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How to Write a Good Report

This short document describes how to write a good report. This is based on common mistakes I have observed over a period of time. While most of the following apply in general, they have been written with BTech/MTech/PhD students in mind.

The comments below apply for course projects, other semester projects, technical reports, theses (BTech/MTech/PhD). That is, technical writing in general. While a google search on the topic may churn out many hits, the following is tailored for IIT (Kanpur) students in particular.

I will first mention some general guidelines, then the structure of the report. Towards the end, I will also describe how to refine your writing, and how to give feedback on others’ writing. Based on these, I will recommend a possible strategy for producing high-quality reports which have high potential for being published.


General Guidelines

These are some general things you should know before you start writing. I will try to answer the questions of the purpose of report writing, and the overall approach as well.

Purpose of a report: writing to be read

A key thing to keep in mind right through your report writing process is that a report is written to be read, by someone else. This is the central goal of report-writing. A report which is written for the sake of being written has very little value.

Before you start writing your report, you need to have in mind the intended audience. In the narrowest of possibilities, your report is meant for reading by yourselves, and by your advisor/instructor, and perhaps by your evaluation committee. This has value, but only short-term. The next broader possibility is that your report is readable by your peers or your juniors down the line. This has greater value since someone else can continue on your work and improve it, or learn from your work. In the best case possibility, your report is of publishable quality. That is, readable and useful for the technical community in general.

Overall approach: top-down

Take a top-down approach to writing the report (also applies to problem solving in general). This can proceed in roughly three stages of continual refinement of details.

  1. First write the section-level outline,
  2. Then the subsection-level outline, and
  3. Then a paragraph-level outline. The paragraph-level outline would more-or-less be like a presentation with bulleted points. It incorporates the flow of ideas.

Once you have the paragraph-level flow of ideas, you can easily convert that into a full report, by writing out the flow of ideas in full sentences.

While doing the paragraph-level outline, think also about (a) figures, (b) tables, and (c) graphs you will include as part of the report at various stages. You will find that many things can be better explained by using simple figures at appropriate places.

Another thing to nail-down while doing the paragraph-level outline is the terminology you will be using. For instance, names of various protocols/algorithms/steps in your solution. Or names/symbols for mathematical notation.

The overall approach also includes multiple stages of refinement, and taking feedback from others (peers/advisor/instructor). I will talk about these in more detail after talking about the overall report structure.


Structure of a report

The following should roughly be the structure of a report. Note that these are just guidelines, not rules. You have to use your intelligence in working out the details of your specific writing.

  • Title and abstract: These are the most-read parts of a report. This is how you attract attention to your writing. The title should reflect what you have done and should bring out any eye-catching factor of your work, for good impact.

    The abstract should be short, generally within about 2 paragraphs (250 words or so total). The abstract should contain the essence of the report, based on which the reader decides whether to go ahead with reading the report or not. It can contain the following in varying amounts of detail as is appropriate: main motivation, main design point, essential difference from previous work, methodology, and some eye-catching results if any.

  • Introduction: Most reports start with an introduction section. This section should answer the following questions (not necessarily in that order, but what is given below is a logical order). After title/abstract introduction and conclusions are the two mainly read parts of a report.

    • What is the setting of the problem? This is, in other words, the background. In some cases, this may be implicit, and in some cases, merged with the motivation below.
    • What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve? This is the problem statement.
    • Why is the problem important to solve? This is the motivation. In some cases, it may be implicit in the background, or the problem statement itself.
    • Is the problem still unsolved? The constitutes the statement of past/related work crisply.
    • Why is the problem difficult to solve? This is the statement of challenges. In some cases, it may be implicit in the problem statement. In others, you may have to say explicitly as to why the problem is worthy of a BTech/MTech/PhD, or a semester project, as the case may be.
    • How have you solved the problem? Here you state the essence of your approach. This is of course expanded upon later, but it must be stated explicitly here.
    • What are the conditions under which your solution is applicable? This is a statement of assumptions.
    • What are the main results? You have to present the main summary of the results here.
    • What is the summary of your contributions? This in some cases may be implicit in the rest of the introduction. Sometimes it helps to state contributions explicitly.
    • How is the rest of the report organized? Here you include a paragraph on the flow of ideas in the rest of the report. For any report beyond 4-5 pages, this is a must.

