The Art of Successful Communication

In a European forest, the animals hear of a rumour, saying that the bear has a hit list. All the animals start to wonder whose names are on it.
Finally, the roe buck plugs up all his courage and asks the bear: ”Can you tell me whether I am on your list?” “Yes, says the bear, your name is on my list.” Scared to death, the roe buck runs away. Two days later, he is found dead.
Horror spreads amongst the animals.
The wild boar is the second one who cannot stand the uncertainty any more as to who will be next. He asks the bear whether he is on his list. “Yes”, says the bear, “you are on my list as well”. As fast as he can, the wild boar runs away. Two days later, he is found dead.
Now, panic and agony spread amongst the animals. The rabbit is the only one who still risks a move and ventures to approach the bear. “Bear, am I on your list?” “Yes, you are also on my list.” “Can you scratch me out?”  “Yes, of course, no problem!”

This little story illustrates a crucial aspect about communication: In a nutshell, the process is simple. There is someone, referred to as the sender, who intends to transmit a message. Then there is a recipient, whose task it is to decode the information (s)he receives. If successful, the result is mutual understanding between the two (or more) parties. In the parable, the animal knows “The bear has a hit list and I am on it”.

This is largely what we learn from our parents, in schools and universities. We learn to use words to express ourselves. We learn the grammar, spelling and often even several languages to be able to speak to each other, to read and write and so forth. At last, it is communication that allows us to make sense of the world we live in.

Simultaneously, this is also where the challenges and problems lie. Communication is so inherent and central to human life that people often overlook its relevance and complexity. Therefore, miscommunication lies at the root of many problems we encounter in personal and professional settings. These problems form beyond the surface of a message being transferred, heard and understood.

Here are three reasons why communication is often unsuccessful:

1. Communication is more than transfer of issue-related information. Two thirds of what is being exchanged in a conversation is non-verbal. We use visual and acoustic channels and communicate constantly through our appearance, body language and voice. This includes means such as gestures, posture, facial expressions, voice tone, speed and volume.
Our bodies generate, read and understand this information subconsciously and react accordingly. Thus, knowledge about the meaning and application of non-verbal communication elements can help us to align our messages with our intentions and to understand the true thoughts and feelings of others better.

In the parable: Could the animals have read in the non-verbal elements of the bear’s message that there was room for negotiation?

2. Some of the key situations and challenges that can heavily influence our success in life, depend on our communication skills. It is the ability to communicate confidently, authentically and positively that is required if we want to succeed in a job interview, in small-talk situations when we try to make friends and connections, when we introduce ourselves to a prospective landlord, future parents in law or when we are on a first date. We might also intend to negotiate a higher salary or buy and sell products or services. The mastery of communication skills takes conscious effort and practical exercise for most of us, which only plays a minor role in schools and universities to date. Therefore we stay unable to reach our potential. The reality is even closer to the contrary in light of surveys revealing that one of people’s biggest fears is public speaking.

In the parable: Could there have been a better approach of communication when the  animals went to the bear by which, as a result, the roe buck and the wild boar might have still been alive?

3. We all have different value systems and beliefs through which we see and understand the world. These value systems are inherent in our communication and make sense to ourselves. Unfortunately we often fail to bring these across to our conversation partners. We focus on “facts” that are aligned with our personal belief system and fail to connect with the value systems of others when we communicate. This is true for men who say they will never understand women (and vice versa), for managers and their staff who are permanently frustrated and opposing each other and even for religious leaders who claim to know the truth. In each of these examples, empathic, open-minded communication between the parties, guided by the principles of tolerance, equality and respect, would be the answer. This way of communicating requires more effort and time, since we have to ask questions and listen to our counterpart. The alternatives though, if the communication stays shallow, are permanent arguments and frustration in romantic relationships, burn out syndromes and dismissals at work or hate speech and war against an “enemy” we simply fail to understand.

How often do we leave a conversation wondering what the other person actually meant by
what (s)he said, just like the animals have left the bear without inquiring the context around the hit list?

Throughout our lives as social beings, we are interconnected with others in countless ways. Other people are our best resources, as it is usually them who can open or close doors for us. When we start to consider these points and realize that the systematic and conscious use of communication skills can help us to build better connections, reach our personal goals and therefore live a happier life, then this is where the art of communication starts.

Communication works for those who work at it – John Powell

Playing Mantis has launched a new workshop on ‘The Art of Successful Communication’. The first one will specialize on communication in the business context and is for sales people, customer care personnel, consultants and anyone who interacts with customers on a regular basis and intends to improve his customer relations.

Click here to read more about the workshop.

Presence exercise: 1 2 3


• Helping participants to become more present
• Practice listening and awareness skills
• Introducing improvisation fundamentals


In pairs participants count to 3 alternating between each other who says the next number.
Time: 5 – 10 minutes
Number of participants: In pairs
Game flow:

Ask the group to divide in pairs and face each other. Let them count to 3 each person contributing the next number. Demonstrate using a volunteer. It should look and sound something like this:
A: 1
B: 2
A: 3
B: 1
B: 3 ect.

