Basic Communication Skills when Talking to the Public

Good communication skills are a vital tool for any professional that interacts with the general public in a significant way. In fact, they are important to everyone in every context, whether it’s professional or personal, public or private, verbal or silent.

It’s hardly surprising that this is so. Human beings are, after all, highly social animals. So ubiquitous is human communication, that anyone who wishes to accomplish anything will need to first communicate their ideas or desires in some way, lest those ideas are never actualised, or those desires remain unfulfilled.

Successful relationships, be they romantic, familial, professional or casual, absolutely depend upon good communication. Poor communication is one of the leading causes of divorce both in the UK and around the world. Studies have also shown that poor communication can hinder your progress professionally, as well as being disastrous for company performance overall.

“It’s important to make sure that we’re talking to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds”

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.

Within the context of SIA security work, good communication skills are extremely important. From quick, clear interaction with patrons and efficient problem solving in a crisis, to building effective working partnerships with managers and clients, the effective security officer is first and foremost an effective communicator.

In this guide, we’ll be outlining the case for improving your communication skills, as well as offering advice and tips on how to accomplish this. We hope you will find what you read here to be beneficial to all aspects of your life.

What is Effective Communication?

The word ‘communication’ derives from two Latin words, the noun ‘communis‘ and the verb ‘communicare‘. The words essentially mean to make something common, e.g., available to more than one person, such as is meant by phrases like ‘common ground’, ‘common good’ and ‘common knowledge’.

The word’s deeper etymological meaning involves sharing something and invites the idea of a two-way process, as opposed to simply one person gifting something to another. This is well worth knowing, as it perfectly illustrates many of the points we will be making in this feature.

The art of effective communication isn’t just about improving your speaking and listening skills, although that certainly makes up part of it. The practice of effective communication allows for a deeper understanding of the complexities of human interaction. It offers a familiarity with the feelings behind the sentiments and the intentions of other people, as well as the development of an ‘ear’ for what isn’t being said.

Most human beings communicate on autopilot. We make few serious attempts to truly understand or empathise with the person with whom we are communicating. We listen, but only to offer a counterpoint or additional observation and we ignore much of what we don’t understand or cannot relate to. Instead, we rush to the finish line in an attempt to put our own viewpoint across first, or loudest, or most forcefully.

Ineffective communication strategies such as these are so universal that they have become the basis for most of the comedy and drama we see on TV, because we all know what a misunderstanding feels like and thus can usually relate to the scenarios being presented to us.

Impediments to effective communication may include stress or an abundance of unrestrained emotion (either positive or negative). Negative body language or a basic lack of focus can also impair your ability to communicate effectively.

Go and watch a popular comedy series like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. In the show, the character of Larry David is usually well-meaning, if a little cantankerous. However, over the course of most episodes, he finds himself the target of abuse and ire because the things he has said have been taken out of context, or because of some other kind of misunderstanding. David may be a little rough-hewn and antisocial, but he gets himself into these humorous situations mainly because he is a poor communicator.

We all like to laugh at ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, as well as the many other situation comedies that mine humour from miscommunication. However, we can also learn from them as well. They are, in effect, a master class in what not to do.

Effective communication, then, is about the efficient exchange of information and, through this, the deft and deliberate avoidance of misunderstandings.

Door supervisors and other security professionals have to secure the trust and basic respect of the general public in order for them to discharge their duties effectively. Improving communication skills can go a long way towards achieving this goal.

How can I Become an Engaged Listener?

Those of you who have children or young relatives will understand what is meant by the statement that listening and hearing are not the same thing. When you say to a child “are you listening to me?” they will, in most cases, tell you that they are. They may even be able to repeat the last thing you said. However, if you then ask them to explain what you actually meant, few will manage it.

Hearing the words that a person is saying simply means that you basically comprehend what is meant by those words in that specific order – that’s all it is. It isn’t really listening per se.

Engaged listening is about understanding what the person is saying, both intellectually and emotionally and then responding to it in a way that demonstrates this understanding.

Engaged listening is not limited simply to words, either. The engaged listener is also cognizant of a person’s body language, intonation, speech patterns and more.

This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. As we said earlier, human beings are social creatures. Your training in all these subtle forms of communication began the day you were born.

When you truly engage with a person who is speaking to you, you are simply giving that person your full attention. You already know the classic indicators that somebody is lying, or amorous, or angry or a dozen other physical or emotional states that we humans periodically find ourselves stuck in.

Once again, look to your favourite TV shows. Actors portray all these emotions in a way that is unambiguously accessible to all. Viewers instinctively know what’s going on because we all basically understand the fundamentals of communication.