    The introduction is nothing but a shorter version of the rest of the report, and in many cases the rest of the report can also have the same flow. Think of the rest of the report as an expansion of some of the points in the introduction. Which of the above bullets are expanded into separate sections (perhaps even multiple sections) depends very much on the problem.

  • Background: This is expanded upon into a separate section if there is sufficient background which the general reader must understand before knowing the details of your work. It is usual to state that “the reader who knows this background can skip this section” while writing this section.

  • Past/related work: It is common to have this as a separate section, explaining why what you have done is something novel. Here, you must try to think of dimensions of comparison of your work with other work. For instance, you may compare in terms of functionality, in terms of performance, and/or in terms of approach. Even within these, you may have multiple lines of comparison — functionality-1, functionality-2, metric-1, metric-2, etc.

    Although not mandatory, it is good presentation style to give the above comparison in terms of a table; where the rows are the various dimensions of comparison and the columns are various pieces of related work, with your own work being the first/last column. See the related work section of my PhD thesis for an example of such a table :-).

    While in general you try to play up your work with respect to others, it is also good to identify points where your solution is not so good compared to others. If you state these explicitly, the reader will feel better about them, than if you do not state and the reader figures out the flaws in your work anyway :-).

    Another point is with respect to the placement of related work. One possibility is to place it in the beginning of the report (after intro/background). Another is to place it in the end of the report (just before conclusions). This is a matter of judgment, and depends on the following aspect of your work. If there are lots of past work related very closely to your work, then it makes sense to state upfront as to what the difference in your approach is. On the other hand, if your work is substantially different from past work, then it is better to put the related work at the end. While this conveys a stronger message, it has the risk of the reader wondering all through the report as to how your work is different from some other specific related work.

  • Technical sections: The main body of the report may be divided into multiple sections as the case may be. You may have different sections which delve into different aspects of the problem. The organization of the report here is problem specific. You may also have a separate section for statement of design methodology, or experimental methodology, or proving some lemmas in a theoretical paper.

    The technical section is the most work-specific, and hence is the least described here. However, it makes sense to mention the following main points:

    • Outlines/flow: For sections which may be huge, with many subsections, it is appropriate to have a rough outline of the section at the beginning of that section. Make sure that the flow is maintained as the reader goes from one section to another. There should be no abrupt jumps in ideas.
    • Use of figures: The cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words” is appropriate here. Spend time thinking about pictures. Wherever necessary, explain all aspects of a figure (ideally, this should be easy), and do not leave the reader wondering as to what the connection between the figure and the text is.
    • Terminology: Define each term/symbol before you use it, or right after its first use. Stick to a common terminology throughout the report.
  • Results: This is part of the set of technical sections, and is usually a separate section for experimental/design papers. You have to answer the following questions in this section:

    • What aspects of your system or algorithm are you trying to evaluate? That is, what are the questions you will seek to answer through the evaluations?
    • Why are you trying to evaluate the above aspects?
    • What are the cases of comparison? If you have proposed an algorithm or a design, what do you compare it with?
    • What are the performance metrics? Why?
    • What are the parameters under study?
    • What is the experimental setup? Explain the choice of every parameter value (range) carefully.
    • What are the results?
    • Finally, why do the results look the way they do?

    The results are usually presented as tables and graphs. In explaining tables and graphs, you have to explain them as completely as possible. Identify trends in the data. Does the data prove what you want to establish? In what cases are the results explainable, and in what cases unexplainable if any?

    While describing a table, you have to describe every row/column. And similarly while describing a graph, you have to describe the x/y axes. If necessary, you have to consider the use of log-axes.

    If you are presenting a lot of results, it may be useful to summarize the main take-away points from all the data in a separate sub-section at the end (or sometimes even at the beginning) of the results section.

  • Future work: This section in some cases is combined along with the “conclusions” section. Here you state aspects of the problem you have not considered and possibilities for further extensions.

  • Conclusions: Readers usually read the title, abstract, introduction, and conclusions. In that sense, this section is quite important. You have to crisply state the main take-away points from your work. How has the reader become smarter, or how has the world become a better place because of your work?


Refinement

No report is perfect, and definitely not on the first version. Well written reports are those which have gone through multiple rounds of refinement. This refinement may be through self-reading and critical analysis, or more effectively through peer-feedback (or feedback from advisor/instructor).

