A Timeless Guide to Communicating
People Skills

A Timeless Guide to Communicating

Robert Bolton’s straightforward, workable program to improve your communication skills dates from 1986 – but it’s both timeless and timely.

People want to connect, but they often find expressing their ideas and feelings difficult. They introduce what Robert Bolton, in 1986, called “unconscious communication barriers.” Bolton’s timeless and timely guide offers concrete practices that break down these barriers. He describes how to improve your listening skills, work toward conflict resolution, and be more assertive and effective in conversations at work and at home.

This ability to turn meaningless grunts into spoken and written words constitutes humanity’s most important distinction.

Communication is Bolton’s specialty. His other books include People Styles at WorkListen Up Or Lose Out and Social Style/Management Style. His Ridge Consultants teaches communication skills to people in a variety of skill-level and power-level positions. So, Bolton knows his subject and as you might expect from a career self-marketer, can occasionally come off as a little too glib, though he seems sincerely compassionate.

Listening Bridges Loneliness

Bolton acknowledges with compassion that loneliness is pervasive and springs from the inability to communicate. Even within families, the author notes, people suffer loneliness due to poor communication. He cites a study showing that most people spend 70% of their time in communication. Of that 70%, they spend 30% talking, 16% reading, 9% writing and 45% listening.

If you are at all typical, listening takes up more of your waking hours than any other activity.

Yet, Bolton is adamant, few people listen well. They don’t understand 75% of what they hear, he says, or they set it aside quickly. Fewer people probe the meaning behind what someone says. Bolton offers superficial remedies that he says generate profound results. He suggests you encourage communication by leaning slightly forward. If you never move, people think you’re not involved. Active listeners seem friendlier. The author urges you to move in sync with the speaker. This means avoiding movements unrelated to the speaker’s movements – for example, shifting your body nervously.

Assertion Skills

Bolton takes a leap of perspective from listening skills to assertion skills that enable you to protect your personal space while expressing yourself. Assertiveness training helps you take control of your life and, the author asserts, defeat cyclical patterns of negative behavior.

These patterns are only natural, Bolton says. Animals react to a threat with the fight-or-flight response. People, however, can use language to defuse a situation. Bolton believes a wise person does exactly that. As evidence, he details an evolutionary split from about a million years ago when human ancestors who didn’t embrace verbal communication didn’t survive the evolutionary process.

Conflict, which is unavoidable in human life, is disruptive at best and horribly destructive at worst – yet some forms of conflicts have important benefits.

To defend your personal space, Bolton wants you to give a neutral account of the conduct you would like to see the other person change. Convey how you feel. Reveal the effect the other person’s conduct has on you. Easier to read than to enact, you may think, but while Bolton concedes that his approach might make you nervous, he also promises it will grant you self-insight. He insists that it requires fortitude, not domineering behavior.

That may be true, but Bolton probably understates wildly when he notes that you may encounter defensive reactions in response to your assertive message. And he states the obvious when he points out that people rarely respond well to the idea that they affected you negatively. His advice to avoid imperatives (no “Stop that right now!”) may only help so much. He thinks the best delivery of an assertion message is writing it out. Deliver it, he says, an be quiet as the recipient considers your message. Listen to his or her response and note whether he or she is defensive. Bolton concedes that you may have to deliver several different versions of your message to get the effect you want. The astute reader may think: no kidding.

What may truly help, though, is what Bolton calls “descriptive recognition”: He recommends you highlight – without hyperbole – what you like about another person’s actions and reactions.

Realistic and Nonrealistic Conflict

Bolton cites social scientist Harvey Seifert and the late pastoral counselor Howard Clinebell Jr., who believe that social and personal change requires conflict. He understands that business demands managing conflict. This means, he says, accepting conflict when necessary and striving to limit destructive consequences. Realize that fully 80% of people who don’t perform well at work are those who can’t get along with other people.

Bolton presents a two-part model of conflict. In realistic conflict, he maintains, the parties have different values and interests. Nonrealistic conflict derives from mistakes, a lack of knowledge or thinking determined by stereotypes. Unrealistic conflict creates discord and damage. This aids analysis, but Bolton doesn’t precisely explain how viewing conflict via this model furthers its resolution.

Prevent Unnecessary Conflict

Bolton packs his book with lists. A sampling from them yields practicable advice: Don’t dictate how someone else should behave. Don’t evaluate other people’s behavior or abuse them. If someone has a problem, listening calmly helps him or her jettison corrosive emotions and resolve issues that might escalate into a  dispute. 

Many of our institutions, including the Christian church and the United States of America, were forged in the heat of conflict. Then, too, confrontation is a necessary ingredient of organizational renewal.

Organizations will find it counterproductive to promote a culture that delineates winners and losers. This approach encourages conflict and diminishes the possibility of resolution. Bolton underscores that working together to fulfill mutual objectives helps people foster a healthy organizational culture even when they don’t achieve individual goals.

Worthy Beginner’s Guide

All of Robert Bolton’s books – and this one may be the classic among them –seem to contain both legitimate attempts to help people communicate and ongoing marketing tools for his firm and personal brand. As such, People Skills is at times insightful and at times clichéd. Bolton writes earnestly and shows compassion for people who get in their own way when all they really want to do is connect – and that, accordingly to Bolton, is pretty much everybody. He offers a worthy beginner’s guide to considering your own social habits and how they keep you from getting what you want.

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