How to learn the art of communication
Simon Horton of BPP tells Fiona Nicolson why the art of communication is an essential part of every CA’s skillset
Despite the rush to digitalisation, traditional soft skills remain very much in demand. According to its own research, nearly half (45%) of all professional jobs advertised on LinkedIn Premium during a three-month period last year emphasised the importance of communication skills. They also topped the list of must-have soft skills for 2023 in a survey of 1,000 UK hiring managers, conducted by recruiters Michael Page.
CAs, like most professionals, recognise the importance of confident communication. In the ICAS careers and salary survey published this year, almost a third surveyed (32%) identified communication as a skill they would like to develop further.
While this is a subject rarely taught at school or university, the good news is that it can be learned. ICAS, in partnership with BPP, offers a one-day CPD course, Communication Skills – an Introduction, this month, and again in December. The course will be run by Simon Horton, who has delivered communication-skills training for some of the best-known companies in the corporate world, including law firms and banks.
Simon draws a clear link between soft skills and positive outcomes. “Technical skills are obviously important, but they only take you so far,” he says. “Success is nearly always more dependent on communication skills. For instance, if the way you communicate shows a prospective client that you can solve their problem and that they will like working with you, then you’re going to get that client.”
But there’s a bit of analysis involved, even where soft skills are concerned. “Everyone’s different, so you need to be able to work out how to communicate to each specific individual,” says Simon. “If you’re flexible about how you put your message across, it’s much more likely to land well. That means being able to bring in more clients or persuade your boss to give you that pay rise or the promotion.”
Simon’s key tip for effective communication is to open your ears. “Listening is the basic building block,” he says. “If you’re the ‘receiver’, listen closely. And listen to what’s not being said as well. Listen between the words and behind the words so you can fully understand what’s being said and why.”
Messages may be hidden, but the clues about how people feel are always there, he adds: “People ‘leak’ so much information, so if we can tune into the non-verbal channels, then we can pick up what we need to know. If you mention a particular topic, does the other person sit forward a little bit more –or do they look away? Do they sigh before answering a question or pause before a certain word? These are signals that we can tune into – and if we can train our brain to do that, then we will pick up huge amounts of information.”
Listening is also important if you want to make sure that you get your message across effectively. “By listening to someone, you’ll find out how they make their decisions,” he says. “You’ll be able to find out what their values, goals and fears are, and how they understand and process information according to their personality type – you’ll also pick up on what they want to achieve and what they want to avoid. If you know all of that, you know how to put your message across to that person. And you find those things out through what I call ‘X-ray listening’, where you’re trying to find out what’s going on behind what they’re saying.”
It’s not all about listening, though. Good communication also requires effective questioning techniques. Nobody wants to be in the position where they are not clear what their client or manager is asking them to do. But it happens – and guessing can be a risky option. So, how do you work out what they really want? “Play their instructions back to them and ask whatever questions you need to, to make sure you’ve understood,” recommends Simon. “This allows them to confirm whether or not you have understood – in which case you can correct errors or gaps.”
Attending a course is just the start of the route to being a better communicator. Keeping track of progress through a personal development plan will maintain the momentum. “It’s only through practising that people get better and better,” says Simon. “During the course you’ll be able to identify what you’re good at already and what you’re not so good at. This will form the basis for mapping out your plan.”
He concludes: “When it comes to communication, your learning never finishes – wherever you are on your journey, you can always get better.”
Sign up for Communication Skills – an Introduction