Here are some things to remember:

  • Start early, don’t wait for the completion of your work in its entirety before starting to write.
  • Each round of feedback takes about a week at least. And hence it is good to have a rough version at least a month in advance. Given that you may have run/rerun experiments/simulations (for design projects) after the first round of feedback — for a good quality report, it is good to have a rough version at least 2 months in advance.
  • Feedback should go through the following stages ideally: (a) you read it yourself fully once and revise it, (b) have your peers review it and give constructive feedback, and then (c) have your advisor/instructor read it.

Feedback: evaluating someone else’s report

Evaluation of a report you yourself have written can give benefits, but it usually is limited. Even in a group project, it is not good enough to have one person write the report and the other person read it. This is because all the group members usually know what the project is about, and hence cannot critique the paper from outside.

It is best to take feedback from your peer (and of course return favours!). The feedback procedure is quite simple. The one reading has to critically, and methodically see if each of the aspects mentioned above in the “structure of the report” are covered. It may even help to have a check-list, although with experience this becomes unnecessary.

  • Check if the title/abstract make sense, are effective/eye-catching.
  • Are all the relevant questions answered in the introduction?
  • Is the overall structure of the rest of the sections meaningful?
  • Is the difference from related/past work crisp and meaningful?
  • Are the technical sections understandable? Are the figures/tables explained properly? Is the terminology clear? Are the symbols used defined appropriately?
  • Are the results explained properly? Are the conclusions drawn from the graphs/tables sound? Or are there technical holes/flaws? Do the results show how the work presented is better/worse that the other cases of comparison?

When I give feedback on a peer’s report or a student’s report, I usually take a print-out and mark-up at various points in the paper. You may follow a similar procedure, or something suited to you. Be as critical as possible, but with the view that your peer has to improve his/her work, not with the view of putting him/her down. Your comments have to be impersonal. Likewise, while taking feedback from a peer, take the comments on their technical merit.


Recommended strategy for producing a high-quality report

Based on the above, I recommend the following strategy for students who want to produce a high-quality report, which would then have a high potential for being turned into a publication:

  • Think through the outline of the report even as you are working on the details of the problem. Such thinking will also lend focus to your work and you will end up optimizing the returns on the time invested.
  • Two months before the actual deadline, you have to have at least a paragraph-level outline of the report, with all details worked out.
  • After one round of critical analysis by yourselves (or by your group), have another student or another group review it, perhaps in exchange for you reviewing their work. Have them check your flow of ideas. While it may be good to get someone working in the same area, for much of the feedback, this may not really be necessary.
  • Now you are probably about 6-7 weeks from the deadline. At this point, have your advisor/instructor give feedback on the paragraph-level outline. Getting this early is important since, based on this, you may have to reorganize your report, rework your theorems, or rerun your experiments/simulations.
  • Have a pre-final version of the report ready 2 weeks before the deadline. Again, go through one round of self/peer-feedback, and then advisor/instructor feedback.
  • With these 3-4 rounds of revision and critical analysis, the quality of your report is bound to improve. And since many of the student theses are of good quality, quality of writing dramatically improves chances of publication.

 

http://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/braman/students/good-report.html


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How to Prepare for a College Exam

College students are a diverse bunch. Some are noted for their devotion to academia but others (the larger half), call to mind images of wild fraternity parties, baseball caps, skipped classes and fleece pants. These two groups of students, however dissimilar, have one common challenge ahead of them—college exams.

The truth is that even in your last year of college, the announcement of a test, exam, final, or quiz (the most jarring of all), is disconcerting for slackers and committed students alike. If a test is looming in your future, whether it is two weeks or two hours before, you can take control of the outcome by using the right study strategies. Throughout my own college career I have tackled exams using every tactic in the book—from taking the exam cold turkey (not the most successful approach), to pulling an all nighter and even sometimes, studying for weeks in advance.

Whether you are an A type student (the punctual kind who writes everything down in a little black planner, never misses an exam, and showers on test day) or a B type student (the antithesis of A who rarely graces lectures and doesn’t carry a little black planner) these study tips can help you prepare for even the most loathsome of college exams by beginning on the first day of class.