Have the participants do this for a while. Stop them and tell them to replace 1 with a sound. So instead of saying one they have to make a sound. This same sound is repeated every time.

It might sound something like this:
A: boink
B: 2
A: 3
B: boink
A: 2
B: 3

Again, allow participants a brief time to go through the new action. Then, stop the participants and have them replace the number 2 with a physical move like a wave, clap or a jig. Let them do it for a while and then for the last round let them replace 3 with a random word. The last round would then look and sound something like this:

A: boink
B: (jig)
A: flower
B: boink
A: (jig)
B: flower

Debrief questions:

• What was interesting about the exercise?
• What did it feel like counting like this?
• What made it difficult?
• If you would have to do it again what would you do differently to make less mistakes?
• What influence did this exercise have on your relationship with your partner?


This is a very easy exercise and yet people struggle with it a lot at first. Often people try to do it better by planning ahead and anticipating what their next number will be. This results in them not listening to their partner totally losing the flow. In actual fact the easiest way to play the game is to just be present in the moment and listen to your partner and just respond. All you need to know is what comes after 1 and 2 and 3. How easy is that? These are the fundamentals of improvisation and collaboration. Be present, listen and contribute by building on your partner’s contribution.

Presence exercise: What I need to say…


• Helping participants to become more present
• Practice listening and awareness skills


In pairs participants share with each other what they need to say to be fully present. The sharing participant’s exact words are then mirrored back to them by his/her partner.

Time: 5 – 10 minutes

Number of participants: In pares or triads

Game flow:

Ask the group to divide in pairs or triads. Tell them that each person will get a turn to tell their partner/s what they need to say to be fully present. They should start their sentence with “what I need to say to be fully present is….” Their partner must then mirror their exact words back to them by starting their sentence with “I hear that what you have to say to be fully present is…” The person mirroring then may ask whether he/she heard correctly. The Sharing person may then add detail that the mirroring person missed or mirrored incorrectly. The mirroring person then without apologising mirrors the bits that they missed. When the sharing person is happy that the mirroring person got everything they thank their partner by saying “Thank you for listening” and the mirroring partner replies with “Thank you for sharing”.


Ask them to share any thought or feeling that is pulling them either into the past or the future that is preventing them from being present. They only have to share what they are comfortable sharing with the other person.
It is important that the person mirroring does not give an interpretation of what they heard, but try to use the exact same words as far as possible. The other person in the group can then add if any detail was not mirrored back to the speaker. The exercise is not so much about saying what you need to say to be present, but being listened to fully without judgement.
Demonstrate using a personal example. Not only will this help the participants to understand the exercise better but it will help you to feel more present and build trust between you and the participants.

Debrief questions:

• How did you experience the exercise?
• How was your listening different than usual?
• What did it feel like being listened to like this?
• Did this exercise help you to become more present?
• Why or why not?


When we listen to people like this we help them to become fully present. In essence, what we are doing is accepting them and showing them that they are welcome and worth being listened to. And as you focus and listen to the other person you also become more present. So it is being listened to as well as listening that helps one to become more present. This exercise was adopted from Imago relationship therapy, a style of dialogue aimed at restoring connection between partners ,by guiding them to the present moment. It was developed by American psychologist, Harville Hendrix.

How to Communicate Confidently

Grow your voice book cover

“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech. Powerlessness and silence go together.” – Margaret Atwood, Writer

I learned the secret of confident speaking when I was 16. I was performing before a judges’ panel at the Stellenbosch Eisteddfod. The category I was performing in? Poetry. The poem? ‘Die Dag op Nuweland’ – a satire by Jeanne Goosen about a typical South African rugby match, a day at Cape Town’s Newlands rugby stadium.

The judges had already heard me perform, but they had called me back to do it again. As I stood there I had no idea why.

Since I was 11 I had taken part in speech and drama classes and competitions. This was the first time I saw the judges requesting a repeat and, believe me, I had been at many of these competitions.

Were they thinking it had been so great that it must have been a fluke and they wanted to see whether I could do it again? Did they not like my performance? Had I failed so miserably that they wanted to give me a second chance?

I remember deciding to forget why, and to give it my best shot.

I also remember doing two very specific things during my second performance.

First, I looked straight in their direction, fixing my gaze on them and unveiling my eyes so that they could see into my soul. Fearlessly, I allowed them to see what I saw in the words.

Second, I remember matching that unveiling of my intention with my voice.

I took the first words: “Hoera Boland en Haak Vrystaat!”

It was as if I had the ball tucked in the crook of my arm, was aiming at the goal line and pumping my legs, running free, fast and furious.

My voice was controlled by my breath, supported by a rock hard diaphragm, allowing it to resonate in a completely relaxed chest cavity, while the muscles in and around my mouth clearly and carefully shaped each word as I followed the rhythm and melody of the poem.

I did not allow tension or fear to show, and not once did I let nerves and uncertainty interfere with my voice.

