Communication Skills: Speaking and Listening


It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" 

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Effective spoken communication requires being able to express your ideas and views clearly, confidently and concisely in speech, tailoring your content and style to the audience and promoting free-flowing communication.


Good listening has an enormous quality of nowness. Helpful listening is a form of meditation.

David Brandon

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.
Winnie the Pooh



People with a musical quality to their speech (a big variation in pitch and rhythm called prosody) tend to be more empathic. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the University of S. California found that people whose speech is most intonated, lilted or "sing-song" have more ability to empathise with others and to convey emotion.

Questioning and gathering information


Question types to try to avoid


Closed Questions

  • Demand simple yes or no answers with no chance to elaborate.
  • Limit the gathering of information, fail to explore possibilities and get overly simple answers.
  • They typically start with: Could ..? Couldn't ...? Should ...? Would ...? Have ...? Are ..? Is ...? Will ...?
  • They can sometimes be useful for quick checking of facts or to show that you have been listening carefully to the other person: "Now if I understood you correctly you meant that ...."

"Couldn't you have resigned?"

"Are you poor at exams?"

Leading questions

  • These are similar to closed questions.
  • They predict a particular answer and should be avoided
"You're bad at maths aren't you?"

Negative questions

  • These can sometimes be good for analysis but may demotivate the interviewee from talking.

"What went wrong?"

"Whose fault was it?"

Good question types


Open ended questions

  • These are prompts to get the other person to talk about a topic
  • They require longer, more detailed detailed answers, produce more, better quality information and open up possibilities.
  • They help the person crystallise their thoughts and help you to understand their views, feelings and attitudes.
  • They may start with: How ... ? When ....? Where ....? What ....? Which ....? Why ....? Who ..? What ...? If ....?
"Tell me what you think about this?"

Probing questions

  • These delve more deeply into the interviewee's answers, and allow you to dig down to reach the important information.
"Tell me exactly what your duties were at Bloggs & Co."

What if questions

  • These are hypothetical questions These questions are used precisely because it's impossible to work out your answer beforehand, thus it tests your ability to think quickly, and reason logically.

"How would you deal with a staff member caught stealing a packet of biscuits from the shop?"

"How would you deal with an irate customer?"

Clarifying questions

  • These reflect back what the speaker is saying in other words to clarify understanding: you paraphrase and repeat back key points.
  • They may summarise and bring new interpretations to the speakers words.
  • They show you're listening carefully and checks you are understanding correctly what they are saying allowing the speaker to confirm or correct your feedback.
  • They encourage the speaker to elaborate and to define their problems.
If I heard you correctly, you felt very angry about the way you had been treated?

The Devil's Advocate

  • These questions are provocative. Often, they reflect the opposite view to the real view of the questioner and can lure out any hidden prejudices you may have.
"I think that the Government has made some really stupid decisions recently: don't you agree?"


Confirm and clarify


Jargon free language

A survey of managers by the Institute of Leadership found that the most most irritating jargon/management speak phrases were "thinking outside the box", "going forward" and "let's touch base", so try to avoid such phrases when applying for jobs.

Giving feedback

Giving Praise


Helpful feedback

Unhelpful feedback

Is concrete and specific. It says precisely what the other person is doing wrong e.g. "Your CV is 3 pages long, you need to reduce this to two pages." Is vague and abstract. It makes the person angry because the person is not told how they can change things.
It talks about actions and says what people are doing rather than what they are e.g. "You dance really artistically" not "You're fantastic." Labels people: "You're stupid"
Makes "I" statements instead of giving blame or praise: "I felt angry when you spilt the tea" not "You're a clumsy idiot!" Just blames or praises rather than being specific
Is given immediately: not hours or days later when neither of you can remember what happened. May be delayed: by the time it is given, the person may have forgotten what you are talking about.


Being able to say sorry if you have done something wrong, but in an assertive rather than a passive way.


A study at the University of Utah found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else, he’ll say it is because he and his friend share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the two of them on their attitudes, you’ll find out that what they actually share is similar activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends, in other words. We associate with the people who occupy the same small, physical spaces that we do.

Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Good conversations

Researchers at the University of Arizona & Washington University tracked conversations of 79 students. They assessed how many conversations were trivial and how many substantive, based on whether the information exchanged was banal: “Hot today isn't it?” or more serious: “I'm really worried about her relationship with him ...”.

The happiest subjects spent 70% longer talking than the unhappiest ones, which suggests that “the mere time a person spends in the presence of others is a good predictor of the person’s level of happiness”. The happiest participants also had twice as many substantive conversations and only a third as much small talk as those who were least content.

The authors suggest that adding five substantive conversations to your weekly social calendar could boost your spirits dramatically. “Just as self-disclosure can instill a sense of intimacy in a relationship, deep conversations may instill a sense of meaning in the interaction partners.”

Bad conversations

Progression of conversations with people you don't know

The fundamentals of conversation haven't changed much in 200 years. Even then there was a progression from small talk to more serious topics:
"The hindrance thrown in the way of a very speedy intimacy .... prevented their doing more than going through the first rudiments of an acquaintance, by informing themselves how well the other liked Bath, how much she admired its buildings and surrounding country, whether she drew, or played, or sang, and whether she was fond of riding on horseback."
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Begin with light topics such as the weather and later move onto more serious topics.
  1. Light conversation/small talk
  2. Humour
  3. Friendly gossip
  4. Affection
  5. Support
  6. Problem solving
  7. Discussing deep subjects

Managing turn-taking when talking to another person

  1. First the speaker makes eye contact
  2. The speaker then looks away whilst speaking but makes eye contact from time to time to see whether listener wants their turn to speak
  3. If the listener doesn't want to speak they will nod or break eye contact or say something like " uh huh" or "yes"
  4. If the listener wants to to take their turn to speak they will look the speaker in the eye or lean forward or perhaps raise their finger in the air

    Research found that what you say about others reveals as much about about you as the person you are describing. A person's tendency to describe other people in positive terms is an important indicator of the positivity of the person's own personality.

    Students who rate their peers positively were found to be trustworthy, nice, enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, capable and emotionally stable. They reported greater life satisfaction, less depression, better grades and were more liked by others. They were seen as being agreeable and conscientious. Women tended to rate others more positively than men.

    Those with negative opinions of others were more apt to be disagreeable, antisocial and narcissistic and were more likely to be depressed and to have personality disorders.

    “You stand to learn a number of things about a person from just observing whether the person describes others positively or not. Your words could reveal a lot about your own personality traits.” said Dustin Wood, assistant psychology professor.

    Dustin Wood, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010; vol 99: pp 174-190.


Here are answers to the sort of question you might get on application forms or at interview to test your communication skills.


Joining a campus drama group.
Getting involved in a debating society.
Working as a receptionist in a vacation job

Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to argue your case and convince another person of its merits?

I had a lot of trouble managing my finances during my first year at University. I ignored the first couple of letters from the bank manager but eventually I had to meet her to explain the situation and persuade her to let me run quite a large overdraft until the end of the academic year.
Before I went to see the bank manager, I drew up a cash flow forecast to show how I would economise through the rest of the year & how much I would still need to spend on essentials. I also found a job in a pub for two evenings a week.
The bank manager was very impressed with my figures and let me have a larger overdraft than I'd expected! With my part-time job and another job in the summer vacation I managed to pay off the overdraft by the start of my second year. I won't say that I've never been in debt since because its quite hard to manage as a student, but I've never let my finances get out of control again.

How have you used your communication skills to persuade others to follow your lead?

I have been involved with the Parent-Teacher Association at the local primary school since my elder son first started there. The PTA organises a number of fund-raising events which have involved me in persuading people to buy raffle tickets, display posters in shop windows, donate prizes, etc. Three years ago, the PTA produced a book to mark the school's 25th anniversary and, as a member of the editorial committee, I helped to decide on the content and format of this book.
The school governors wanted an "official" history, but I represented the PTA in arguing that a collection of reminiscences of past pupils would be more readable and saleable. This was agreed and we then contacted ex-pupils through mailshots based on old school registers and features in the local newspaper and on local radio. The response was excellent and the only problem was in sifting and editing the letters we were sent.
I then negotiated with local printers to find the best quote and
persuaded local shops of all kinds (not just booksellers) to sell the publication.

See our competencies page for more about how to answer these types of question.

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