So, in many cases, you already know how to be an effective communicator. We’re trying to get you to know that you know – and then to practice getting better.

Active listening, then, involves showing the speaker that you’re really paying attention to them. You can do this by maintaining eye contact while they are speaking, repeating key words of phrases as they use them, asking small follow-up questions that relate to the topic of conversation, using open body language and summarising the other person’s point of view (possibly in the form of a question), once they have finished speaking.

You should also be patient, don’t rush to fill silences or pauses. Let the other person say their piece. If the speaker is agitated or emotional, you may reassure them. Make sure that you understand the person’s viewpoint fully before responding or venturing your own. If you need to ask follow-up questions, don’t be afraid to do so.

You should never give off the impression that you are bored or annoyed while the other person is talking. You should also refrain from interrupting the speaker.

An engaged listener never makes light of what the other person is saying or attempts to distract them. They also never try to finish a person’s sentence for them, express judgement of the speaker or offer preferential treatment to anybody else in the conversation or the immediate vicinity.

Engaged listening can be tough to master at first. Some of these techniques are simply examples of good manners, but others will take time and practice. It’s worth doing, however, as engaged listening can dramatically improve every area of your life.

Non-Verbal Communication

According to body language researcher Albert Mehrabian, about 55% of all communication is nonverbal. His calculations, which have come to be called the 55/38/7 formula, tell us that communication is 55% nonverbal, (i.e. conveyed via body language such as gestures, facial expressions and hand placements), 38% vocal (meaning tone of voice, intonation and implication) and only 7% word-based.

This may sound far-fetched, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Consider two people standing in the street. The first person says to the other, “are you excited about going to work tomorrow?”

The second person puts their hands on their hips and replies “Oh sure. I can’t wait to do that”

From the dialogue alone, we would understand that the second person loves their job and can’t wait to get to work the next day. In reality, their tone is one of sarcasm and this is reinforced by their ‘hands on hips’ pose. Anybody watching this scene would understand it to be sarcastic and would not take it literally, which shows that the actual words only tell us a fraction of the information being conveyed.

This probably helps to explain why there are so many arguments on Facebook!

Perhaps Edward Sapir said it best,

“nonverbal communication is an elaborate, secret code that is written nowhere, known by none and understood by all”

Nonverbal communication can include things like facial expressions, posture, eye contact, proximity to one another and paralinguistics (which is the proper term for vocal communication that is separate from language – examples might include pitch, volume and phrasing).

You can improve your own nonverbal communication skills by first learning to pay attention to the nonverbal signals that others are putting out there. A frown, for example, may indicate that the person you’re speaking to is upset about something you’re saying, or that they are struggling to understand you. Arms folded across the chest indicates that the person is feeling standoffish and so on. Once you begin to notice these signs, you can tailor your own body language to subtly influence theirs, as well as amending your own word choices slightly in order to improve their reaction.

Once you have a better understanding of nonverbal signals, you can develop a kind of ‘early warning system’ about certain people. For example, if their body language and their verbal language are out of alignment, this may mean that something is wrong.

You may also adopt a more open posture (i.e., keeping your arms slightly wider than usual), which will put people at ease around you. Subtle changes in pose and gesture have quite a profound impact on how people perceive one another, so this is actually a huge part of mastering effective communication. You can also revert to a more closed posture, should you wish to politely ward off a potential threat without appearing to be aggressive.

Emotional Awareness

Our emotional states are complicated things. When Sigmund Freud wrote that Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” He certainly wasn’t wrong.

The truth is that we are not always aware of exactly how we are feeling at any given time, even if we think we are. Many of the feelings we experience as ‘random’ or coming from seemingly nowhere are in fact the direct products of the thoughts and feelings we nurture throughout the day (and indeed, our lives). We react emotionally to almost everything and these emotions can emerge in curious ways.

Regardless of what some people may say, almost nobody is entirely emotionless while at work. Our emotions help us to navigate our experience of the world. In some respects, they act as psychological equivalents to the body’s supply of nerves, telling us whether an experience is beneficial to us or not, offering us emotional pain as a way of communicating to us that a situation isn’t right. They are, in effect, central to the human experience.

Look at ‘Star Trek’ for an example. Within the series’ mythology, the Vulcan race attempt to live lives governed by and defined through pure, untampered logic. Yet even though they appear reserved and disinterested in the events around them, they are still shown at varying times to experience love, ambition, annoyance and other emotional states that are quintessentially human. They are a fictional race of aliens, but they are written by human writers – and those human writers can’t conceive a world without emotional engagement. Hence, even in the domain of pure imagination, such a culture is contradictory to the human experience.