Exam preparation begins on the first day of class

This is one of the most important pieces of information for a college freshman to understand. On most college level exams everything mentioned in class is fair game. It’s not uncommon for a question like—what’s your professors favorite tie?—to appear as an extra credit question on an exam. Every class that you attend, assignment you complete, and contribution that you make in lecture will help prepare you for any questions that may appear on an exam in the future. Throughout the semester you are adding to your base of knowledge in a variety of subjects. When answering an essay question, information that you may have considered irrelevant can be used to support your thesis and to demonstrate that you have been involved in the class. The more involved you are in lectures the less information you will have to cram the day before the exam.

What topics does your professor appear most enthusiastic about?

All professors have a favorite topic. Not surprisingly, this topic usually makes up a significant portion of any exam that your instructor administers. I would suggest keeping a list of the topics that your professor spends an excessive amount of time exploring. This will help you remember the most important highlights of the class when the time comes to prepare for an exam.

Hold on to your syllabus

Too many times when preparing for an exam I discovered that I had lost my course syllabus—big mistake. This is arguably one of the most important sheets of paper that your instructor will give you. A syllabus will help you organize the information as you take it in and give you an idea about what topics will be emphasized on the exam. When it comes to preparing for the test, your syllabus will create a study guide for you. As the class progresses, add a few notes to your syllabus. Circle books, topics, and themes which are likely to appear on an exam.

Participate in class

Not only does participation help you get closely acquainted with course material, but it also shows the professor that you are interested in his class. In college, it can seem as though professors don’t even notice when you show up for class. Don’t let them fool you, they notice, and your test grade usually reflects this. Any teacher that doesn’t use a blind grading system, though he may not acknowledge it, is influenced by personal bias. By participating in class you can ensure that your involvement and commitment to the course is recognized.

Keep copies of quizzes, essay questions, papers etc.

I have found that most papers handed out during class come in handy when preparing for an exam. Storing such handouts in a folder is another step that will help you develop and efficient study routine. Additionally, quizzes typically test your knowledge of a topic that the professor really thinks you need to know. Whatever the topic, if it’s significant enough to appear on a quiz alone, it will most certainly appear on your exam.

 

 

How to listen attentively in class?

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Do you ever find yourself nodding off in class? Are you tempted to skip class because you get so little from it anyway? Maybe, too, you find at test-taking time that the instructor asks you about information you’ve never heard of. It’s very likely that the material was presented during those days when you simply tuned out the lecture. So, what can you do about it?

You may choose to listen attentively. Listening is a process of patience as the human brain works about four times as fast as the mouth, and to listen effectively requires considerable self-control. There are many techniques for developing and maintaining the self-discipline needed for attentive listening. Here are several techniques:

1. DEVELOP A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
You are taking that class for some reason; therefore, you have an investment in it. Make the most of your investment. Each class or course may not create the same appeal or interest for you. But on the other hand, neither will each task or undertaking in “life after college” be enticing or rewarding in itself. Keep in mind your long-term goals regarding education and preparation for your lifework. Getting the most out of this course is one step toward that goal.

2. INTEND TO FOLLOW YOUR PROFESSOR’S LECTURE CLOSELY
Go to class determined to listen. Make it a challenge. Try to understand the professor’s style of lecturing by listening closely. Professors have individual lecture styles and learning that style can help you detect key statements and concepts.

3. DO NOT BE DISTRACTED BY AN INSTRUCTOR’S MANNERISMS, DELIVERY, OR VOICE
Concentrate instead on what is said. If you disagree, jot down points of disagreement to bring up later.

4. LISTEN WITH YOUR MIND NOT YOUR EMOTIONS
If the speaker uses a word you don’t like, or makes a point contrary to your beliefs, don’t stop listening — you’ll only be defeating yourself. You don’t have to agree, but don’t allow yourself to be turned off from listening.

5. SIT CLOSE TO THE FRONT OF THE CLASS
By positioning yourself close to the professor, you can focus on his or her face, follow the lecture more effectively, and increase your incentive for attentive listening.

6. BE ALERT
As you probably know, this is not always easy. Avoid eating heavy meals before class; get adequate rest; wear clothing that will allow you to be comfortable and develop an erect posture of attentiveness (rather than a slouch). When you find your mind wandering, shift your focus by looking around the room until you become more alert.

