Dr John Ball describes communication as the "core activity" of the accountancy profession. Writing on ACCA's website, Ball cites communication's positive impact on coordinating and controlling individuals, developing cohesive teams, removing bias and managing conflict. Effective communication is also at the heart of all successful client relationships. But "communication" skills are in fact a set of diverse competencies, causing calls to improve communication to fall a little flat.
In an effort to deconstruct the bundle of different components within communication, US researchers David Christensen and David Rees of Southern Utah University asked members of two American accountancy institutes (AICPA and IMA) to rate the importance of 32 different communication skills on a scale of 1-5. They received over 2000 responses and identified seven skills each averaging a score above 4 out of 5 (described as "very important").
Four of Christensen and Rees' seven skills related to spelling, writing and grammar. Another related to the appropriate use of business terms. But the skill that ranked above all these (and the other 26 skills they tested) was listening effectively. The importance of listening is stressed three-fold by John McCarthy of GAA Accounting; McCarthy lists the three most important attributes of a trusted adviser as:
1. Listen; 2. Listen; 3. Listen.
So how effective are your listening skills? And how can you improve them? Here are eight tips to help you assess your listening habits. Which of these are do you feel you do well? Where could you improve?
1. Stay focused: give all your attention to the person speaking and allow them enough time to speak. Rushing them on, or multi-tasking, may cause you to miss an important point; you also risk insulting the speaker, who may perceive you as impatient and disinterested.
2. Don't be afraid of silence. Pausing before contributing to a conversation can provide an opportunity for the speaker to say more.
3. Demonstrate that you're listening: stand or sit still, maintain eye contact with the speaker, lean forward, nod and smile.
4. Ask questions to clarify meaning, but don't interrupt the speaker in order to pose them. It can therefore be a good idea to take notes, so you can keep track of issues you may want to ask about later in the conversation.
5. Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Does the speaker look confident or nervous, do they physically respond to any of your questions or comments?
6. Reflect back your understanding of what has been said before you offer any comment or advice: use phrases like "So, it sounds like you're saying…". Avoid phrases like "I know what you mean", since this doesn't actually confirm whether you have understood the intended meaning or not.
7. Validate the speaker's messages before moving on to another topic: use bridging phrases like "That's interesting. Now I'd like to find out more about…".
8. Keep your ego in check. It can be tempting to share your own views or stories, in order to build rapport, but don't hog the conversation, or refocus it onto you. You'll never find information out if you are talking about yourself all the time.