Communication for Auditors
Published: 11 May 2009 By Carol McLachlan
Auditor. Ace communicator. Super hero!
‘Excellent interpersonal and influencing skills; team supervision; strong presentational skills to influence and persuade; good listening to build rapport; maintenance of client relationships; frequent contact with senior management; excellent oral and written communication skills; team player; active listener and efficient communicator’.
Who are these paragons of interpersonal excellence? You guys, of course! These are just a few snippets from the current job specs here on CareersinAudit.com.
Make no mistake. Communication skills matter. They underpin all our auditing activities from eliciting information to explaining our findings to presenting meaningful deliverables.
Communication and auditing go together like bees and honey, love and marriage or even the proverbial horse and carriage!
And as the economy gets tougher, the pace of change accelerates and our business environment becomes more global and more complex, so the demands for first class communication skills become ever more essential.
So welcome to your guide on this crucial audit skill. It’s a huge subject; we could dedicate the whole site to the art of communication, but for now we’ve a two parter. Today we’ll take a look at some of the core skills and then we’ll share some tips on communicating with different types of people in another article, The Auditor's Communication Strategy.
The meaning of communication is the response it elicits
Communication is quite simply the transmission of information. But this only describes the process. The value of communication comes from achieving an objective; so the meaning of communication is the response it elicits. For communication to be effective we have to be clear on what we want it to achieve. And specific. So whether you are briefing an audit team, interviewing a client or presenting your findings to the board, the critical start point has to be that you are crystal clear on the purpose of your communication.
Thus far we’ve referred to inter-personal skills: the ability to interact, communicate and influence other people. But actually, it is your intra-personal skills which provide the bedrock for communication success. Intra-personal intelligence is about understanding yourself, knowing who you are, what you can do, how you react to things. In other words, having a well-developed self awareness. So get into that helicopter and do a personal SWOT. The aim of the game is to get self-smart.
Is it in his smile?
Communication goes far beyond the actual words that you say. A mere 7% of our message is interpreted from the words we use. The rest is down to:
- The voice - 38% - from speed, tone, pitch, rhythm
- The body - 55% is what the other person sees - our body language
It’s not just what you say – but how you say it. Beware inconsistencies! Some delicate questioning on a sensitive area will not get the desired response if you stand tall with arms akimbo!
Here are a few more quick wins:
- First impressions count – be conscious of how you come across. Go for a smile, an open stance and positive body language
- Notice body language. You can normally tell what others are feeling by the way that they are moving and using their body too.
- Look out for inconsistencies between words and body. Calibrate. Paying attention to body language and tone over time, allows you to pick up changes in individual physiology. Listen beyond the words and pick up non-verbal signals to detect an uneasy or unsure answer. Then probe further.
Effective questioning has got to be a core skill for the auditor. Good questions elicit good information. An effective question can cut right to the heart of the matter.
Let’s revise the basics and add a few new suggestions:
- Choose open questions which cannot be answered yes or no. Open questions encourage descriptive responses and are non-judgemental Go for: 'what, when, where, how, tell me'
- Avoid leading questions with the desired response embedded within – ‘don’t you think that...’
- Questions should begin big and tunnel down in detail
- Try to clarify and rephrase. ‘Tell me more about...’ can be helpful in maximising understanding
- Reframe – asks the same question in a different way
- Paraphrase or summarise and offer the opportunity to correct. ‘So am I right in thinking...?’, ‘From what you’re saying, I understand...’
- Reflect back to check understanding and sum up
- Adding ‘What else?’ at the end of most answers will elicit more information
- Don’t be afraid of silence. It’s valuable thinking time for both parties.
While preparation and planning are always valuable, effective questioning is all about responding directly to what’s being said. Which is why ‘we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’ (Epictetus)
‘Seek first to understand then be understood’ (S Covey)
Listening seems simple. But most of us are not naturally good listeners. Listening requires concentration and practice. Listening is not only a skill but an art form. It’s an underrated aptitude and few people really understand or appreciate the complexities of good, active listening.
Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is a physical process. Listening converts what you hear to something that you can connect with and understand.
Active listening means:
- Paying close attention without judgement, interpretation or distortion
- Listening to understand not to reply
- Paying full attention to your speaker, rather than your own internal dialogue (as in ‘my next question will be...’)
- ‘You’ve started, so you may finish’. Active listening means not mentally or physically finishing the speaker’s sentence.
- Listening with your eyes as well as your ears. Be aware of facial expressions, posture, body language.
- ‘The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said’ (Peter Drucker)
Deletions, distortions and generalisations
Active listening isn’t the end of the story. How we process the information is also very important. Our brains have elaborate filter systems which mean that we delete pieces of information and pay attention only to certain aspects and not to others. We distort information when we make misrepresentations of reality. We generalise information when we draw broad conclusions about what something means.
We do this ourselves, and so do our clients.
Communicating effectively is all about understanding this process. Sometimes, the extent of deletion, distortion and generalisation causes a version of reality to be sufficiently different to other people’s for misunderstanding, or even conflict to occur. Dangerous territory for the auditor!
Conscious awareness of what is happening is the solution.
Use these questions, on yourself and on your client:
- For distortion, ask: How do you know? What is the evidence?
- For generalisation, ask: Is that always the case? Every time? Never? What if?
- For deletion, ask: Tell me more...What, when, where, who, how?
There ends part one of our guide. Enhancing the quality of your communication will be one of the most valuable investments you ever make. So choose a selection of the techniques to action right now. And check out part two on communicating with different types of people, The Auditor's Communication Strategy.
Written by Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com, the leading job site for auditing vacancies.