7. READ THE TEXT BEFORE CLASS
This makes the material presented in the lecture clearer, more recognizable, and more retainable.

8. TAKE NOTES
Students who involve themselves with writing down statements and thoughts from the lecture tend to remember more of the material. Besides helping to keep you awake, the physical act of writing will assist you in concentrating and in organizing your thoughts.

9. INFORMALLY SHARE YOUR IDEAS
Getting to know several other people in your class and occasionally getting together to share ideas can help to clarify the information and to solidify learning. Getting together can also create enthusiasm and make learning a lot more fun.

10. ASK QUESTIONS
Questions about the meaning of terms are a good place to start. Best of all, by asking questions you become an active participant in the class rather than a passive observer taking in the events.

11. INTERPRET THE LECTURE
Process the information in light of the previous knowledge and experience to keep your thought processes active and to integrate your learning.

12. EVALUATE YOUR INFORMATION
Sort through information presented to determine the material that is important and critical for remembering.

 Keep these steps in mind as you attend your next class. Adopt them as guidelines for getting the most from classroom lectures as your work toward academic achievement. The rewards will surprise you!

http://www.ctl.ua.edu/ctlstudyaids/studyskillsflyers/generaltips/attentivelistening.htm


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How to listen attentively at work?

empathy, trust, diffusing conflict and handling complaints

empathy skills – for relationships, communications, complaints, customer retention, conflict and levels of listening types

Empathy and trust are a platform for effective understanding, communication and relationships. Empathy and trust are essential to develop solutions, win and retain business, and avoiding or diffusing conflict. Empathy and trust are essential for handling complaints and retaining customers. These days we need to be more effective communicators to be successful in business – and in life. The ‘steps of the sale’, persuasion, closing techniques, features and benefits do not build rapport or relationships – empathy, trust, understanding and sympathetic communications do. One-sided persuasion is not sustainable and is often insulting, especially when handling complaints. Trust and empathy are far more important in achieving and sustaining successful personal and business relationships.

A certain legacy of the days of the hard-sell is that many consumers and business people are more reluctant to expose themselves to situations where they may be asked to make a decision. This places extra pressure on the process of arriving at a deal, and very special skills are now needed to manage the situations in which business is done.

Most modern gurus in the areas of communications, management and self-development refer in one way or another to the importance of empathy – really understanding the pther person’s position and feelings. Being able to ‘step back’, and achieve a detachment from our own emotions, is essential for effective, constructive relationships.

Whether for selling, customer retention, handling complaints, diffusing conflict, empathy helps.

trust – and understanding the other person’s standpoint

Part of the ’empathy process’ is establishing trust and rapport. Creating trust and rapport helps us to have sensible ‘adult’ discussions (see Transational Analysis, which is another useful model for understanding more about empathy).

Establishing trust is about listening and understanding – not necessarily agreeing (which is different) – to the other person. Listening without judging.

A useful focus to aim for when listening to another person is to try to understand how the other person feels, and to discover what they want to achieve.

Dr Stephen Covey (of ‘The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People’® fame) is one of many modern advocates who urge us to strive deeply to understand the other person’s point of view.

Sharon Drew Morgen’s Buying Facilitation concept is another signpost towards this more open, modern, collaborative approach (and it is not retricted to buying and selling).

It is difficult and rarely appropriate to try to persuade another person to do what we want; instead we must understand what the other person wants, and then try help them to achieve it, which often includes helping them to see the way to do it (which is central to Sharon Drew Morgen’s approach).

We must work with people collaboratively, to enable them to see what they want, and then help tem to see the ways achieve it.

The act of doing all this establishes trust.

listening

Of all the communications skills, listening is arguably the one which makes the biggest difference.

The most brilliant and effective speaker utlimately comes undone if he/she fails to listen properly.

Listening does not come naturally to most people, so we need to work hard at it; to stop ourselves ‘jumping in’ and giving our opinions.

Mostly, people don’t listen – they just take turns to speak – we all tend to be more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really listening and understanding others.

This is ironinic since we all like to be listened to and understood. Covey says rightly that when we are understood we feel affirmed and validated.

He coined the expression: ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood’, which serves as a constant reminder for the need to listen to the other person before you can expect them to listen to you.

levels of listening – ‘effective listening’

There are different types of listening. Typically they are presented as levels of listening.

