As committee member Penny Bickerstaff observed, when introducing Rick Payne's talk, the outsourcing of many of finance's former quotidian duties means that now, more than ever, it needs excellent communication and influencing skills if it is to make the grade as a true partner in the business.
Reinforcing the point, Payne pointed out that in the Financial Times' 'Appointments' page recently all but one advert stipulated 'communications skills'. Further, the standard of such skills had to be 'first class', 'outstanding', 'exceptional'. So, it would seem, these abilities are de rigueur for anyone hoping to progress in finance.
The good news, for those doubtful of their abilities in this area, is that anyone can learn communication and influencing abilities according to Payne. However, he stressed that, as with most things in life, the learning process involves a degree of dedication. Hence to achieve real results requires:
- guidance; and
The last two of these, he advised, can be provided by a colleague or a coach.
As he pointed out, this interpretation is a necessarily subjective activity. Not everyone will have the same abilities in interpreting these cues; a colour-blind person, for example, will have a lower ability to interpret colour-related signals, while a musician will have a greater appreciation of the nuances of sound. Even those with the same perceptual skills will be influenced by different personal histories, attitudes and cultural backgrounds into different conclusions.
So for each participant the sum of their own interpretations of these cues in a communication will provide a personal map, based on those interpretations. This map is not objectively 'right': it is simply that person's 'take' based on the feedback they observed, but coloured by their own attitudes and standards. As Payne put it "the map is not the territory."
Nevertheless, it is human nature to believe one's own interpretation is the 'right' one. One experiment demonstrating this tendency involved asking people in the street to wear a sandwich board in return for a payment. While the responses of those asked to wear the board were evenly split - 50% agreeing to wear it, 50% refusing - their personal estimation was that 90% of those asked would make the same decision as they had themselves! So in any communication, it is likely that other participants believe theirs is the accurate interpretation.
The foundations of influence
The key foundation stones for building influence, said Payne, are:
- listening; and;
Rapport - genuine respect and the desire to build relationships - is the basis of all successful communication. To bring some practical understanding of this subject, Payne asked that the audience carry out a two-part exercise in pairs - each member of a pair electing to be either 'Person A' or 'Person B'.
In the first part of the exercise, A had to argue the case for an opinion (of their own choice) while B was required to agree with A verbally while mismatching A's body language. In part two, it was B's turn to argue the case for a viewpoint, while this time A disagreed verbally, while matching B's body language.
After this (surprisingly difficult) challenge, he revealed that the usual results of this experiment are that when B agrees but mismatches A's body language, A does not believe the verbal concurrence, does not trust B, does not feel listened to, and loses his/her train of thought. Added to which, B finds it very difficult to appear to agree, without the benefit of the appropriate body language.
On the other hand when A disagrees with B verbally, but matches B's body language, the result is altogether more acceptable for the speaker. B accepts that A does not agree, B trusts A, B feels listened to and respected, B is able to maintain focus. A, however, finds the exercise difficult to do - particularly if he/she does not, in reality, agree with B.
Hence, body language - in particular matching (or mirroring) the other person - is demonstrably very powerful. Indeed, it seems to provide more convincing feedback than language, although the provider of that feedback will always feel more comfortable if their vocal and physical behaviour are aligned.
The keys to matching involve copying the other's:
- body language;
- energy levels;
- pace (of speaking);
- breathing; and
- choice of words.
However, Payne stressed, while these actions can accelerate rapport, they cannot, alone, produce it. It is not possible to 'manufacture' a non-existent rapport.
While it is tempting to regard communication and influence as being purely about what you say, in fact listening effectively is probably an even more important skill. Listening builds trust. Some people just need to be heard and many will often develop their own solutions by articulating their issues to someone else. His top tips for doing this effectively were:
- even before the encounter, make it your intention to pay attention to the other(s);
- listen to what their body language says, as well as what they verbalise;
- use speed of processing - ie your ability to listen and comprehend faster than the other person can speak - to listen more deeply and consider what is being said;
- empty your mind of other competing preoccupations (by writing them down if necessary);
- minimise the chances of external noise and interruption;
- use minimal encouragers ("uh huh", "tell me more") to get the speaker to say more;
- ask additional questions;
- suspend judgement;
- be culturally aware - words, language and gestures are used differently in different cultures; and
- paraphrase the speaker's words.
