team, or should they keep away from each other and stick with work colleagues who work in a similar way?

Does society need people from across the whole spectrum, from the wildest rock-star extrovert to the silent monk in a priory, or should quiet people make more of an effort to make themselves heard?

I write this Communication Blog

My photo

Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.

I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.

I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.