Various people have constructed listening models. Below is an attempt to encompass and extend good current listening theory in an accessible and concise way. Bear in mind that listening is rarely confined merely to words. Sometimes what you are listening to will include other sounds or intonation or verbal/emotional noises. Sometimes listening involves noticing a silence or a pause – nothing – ‘dead air’ as it’s known in broadcasting. You might instead be listening to a musical performance, or an engine noise, or a crowded meeting, for the purpose of understanding and assessing what is actually happening or being said. Also, listening in its fullest sense, as you will see below, ultimately includes many non-verbal and non-audible factors, such as body language, facial expressions, reactions of others, cultural elements, and the reactions of the speaker and the listeners to each other.

In summary first:

  1. passive/not listening – noise in background – ignoring
  2. pretend listening – also called ‘responsive listening’ – using stock nods and smiles and uhum, yes, of course, etc.
  3. biased/projective listening – ‘selective listening’ and intentionally disregarding/dismissing the other person’s views
  4. misunderstood listening – unconsciously overlaying your own interpretations and making things fit when they don’t
  5. attentive listening – personally-driven fact gathering and analysis often with manipulation of the other person
  6. active listening – understanding feelings and gathering facts for largely selfish purposes
  7. empathic listening – understanding and checking facts and feelings, usually to listener’s personal agenda
  8. facilitative listening – listening, understanding fully, and helping, with the other person’s needs uppermost

Full version:

levels and types of listening

1 Passive Listening or Not Listening Noise in the background – you are not concentrating on the sounds at all and nothing is registering with you. Ignoring would be another way to describe this type of listening. There is nothing wrong with passive listening if it’s truly not important, but passive listening – which we might more aptly call Not Listening – is obviously daft and can be downright dangerous if the communications are important.
2 Pretend Listening You are not concentrating and will not remember anything because you are actually daydreaming or being distracted by something else even though you will occasionally nod or agree using ‘stock’ safe replies. This is a common type of listening that grown-ups do with children. This level of listening is called Responsive Listening in some other models, although Pretend Listening is arguably a more apt term, since the word ‘responsive’ suggests a much higher level of care in the listener, and Pretend Listening reflects that there is an element of deceit on the part of the listener towards the speaker. You will generally know when you are Pretend Listening because the speaker will see that glazed look in your eyes and say firmly something like, “Will you please Listen to me. I’m talking to you!” Especially if the speaker is a small child.
3 Biased Listening or Projective Listening You are listening and taking in a certain amount of information, but because you already have such firm opposing or different views, or a resistance to the speaker, you are not allowing anything that is said or any noises made to influence your attitude and level of knowledge and understanding. You are projecting your position onto the speaker and the words. You would do this typically because you are under pressure or very defensive. You would normally be aware that you are doing this, which is a big difference between the next level and this one. This third level of listening is also called Selective Listening in some other models.
4 Misunderstood Listening You have an interest and perhaps some flexibility in respect of the words spoken and your reactions to them, but because you are not thinking objectively and purely you are putting your own interpretation on what you are hearing – making the words fit what you expect or want them to fit. This is a type of projective listening like level three above, but you will not normally be aware that you are doing it until it is pointed out to you. This is a type of listening that is prone to big risks because if you are not made aware of your failings you will leave the discussion under a very wrong impression of the facts and the feelings of the other person. It’s a deluded form of listening. Arrogant people like politicians and company directors who surround themselves with agreeable accomplices can fall into seriously ingrained habits of Misunderstood Listening.
5 Attentive ‘Data-Only’ Listening You listen only to the content, and fail to receive all the non-verbal sounds and signals, such as tone of voice, facial expression, reaction of speaker to your own listening and reactions. This is fine when the purpose of the communication is merely to gain/convey cold facts and figures, but it is very inadequate for other communications requiring an assessment of feelings and motives, and the circumstances underneath the superficial words or sounds. Attentive Listening is a higher level of listening than Misunderstood Listening because it can gather reliable facts, but it fails to gather and suitably respond to emotions and feelings, and the situation of the other person, which is especially risky if the other person’s position is potentially troublesome. This is a common form of listening among ‘push and persuade’ sales people. Attentive Data-Only Listening is typically driven by a strong personal results motive. It can be highly manipulative and forceful. This type of listening wins battles and loses wars – i.e., it can achieve short-term gains, but tends to wreck chances of building anything constructive and sustainable.
6 Active Listening This is listening to words, intonation, and observing body language and facial expressions, and giving feedback – but critically this type of listening is empty of two-way emotional involvement, or empathy. There is no transmitted sympathy or identification with the other persons feelings and emotional needs. This listening gathers facts and to a limited extent feelings too, but importantly the listener does not incorporate the feelings into reactions. This can be due to the listener being limited by policy or rules, or by personal insecurity, selfishness, or emotional immaturity. Active listening often includes a manipulative motive or tactics, which are certainly not present in the empathic level next and higher, and which is a simple way to differentiate between Active and Empathic listening.
7 Empathic Listening or Empathetic Listening You are listening with full attention to the sounds, and all other relevant signals, including:

