WHEN talking to your office colleagues, do you:

* stay task-focused — keeping to the point, revealing only the information that is needed to get what you want?

* make an effort to really hear their entire message — or do you just listen to their words?

* sometimes forget to say “please”, because it takes time and is really not necessary to the conversation?

* use their name?

* look the person in the eye when expressing gratitude?

* take the trouble to compliment them?

* “short-speak” — using “can” or “wait” or “no” as a whole sentence and “ha” as an entire question?

The items on the list are time-savers and reveal the attention people place on communicating economically, with minimal time wasted. People are pleased with themselves when they say a lot with few words and in the shortest time. Think of text messages.

Singapore is methodical, fast and accurate, and the systems and processes make Singaporeans one of the world’s most efficient people. Singaporeans have redefined themselves as a sky-scraper society and embraced efficiency — this has shaped many aspects of their lives, including the way they speak.

Speech is a powerful tool for generating efficiency. But in working hard at being efficient speakers, people now give little attention, energy and resources to the most important part of communication — engagement.

Beyond words

Research across cultures shows that individuals place a high value on and are more appreciative of an interaction which engages them as a whole.

Years ago, I convinced my ageing grandmother that she should have her aching knee examined. She spent her lifetime avoiding hospitals, treating herself and us with home remedies whenever necessary.

We were at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, among a crowd of people waiting to seek treatment. Dressed in her Sunday best, my grandmother’s face was filled with anxiety.

It was finally her turn, and as she walked into the room, the doctor who is a foreigner said a cheery “Hello Apple Blossom! How may I help you today?” Did she understand ‘Apple Blossom’? It did not matter. Her face eased as she read his tone and understood his intention to be friendly.

Five minutes later, he persuaded and guided her to step onto a low stool, then a chair, then a table top and finally onto two thick telephone directories stacked on top of the table. Her knees were now high enough for an X-ray. Still looking comfortable, she even braved humour and said: “Doctor, one time fall, all finish.”

Make effort

In a study on communication, two groups of surgeons and their patient-consultations were studied. Both groups of doctors had made mistakes with their patients, but only one group was consequently sued by their patients.

It was found that it was not bad medical care that made patients sue, but bad medical care combined with poor communication.

Both groups of doctors exchanged the same content of information. But the group that was not sued talked to their patients differently. They spent about three minutes longer with each patient, listened more actively, were more likely to laugh, be humorous and did not adopt a dominating tone of voice.

Patients, even if they may not be actively aware of it, desire to be treated with respect and to be engaged as a whole person.

In pursuing efficiency, people rarely afford themselves the pleasure of such engagement. You say you don’t have the time to really engage with people and so you diminish your interaction with others, create less satisfying conversations and increase the likelihood of miscommunication.

How to engage

Engagement brings many benefits to our relationships. Here are tips on how to engage better with people:

* Project a positive and pleasant tone.

* Use the person’s name.

* Make eye-contact and listen to the entire sentence. Nod when listening, and avoid looking at your watch or shuffling paperwork.

* Listen actively beyond the words for meaning.

* Say something nice, be human, smile and laugh. Strive to be relaxed, open and calm.

* Recognise that each person is unique and functions in distinct ways. Use your knowledge of what makes them tick to interact with them in the most effective way.

* Remember to demonstrate acceptance and interest, and look for their good points. Consider the important things, for example, their interests and families.

* Establish things you can talk about beyond work issues. Talk about things beyond the agenda.

* Gather information about people at the beginning of the conversation and tailor your actions towards putting others at ease.

* Initiate rapport, listen and share.

These tips for engagement will make you more approachable, and help you to build more constructive and effective relationships.

They will enable you to use diplomacy and tact to diffuse tense situations, and to project a personal style and charm that immediately puts others at ease as you gain their trust and support.