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What 20 Years in the Public Service Taught Me about Communication


I finished my ‘A’ levels and left the full-time education system at 18. I had my last exam, went on holiday for 2 weeks, and in the last week of July, back in 1997, I started working at the local police station at the reception desk.

At that point, I had some life experience, however, most of my communication experience up until that point was with school peers, teachers, volunteering work and family.

I was 18yrs old, straight out of school, and straight into an environment that put me in a role of responsibility talking to people from all walks of life every day.

Over the next 20 years, I worked in a number of ‘public-facing roles’ working with the public face to face and later on in the call centre/control room over the phone.

I dealt with people old and young, from different races and cultures, with different ways of living, different beliefs and ways of thinking, the victims, the perpetrators, and the witnesses.

The scared, the angry, the vulnerable.

What did they all have in common?

The majority didn’t want to be speaking with me!

Who ‘wants’ to contact the police – nobody!

How do you build rapport and trust with someone who doesn’t want to speak to you?

How do you communicate with someone who is full of emotion?

As the years went by, I changed roles and worked my way into leadership positions which meant I had to learn and adapt to new ways of communicating. This time with colleagues and staff under my leadership.

Honesty, transparency, influencing, and negotiation. Listening, responding, acknowledging.

All similar skills but learning to use them in different ways.

What did I learn in those 20 years about how to communicate?


Their emotions are not yours to control

Give people space and time to tell you what they want to tell you, using their words and the emotions that they feel.

Allow people to express it in their way.

Allow them to express their emotion, this is part of the process.

Don’t try and control their emotions, the words they use or the way they need to express themselves.

Once they have had the opportunity to express it in their own way, then you are in a better position to work through and support them.

Once you have allowed them that space to express themselves you are in a better position to support them in switching to emotions that are more helpful to resolve the situation.


It is important that we are respectful when we communicate, however, it is worth taking a moment to ask yourself if their intention is to disrespect to you when they are communicating, often this is not the case.


There is a difference between someone being aggressive with the intention to intimidate, and you feeling intimidated by the way they are expressing themselves.


Being angry about a situation is going to be reflected in their communication, it is likely that the anger is the reflection of how they feel, and that something is important to them rather than anger being directed at you.


People will express themselves in different ways, in the same way that you will interpret their expression in different ways.

Words mean different things to different people

We have all learnt to communicate in different ways. From our parents, teachers, and adults who had an influence on us and from our friends and our colleagues.


The way we communicate will change and adapt as we get older and experience more situations and more people. We add more tools to the toolbox and when we pay attention and learn from those who communicate well, we can become more effective communicators.

As we grow and evolve we learn words with different meanings and we learn how body language, tone, pace and inflection can change how these words are received.


We will associate different words with different emotions, feelings and experiences.

We have a natural tendency to talk about things that are comfortable for us. This is the tip of the iceberg and there is often a lot that sits under the surface that we don’t talk about, simply because it is uncomfortable for us.

How people communicate can often give us an indication of all the things they are not talking about, if we look and listen for it.


What is being said in the silence?

What kind of language are people using? What kind of analogies are they using?

If you are talking to someone you know well, are you noticing a change in the way they are talking?

We choose a form of language that is comfortable to us and has a certain meaning to us. It may not have the same meaning to other people – and vice versa!

When we are listening to other people we need to be aware that the meaning or interpretation may be different for them and we may need to check this meaning to be able to communicate effectively.

Tone, pace and inflection can influence your understanding

These elements can really help us to understand what people are saying. Paying attention to how the words are being communicated can help add detail to the communication picture.

Tone, pace and inflection can vary greatly. Not just in terms of how, but also what it means.


  • Speaking more quickly may mean excitement, or it may mean anger.

  • A certain inflection may mean respect, or it may be passive.

  • A tone may mean anger or may mean passion.

Behaviour breeds behaviour. If you want someone to calm down, then you can adapt your tone pace and inflection that can help calm the other person.

Telling someone to calm down is more likely to escalate a situation, whereas remaining calm and slowing down your own way of talking and allowing them to finish can often be more helpful to the situation.


Body language is not one language

Does the body language match the words that are being said?

Be aware that body language can have different interpretations and meanings for different people. You will recognise certain body language to mean different things, but it may have a different meaning to the person displaying it.

Eye contact for many cultures and countries is a sign of respect,trust and honesty however, in other countries the opposite has the same meaning and so not making eye contact and lowering your eyes is a sign of respect.

Swearing for some people is a sign of aggression, for others it is part of their everyday language and is not deemed to be aggressive.

Historically the British way of speaking is seen as calm, we don’t gesticulate as much as in other cultures, and raising our voice is seen or interpreted to be more aggressive. When we look at other ways of speaking it can be interpreted as more aggressive.

This is often not the case and for others volume = passion, not aggression.

Some people can hold the room by speaking with a calm and quieter voice.

Others hold a room with volume and movement.

Both ways can captivate a room. Both can convey passion and captivate an audience but in very different ways.

The more we integrate and communicate with people different to us the more we learn, and the more we understand.

A fast answer may result in the wrong answer

Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond.

Allow the other person to speak. Tune in to what they are saying, how they are saying it. Listen and take in what they are telling you.

Don’t focus on what your response is going to be and miss out on what they are telling you. If you are spending time formulating your answers, then you are more likely to misunderstand or misinterpret what is being said to you.

A quick response is not always a good sign! Take your time.

Silence is golden

There is power in silence. You don’t need to fill a silence.

You can pause when someone finishes speaking, and think through your response.

Silences can help slow down a conversation and allow the person who is talking time to think, and reflect, before responding.

Silence is an important part of communicating.


Keep your ego in check, you don't need to know more, or have all the answers. Entering a conversation with the intention of being curious and being open to hearing different perspectives can make a huge difference on the outcome of the conversation.


As the saying goes;

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
~Epictetus


Can you see it through their eyes or stand in their shoes?

Are you showing empathy? Are you trying to see it from their point of view?

What is their version of the truth of what is happening, and what is their perspective? If it is different from your own why might that be? Why might they be seeing it differently?

Don’t just listen to understand and validate your point of view, listen to understand it from their point of view as well.

What are their experiences? What is it they want to achieve or happen?

Try to understand how they are communicating and why. Whilst it may be different from your own, try and interpret it from their way of thinking and their point of view.


 

When you are communicating you have a responsibility to help the other person understand you in the best way possible. In the same way, you also have the responsibility to try and understand the other person in the best way possible.

The responsibility is equal.

When this is achieved, this is effective communication.


 

If you would like to find out more about Phoenix Coaching services and what you could achieve with coaching support then why not book in a free, no-obligation clarity call with Zoe and we can talk through what you want to achieve?

First published Sept 2018

Revised and republished Oct 2022

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