Basically, if the Vulcans can’t do it, what chance do you have?

So yes, on any given day you are experiencing emotions – and these emotions are impacting your experience of the world around you. They are colouring your perceptions of people, places and events, just as they are for everybody else.

Understanding your own emotions and the emotions of other people is known as emotional intelligence.

Your emotional IQ will go up enormously if you begin to practice self-awareness, i.e., the internal engagement with – and understanding of – your various emotional states. This may include acknowledging your anger with your spouse over an argument that occurred the night before, allowing yourself to feel disappointed that you didn’t get that promotion you were vying for or telling someone important in your life how much they mean to you.

Each of these small, yet significant, steps, releases emotional tensions and can help stop larger outbursts from occurring, resulting in you feeling healthier and more balanced overall.

This does not mean you spend all your time at work moping about something that’s upsetting you, it simply means that you license your feelings, acknowledge them and allow yourself to move on from them. By doing so, you will be less likely to take it out on others when you’ve had a bad day, or let that annoying co-worker get under your skin.

The other side of emotional intelligence primarily concerns the cultivation of empathy.

The word ‘empathy’ was coined by psychologist Edward Titchener and is drawn from the Greek word ‘empátheia’, meaning ‘passion’. Conceptually, empathy differs from sympathy primarily because it concerns your ability to imagine yourself in the same circumstances as a person who is suffering and thereby feel something similar to what they are feeling, even if you have never experienced the situation yourself.

An example of sympathy might involve hearing about the death of a colleague’s husband or wife. You might understand that they are sad and offer some comfort and support. Empathy would occur in the same scenario if you either drew from your own experiences of losing a loved one or imagined what it would be like to lose your significant other. The impact empathy has is much deeper and contributes in a vastly more significant way to your interactions with other people.

By empathising with your colleague, you will feel some of the sadness that they feel and you will be better able to console them beyond merely offering support and platitudes.

When you can better deal with your own emotional states, as well as understand those of other people, you will have increased your emotional intelligence and your communication skills will almost certainly improve as a result.

Asking the Right Questions

2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates advanced the idea of Socratic questioning. As a teacher, Socrates was excellent (his most famous student is the philosopher Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle) and part of this was his ability to communicate.

For Socrates, teaching was never about one person with knowledge of a subject imparting it to others. Instead, teaching was a dialogue between teacher and student, where each would learn from the other and both would emerge richer for the experience.

It’s easy to see why Socrates was such a good teacher. If he weren’t, he would have been perpetually stumped by endless questions from his students.

Instead, being open to the notion that nobody knows everything is not only good for the ego, it also provides a major boost to our ability to learn. Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best,

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”

Socratic questioning deepens a person’s understanding of any subject for just this reason. 

Socratic questioning, which itself forms the basis for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), as well as many other therapeutic disciplines, is simply the art of asking open-ended questions in order to get to the meat of what you know, do not know or simply assume to be true.

As a form of self-therapy, it can be a useful way of digging out firmly-held, yet inaccurate beliefs about yourself and your place in the world.

There is even a management technique from the business world which has its roots in this exercise. The technique, known as ‘The 5 Whys‘ involves asking the question ‘why’ 5 times after an idea or strategy is pitched to you. If the idea fails to stand up to the scrutiny of 5 whys, it should be abandoned because it probably won’t work in the long run.

Questioning is a great way to demonstrate your listening skills, as well as improving your conversational skills. Asking questions, even basic ones such as “what’s your name?” or “are you having a good night?” can instantly increase your familiarity with a person, as well as helping to diffuse tensions between yourself and others.

You can improve your questioning skills by, among other things, asking more questions. You can also ask more open questions, as opposed to closed ones. An example of a closed question might be “what day is it?” You see, there’s technically only one possible answer.

An open question invites more discussion and can offer you a powerful insight into the person answering the question. An open question might be something like “how do you feel about (insert topic here)?” open questions promote dialogue, help people to find common ground and instantly create a deeper, more satisfying exchange of ideas – exactly as Socrates intended.

Other types of questions include funnel questions (whereby one question acts as a lead-in to other questions, drawing out a succession of answers), probing questions (which encourage the person answering to provide a detailed answer) and leading questions (wherein a statement is made which the person answering is encouraged to agree with).

All of these question-and-answer techniques are useful in one way or another – and all can improve your existing communication skills considerably.