Paraphrasing is particularly useful in establishing that the other's message has been fully understood. Additionally, substituting an apparent synonym in this paraphrasing of the speaker's words can throw up illuminating clues as to differences in each others' interpretation. The finance director whose proud description of his figures as 'quite creative' is paraphrased by the chief executive as 'misleading' will probably not feel well listened to at all!
On the subject of trust repair, he described an intriguing experiment in which a fictional accountant was featured as having transgressed the professional rules either through lack of competence (failing to look up the requisite guidelines, for example) or through intent. In the first case trust was more likely to be repaired - ie those questioned would find it easier to give the culprit a second chance - if he apologised, taking full responsibility for the incompetence. However, in the case of deliberate wrongdoing, trust was more readily re-established if he spread the blame (e.g. claiming his boss insisted on the behaviour). (See Kim et al 2006, 'When More Blame is Better then Less in Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes'.)
Of course, the would-be wielder of influence needs to tailor his or her style to the objectives and the context of the discussion. One way of classifying their choices is as follows:
- consensus building;
- asserting; and
- moving to process/withdrawing.
If persuasion does not - or does not seem likely to - win the day, consensus building may be the key to success. This involves using the listening skills described above, discussion with an open mind, and is most appropriate when some sort of commitment is required rather than just compliance.
Visioning, by contrast, is used when no specific action is required from the other parties. It is epitomised by the 'rah-rah', energy-raising speech for generating enthusiasm and establishing shared values and goals. An example of this style is Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. To get a handle on this style of influencing, Payne recommended thinking of a speaker you admire, and copying their approach and linguistic style.
Asserting, in turn, is most appropriate when you do not require commitment, but you do need compliance to get the job done. As a style, it is about establishing rights, standards and expectations - and having sanctions to be applied for non-observance.
Finally, withdrawing or moving to process may be the way to go when no progress seems to be being made - if time is being wasted on fruitless discussion, tempers are fraying, emotions getting in the way. By pulling back, concentrating instead on what is the required outcome of the proposed course of action, more objectivity can be brought to the encounter and a better outcome reached.
Internal corporate communications
Payne considered the best way to go about internal corporate communications - by concentrating on matching your business objectives to your communication objectives, assessing how you will approach the exercise and what channels to use, and accepting the inevitable 'no-wins' which will accompany the exercise.
Determining your objectives
Determining your objectives involves deciding:
- how your communication programme will support the business objectives;
- the target audience (All staff? Only management?) and how to tailor the information to that audience's needs; and
- your expectations in terms of impact on knowledge, behaviours, attitudes and beliefs.
Making an assessment and deciding an approach
The assessment and decision phase involves determining:
- the impact of current communications, probably through the use of staff surveys, focus groups etc (with the accompanying raising of expectations);
- the appropriate use of 'push' (insistence) or 'pull' (encouragement) tactics;
- the channels to be used - ie face-to- face, team or one-to-one meetings, management presentations, lunches, newsletters, memos, email, internet, chat rooms; and
- the form of your 'communications map' - which will convey the what, why, who, when and where of your message.
Implementation needs to follow good project disciplines and be subject to an ongoing process of assessment to ensure that objectives are being met.
Despite your best efforts, you need to accept that there will inevitably be some 'no-win' outcomes. For instance, if you tell people the bare minimum some of them will complain about being kept in the dark; but give out a lot of information and others will feel they haven't the time to absorb it. And if you tell people relatively late there will be some complaints of it all being too sudden; but tell people early and some will consider the plans too uncertain and underdeveloped.
However, Payne stressed that good internal communication programmes do have business benefits and the majority of people will appreciate that you are trying to keep them informed.
As Payne observed, these skills have been taken seriously since Aristotle's work on 'Rhetoric' - built on the skills developed by the Greeks to retrieve lands lost in battle, through argument and persuasion. And rather more recently, Margaret Thatcher underwent extensive voice-coaching, before she emerged on the national and world stage as a convincing communicator.
More pertinent for those in finance, perhaps, is the corporate sector's obvious expectation that these skills should now be part and parcel of their professional expertise. For those expecting to succeed in the business partnering role in future, being an able communicator should come high in their list of priorities: it is not an optional extra.
About the author
Rick Payne is a chartered accountant, a qualified coach and a master practitioner of neuro linguistic programming.
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- 01 Apr 2006 (12: 00 AM BST)
- First published
- 16 Dec 2022 (12: 00 AM GMT)
- Page updated with Further reading section, adding further resources on building your communication and influencing skills. These new articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2006 has not undergone any review or updates.