  • tone of voice
  • other verbal aspects – e.g., pace, volume, breathlessness, flow, style, emphasis
  • facial expression
  • body language
  • cultural or ethnic or other aspects of the person which would affect the way their communications and signals are affecting you
  • feeling – not contained in a single sense – this requires you to have an overall collective appreciation through all relevant senses (taste is perhaps the only sense not employed here) of how the other person is feeling
  • you able to see and feel the situation from the other person’s position

You are also reacting and giving feedback and checking understanding with the speaker. You will be summarising and probably taking notes and agreeing the notes too if it’s an important discussion. You will be honest in expressing disagreement but at the same time expressing genuine understanding, which hopefully (if your listening empathy is of a decent standard) will keep emotions civilized and emotionally under control even for very difficult discussions. You will be instinctively or consciously bringing elements of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) andTransactional Analysis into the exchange. It will also be possible (for one who knows) to interpret the exchange from the perspective of having improved the relationship and mutual awareness in terms of the Johari Window concept.

8 Facilitative Listening This goes beyond even empathic listening because it implies and requires that you are able to extend an especially helpful approach to the other person or people. This element is not necessarily present in empathic listening. Another crucial difference is the capability to interpret the cognisance – self-awareness – of the speaker, and the extent to which you are hearing and observing genuine ‘adult’ sounds and signals (as distinct from emotionally skewed outputs), and to weigh the consequences of the other person’s behaviour even if the other person cannot. In this respect you are acting rather like a protector or guardian, in the event that the other person is not being true to themselves. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis theory comes close to explaining the aspects of mood and ‘game-playing’ which many people exhibit a lot unconsciously, and which can be very difficult notice using only the aims of and skills within empathic listening. This does not mean that you are making decisions or recommendations for the other person – it means you are exercising caution on their behalf, which is vital if you are in a position of responsibility or influence towards them. Facilitative Listening also requires that you have thought and prepared very carefully about what you will ask and how you will respond, even if you pause to think and prepare your responses during the exchange. Many people do not give themselves adequate pause for thought when listening and responding at an empathic level. Facilitative listening contains a strong additional element of being interested in helping the other person see and understand their options and choices. It’s a powerful thing. Facilitative Listening is not generally possible if the circumstances (for example organisational rules and policy, matters of law, emergency, etc) demand a faster resolution and offer little or no leeway for extending help. There is a suggestion of transcendence and self-actualization – as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory – within the approach to Facilitative Listening. It is devoid of any selfish personal motive, other than to extend help, rather than achieve any sort of normal material gain. The other person’s interests are at the forefront, which cannot truthfully be said of any of the preceding levels of listening. Facilitative Listening is not an age or money-related capability. It is an attitude of mind.

©Alan Chapman 2009-11

See also the summary and interpretation of Mehrabian’s communications theory, which considers communications from the standpoint of the ‘receiver’ of communications, and it’s implications for the ‘sender’ of communications.

See Sharon Drew Morgen’s theory of Buying Facilitation, which is adaptable beyond selling and business, and which relates strongly to, and has amongst other significant influences, helped to inspire the concept of Facilitative Listening.

handling complaints and customer retention in organizations

The principle of ownership is central to complaints handling: if you receive a complaint or query you continue to own it until it is resolved – even if you escalate it or delegate it – which means that you must always follow-up and check on progress and eventually resolution and satisfaction.