As I drew the performance to a close, I held the attention in silence for a moment and then broke off my gaze. The audience was quiet for moment and then one of the judges stood up and began to clap. The rest of the audience followed with thunderous applause (well, thunderous for the twenty-odd people who were there for their own children’s performances). It was the first time I received 100% for a performance. I had cracked the secret of pulling an audience into the performance as opposed to bombarding them with it.

Here is the thing: I could only guess at where the judges sat and whether I was looking them in the eyes or not.

You see, I am partially sighted, I cannot look anyone in the eye without faking it. I have no central vision (I call it doughnut vision because all the good stuff is on the sides with just a hole in the middle). If I look straight at anyone, I cannot see them. This can either cause me to look blank and unreceptive, or I can choose to look straight at them and not see them, but unveil my eyes and let them see into my soul.

This is a trick I had learned long before, so that the cute, cruel boys in grade 5 would not call me Crossed Eyes. Unmasked authenticity is disarming, intriguing, rare and memorable.

But once the audience is inside, they must find something there that is worthwhile and meaningful, something that is powerful and promising, especially if they are to be part of it. This is where your voice and your message come into the picture.

At my poetry performance of ‘Die Dag op Nuweland’, I learned to match that pull of the unveiled soul with a voice that did the same, but this time with something worthwhile to offer in return. Drawing the audience into how you see things invites them into a world set apart from their own.

If that world is inviting and engaging, they are moved by the confidence you have in your message and material. This is the opposite of what most people think communication is about. Most people think it is about getting the message across the big divide between you and someone else. They think it is about throwing it out there and hoping it will hit the mark.

It is not about throwing the message out, but about drawing the audience in.

A speaker’s voice must invite confidence and instil trust, while at the same time it commands attention and motivates the audience.

A voice that is both inviting and influential possesses certain physical qualities. Most voices do not have these qualities naturally. Yet, with knowledge and practice you too can cultivate this kind of voice.

As with training for the Comrades marathon (89 km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg), your body needs to unlearn bad habits and relearn new ones. When you train for a marathon, you need to teach your muscles to persist working under strain. You have to condition them so that adjusting to the road and the conditions becomes automatic and you can keep your mind on your goal.

“If you don’t ever stop singing, your voice stays in shape. It’s like the marathon runner. You’ve got to run, run, run to stay in shape.” – Sammy Hagar, Musician

Similarly, speaking invitingly and confidently with a trained voice can become automatic so that you can keep your mind on the message and the audience.

To replace unwanted habits with new ones takes at least six weeks of dedicated hard work. This course is designed to lead you through such a six-week training programme so that the vocal habits you need for confident, inviting communication becomes automatic.

Grow your voice is a six-week course designed to help you automatically

• find a good posture that helps you relax and communicate confidence

• use breath to control your voice and your nerves

• produce a rich, warm voice that invites attention and instils trust

• shape sounds skilfully so that every word is heard without strain

• create emotional engagement by enticing the listener to keep on listening.

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

You have just read the introduction to my book: Grow your voice to Speak with Confidence. The book is a 6 week course and includes a training CD with exercises.

Click here if you would like to buy the book.

Come to one of our workshops or courses.

Or contact me for individual coaching options.

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Improv class 2.3 – The cure for our semi autism

The theme of last week’s improv class was “be affected by what you hear”. We started the class with a relaxing exercise, focusing on the sounds we heard around us. This was followed by a name game called “George” that I learned at the IO theatre in Chicago. After that we played the famous Keith Johnston game called “Its Tuesday”. In this game participants pair up. One player says a random line such as “It’s Tuesday” or “you are wearing a dress” or anything. The other player over accepts the statement and reacts very emotional. The reaction increases until it reaches absurdity. In some cases the player might even die a comical death. This exercise was followed by an exercise that I learned from Armondo Diaz at last year’s Applied Improv Conference. In the exercise one player says a random opening line. The other player must react in a way that shows that the other player’s statement is important to them. In other words they react with a strong emotion. The reason why they had a strong reaction becomes the focus of the scene.

The application of being affected by what you hear went through my thoughts the whole week. And then I decided to Google it and see what pops up. The article that drew my attention the most was about Autism. The one thing that struck me was that autistic children are not affected by what they hear. Often parents of autistic children will at first think that their child is deaf because they don’t react to their names or sounds such as a door closing. The child does hear but is just not affected by the sound. It is as if they hear but don’t register the sound because of some process in their brain that is not functioning properly. It sounds a lot like the statement that we’ve all heard so often from teachers, “you hear, but you don’t listen.” The article reports that, “Hearing without listening is useless to produce intelligent social interaction. The value of hearing is measured in the ability to listen and respond to auditory information. If an autistic child can not listen and respond intelligently their hearing is useless.” Isn’t it true that we all suffer from some form of autism? Hearing but not listening? Why is that? I believe it is because we are not present when we are listening to others. We are up in our heads, worrying, thinking about other things. This state of being up in our heads I believe is very similar to the autistic brain processes not functioning properly. The article about autism ends of with a form of treatment that can help autistic children to improve their malfunctioning brain process. It is called monaural speech development. The rest of us can also improve our semi autism by learning to be more present and less up in our heads. The treatment for this I call Improvisation.

Want to take an improv class? click here

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