How to Really Connect on the Phone

Many years ago, I was the head of customer service (and a few other things, too!) for a small business that sold proprietary products to the fire service. One of my duties was to answer questions from any fire captain or chief who called in to ask about the products, or to get the information they needed to them. Another thing I did was to help staff our booth at 3 – 5 fire service trade shows each year, which meant that I eventually got to meet many of the people to whom I had spoken on the phone.

I began to notice that, when I met them, I already knew what these men (and they were almost exclusively men) looked like! Now, it wasn’t that they looked exactly as I had imagined them, had I even been aware that I was imagining them. Rather, if I described the impression I had, that description would have exactly matched the person. So while it wasn’t like seeing an exact photo of a particular chief, I would have described him, say, as being slightly overweight, with shaggy brown hair, smallish light eyes, a regular nose and a mustache — and that description would have fit!

And then I began to wonder how I did that.

What I realized was that as I heard a voice, I was unconsciously flipping through my internal data base of all the people I’d ever met and their voices, and making a picture of the person I was talking with based on that. I’m sure you do it, too. Think about it — you can usually tell a woman’s voice from a man’s, or hear someone’s approximate age (though I can’t say how), or native language, or which region of the US he or she is from, and sometimes their ethnicity. A more resonant voice is generally a larger person, though not always. How do I ‘see’ eye color, or hair color, or facial hair? Avoiding the obvious blond jokes here, I can’t put my finger on it — but again, flipping through that data base in my mind gives me clues.

Then there’s the emotional stuff. You can hear tension in someone’s voice — happiness, sadness and anger, too. You can hear uncertainty in “uptalk”, the way someone raises their pitch at the end of a sentence. Or certainty and confidence in the opposite — a lowered pitch at the end of a sentence. Yes, you can hear a smile — or else why would all those sales training folks tell you to smile when you call a prospect? Or maybe what happens is that the smile changes someone’s internal state, and you can hear that. If you pay close attention, you can even hear people’s emotions when they’re trying to hide them. Maybe it’s in the length of the vowels, or the breathing.

You can do this! Part one of connecting to people on the phone is to listen to how people talk, and not just what they say. Pay attention to how fast they’re speaking (can’t you just see certain people gesticulating wildly?), whether they speak with a more even pitch, or whether it has lots of peaks and valleys, how loud they are, which words they emphasize, where and when they hesitate. And notice what impressions come to you from this, however they come. You may not be “seeing” the person on the other end of the line, but you may learn a lot about him or her.

In fact, you are probably already doing this beneath the level of your conscious awareness — maybe you’ve already decided you don’t like someone you just “met” on the phone, for example. But making it conscious for a while will help you improve the skills you already have.

And when this noticing becomes automatic, phase two of “how to connect on the phone” is to begin to match the other person’s speech. Maybe you slow down a bit if you’re talking to someone in the South — or speed up a bit if you’re speaking to a New Yorker. Maybe you have more peaks and valleys than you normally have, or maybe your tone of voice is more level than usual. Or perhaps you just address the feelings implicit in someone’s tone of voice — if (s)he sounds hesitant, ask what that hesitation is. This may feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but keep at it, and eventually, you’ll connect with people just as well on the phone as in person.

Hollis Polk is a personal coach (www.888-4-hollis.com), who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.