The measurement and monitoring of complaints, from receipt to resolution is also vital: the organisation must have suitable systems and commitment to do this, especially from the very top.

There is a difference between ‘understanding’ someone and ‘agreeing’ with them: everyone in the organisation should have the training, encouragement and ability, to understand and to convey that they understand – to see the reality of the other person’s position and feelings – whether they are right or wrong – and should have the training and authority to ‘agree’ where appropriate, which has implications for authorization levels and compensation offerings.

Seek complaints and feedback: the organisation should welcome complaints and should encourage staff to ask for them – complaints enable quality improvement and ultimately improve relations with customers (the vast majority of customers are more loyal after the complaint is resolved satisfactorily than they were before the complaint arose).

Incidentally, from a staff-selection perspective, people with strong right basal brain quadrant – which produces intuition and empathy – make good complaint receivers. Strong left basal enables good processing and follow-up. Strong right frontal enables good creative problem-solving. (See theBenziger page.)

Use the ‘over-compensation’ principle: always look after complaining customers extremely well – generally regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Organisations often begrudge compensating complaining customers, which is completely illogical, because complaints are relatively rare and the real cost of compensation is relatively inexpensive, and yet the benefits from customer satisfaction, increased loyalty and positive word-of-mouth, are enormous by comparison.

trust and rapport training to improve customer service

Here are some pointers as to how you can develop empathy skills for customer service staff, especially in call-centres, and situations where customer retention is a strong priority.

Use a training exercise to flush out all the ‘wrong’ ways to handle these customer situations – it’s often much easier for a group to identify (via role play and/or syndicates) wrong ways, and then make sure they avoid them. Customers resist strongly being persuaded against their urge to contact and terminate a contract – the persuasive approach immediately polarises customer service representative and customer; the resulting emotional issue then dominates, removing any chance to save the customer. All initial effort must be to establish rapport and understanding – without the rapport nothing can be done.

Use a training exercise to identify rapport-establishing phrases, questions, and then role-play to demonstrate, practice and demonstrate suitable tone – style must be highly sympathetic and interested (the tendency is for tone to be confrontational, competitive, challenging, etc, which makes matters worse). Demonstrate also how it can take several minutes to do this – sometimes several conversations. Through role-play, observe how easy it is to shatter rapport by moving into persuasive mode. Stay ‘with’ the customer – understand (not necessarily the same as agreeing) and sympathise, allowing the discussion to develop, rather than present an opposing proposition.

Use a training exercise to identify suitable empathic information-gathering questions – what do we need to know in order to help, how to ask for this information, and how to position the need to ask questions in the first place, once initial rapport has been established.

Use a training exercise to identify approaches, and ‘ ready-made’ phrases, to view customers’ situations objectively with the customers – ‘let’s look at this together and see what the options are…’ – rather than the tendency to go head-to-head and counter the customer’s position with superior argument, justification, or worse still implied or direct threat, such as penalties, etc. (It’s easy to fall into the confrontation trap because so much sales training and experience is based on the power of persuasion, which is in itself highly confrontational in defensive scenarios.)

The secret to customer retention is the relationship in the first few seconds – customers are far more likely to rethink and stay if they ‘like’ the person on the other end of the phone. Certainly a customer will not begin to reconsider if they ‘dislike’ the other person – instead they become empowered to accelerate and reinforce withdrawal from the moment they feel the slightest bit challenged or opposed.

Role-play sympathetic phrases and tone for this scenario: you meet a friend in the street and learn from them that they have suffered an upsetting experience – listen for the natural empathy and sympathy – there is no instinct here to persuade the friend to ‘get a grip’ or ‘snap out of it’ – the natural sympathetic response is the basis of building trust and empathy and rapport.

Trust, rapport, empathy and understanding are powerful relationship-builders, and form the bedrock of sustainable business and careers.

http://www.businessballs.com/empathy.htm


The right to Education

12 July 2013 Last updated at 15:08 GMTHelp

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai has addressed the United Nations as part of her campaign to ensure free compulsory education for every child.

She marked her 16th birthday by delivering the speech on Friday at the UN headquarters in New York.

Taliban gunmen shot Malala on her school bus last October following her campaign for girls’ rights.

“I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child,” she said.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23291897