The Art of Saying “No”

Research shows us that, as children, we hear the word ‘no’ on average about 400 times a day. We didn’t like it then and we don’t like it now. It’s true, nobody wants to hear the word. However, ‘no’ is an important, empowering and – if you work in security – essential word in your vocabulary.

…But none of this makes it any easier to actually say.

As a door supervisor or security officer, you have the right, not to mention the duty, to say ‘no’ to some people. You may be denying a person entry into a venue or explaining that they cannot finish their drink before leaving. You might be refusing to return a confiscated item, or not letting someone leave before the police arrive to arrest them.

You may be confronted with sad stories, persuasive arguments, or even aggressive behaviour – all of which will have to be met with that simple, two-letter word.

The first thing to consider is that you don’t need to feel guilty about turning people away or saying ‘no’ to them. You’re just doing your security job and, by doing your job, you’re ensuring that the patrons under your care are enjoying themselves in a safe space, free from people who have not followed the rules and would probably ruin the fun for everybody else.

Your ‘no’ should be firm without being angry. It should also not be open to negotiation or in any way conditional. A no is a no.

Like dealing with children, it is important not to go back on yourself. Don’t say ‘no’ and then amend it to ‘yes’ – to do so will create problems, not only for you, but for your colleagues as well. Mentally promise yourself that a ‘no’ from you is unarguable. Tell yourself that ‘no’ means ‘no’, not ‘maybe’, not ‘perhaps not’, just ‘no’. It should be flat and final, devoid of anything more than a polite, factual explanation of your reasoning, with no room anywhere for negotiation or ambiguity of any kind.

When saying ‘no’, your tone should be firm, eye contact should be made and you should try not to appear to be aggressive or mean. You are simply refusing a request, that’s all.

You may find that it helps to practice saying ‘no’ if you find it difficult to do so. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if this is the case. Many times, a negative reaction to the word ‘no’ stems from childhood experiences that you may not even remember, so it really isn’t your fault.

If you are especially nervous, you might even prepare a stock phrase that you can memorise, practice and deliver with the appropriate conviction whenever you have to turn somebody away.

If you want to be helpful, you could even suggest other options to the person being turned away, for example “I can’t let you in tonight, but if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure you’ll be more than welcome”.

Remember that clear and effective boundaries are also a key component of effective communication.

Being Assertive, Not Aggressive

Being assertive will make you a better communicator overall. However, it’s important not to equate assertiveness with aggressiveness. They are not in any regard the same thing.

Aggression, within a societal context, implies anger, but anger is not something you want to convey as a security professional. An angry reaction shows people that they are getting to you and can lead to emotional outbursts that may end up involving acts of violence on one side or the other. It goes without saying that this is definitely something to be avoided.   

Assertiveness is more a state of being, it is a way of carrying yourself. An assertive person speaks clearly and deliberately – and their words carry weight.

The assertive person is in control of themselves. They understand that, while they may not be able to control the circumstances in which they find themselves, they can absolutely control their reaction to those circumstances.

Assertive people know what their triggers are, as well as how to avoid them. They do not fear rejection or conflict and they remain cool, calm and collected at all times. They say what they mean and they mean what they say.

Assertiveness does not run contrary to politeness or friendliness and being inflexible when the situation requires it does not make a person any more ‘difficult’ or ‘stubborn’ than anybody else.

Likewise, a person can be assertive and still change their minds or embrace new ideas. Assertiveness is more about expressing yourself in a clear and meaningful way and engaging other people in a secure and positive manner than it is about anything else.

Overall, being assertive is key to developing better communication skills. Everything listed here, from maintaining eye contact when somebody is speaking, to understanding and licensing your own emotions, to having faith that you’re asking the right kinds of questions, to be secure enough to experience real empathy, requires assertiveness and a degree of self-confidence to properly achieve.

One way to become more assertive is to increase your self-esteem. Self-esteem, essentially, describes the way you see yourself. People with low self-esteem generally see themselves as weak, pathetic, incompetent or stupid. You must understand that none of these feelings are in any way useful or applicable to you.

You can improve your self-esteem by cutting out negative self-talk and surrounding yourself with supportive people who like and value you. Begin to recognise your strengths, skills and accomplishments and accept praise when it’s offered. These things are hard to do at first and take practice, but they will greatly improve your lot in life, as well as your ability to be a positive presence in the lives of others, if you can master them.

The techniques and advice featured here will help you improve not only your working life, but all other aspects of your life. Even if you only apply one or two of our suggestions, you will improve as a communicator – and a better communicator is a better professional.

As Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the two men who first reached the summit of Mount Everest, once said, “it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”. Truer words were never spoken.

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