Communication Skills for Success in Policy and Politics

Communication Skills for Success in Policy and Politics

Mary W. Chaffee

“You don’t have to be a person of influence to be influential.”

—Scott Adams

Effective communication skills are essential to advance policy initiatives and advocate for solutions to problems. Politics is the process of influencing the allocation of scarce resources. The act of influencing others occurs through communication. The process of influencing or persuading can occur in many ways, for example, in conversation at social events, through testimony, by e-mail, through social networking websites such as Facebook, and in meetings. This chapter will explore how you can communicate effectively—in person and in electronic formats—so your political efforts are more likely to be successful.

Communication Basics

Communication is simply the transfer of information. We communicate for specific reasons: to gather information, to direct, to educate, to provide feedback, to question, and to understand. The tools we use are spoken words and written symbols as well as nonverbal movements including eye contact and body movement. An important aspect of communicating is that we can learn to do it better and we can learn new communication skills.


Being able to influence others, to orchestrate support, and to inspire trust and confidence are the hallmarks of political skill (Ferris, Davidson, & Perrewe, 2005). Communicating effectively is how those activities are accomplished. People’s attitudes can be changed when they come in contact with information that alters their beliefs. This provides us with the opportunity to design the messages we write and speak in ways that can influence how people think. According to Perkins (2008), there are three ways to persuade someone about an issue:

Speaking or writing to persuade is different from communicating to only share information. The goal of informational communications is to have your audience remember specific facts. The goal of persuasive speaking or writing is to have your audience draw a conclusion about information to get them to believe something or take action (Young & Travis, 2008). Persuasion happens over time, but you may only have an e-mail, a short meeting with a policymaker, or a chance encounter in an elevator to convince someone to take action. This means your spoken and written words should be clear, concise, logical, and, ideally, rooted in evidence. When you advocate for solutions to problems by attempting to persuade others to support you or join you, don’t expect success each time. Rejection will occur no matter how effectively you make your case. Rejection can be difficult to deal with, but it demonstrates that you are working to solve problems and can provide you with guidance toward an alternative solution (Kush, 2004).

Listening: A Critical Communication Skill

The listening skills that permit nurses to gather and process information from patients can be successfully applied in policy and politics. Effective communication depends on effective listening. Effective listeners exercise conscious control over listening and maintain awareness of the message, voice tone, and non-verbal messages. Effective listeners remain objective until the entire message has been communicated (Chambers, 2001). Effective listening includes being patient, being curious, and paraphrasing what has been heard to ensure that it was received accurately. Asking questions indicates the listener is engaged and interested (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002).

Effective Communication “In Person”

First Impressions

When we meet another person, we instinctively assess, appraise, and form opinions within about 30 seconds (Boothman, 2000). It is important to recognize this instinct, especially if you are greeting someone with whom you want to obtain support from or assist you in your advocacy efforts. To make a good first impression, do the following:


Are you any less knowledgeable or committed if you wear comfortable old jeans and sandals to a meeting with a policymaker? No. Will you be taken as seriously as if you had on a business suit? Probably not. When it is important for you to be perceived as a credible professional, a professional image is important. Take care with your attire and how you present yourself, just as you do with your language and nonverbal communication. Whether we like it or not, opinions are formed about us initially based on our appearance.

Mingling at Social Events

Many people are uncomfortable attending social events where they know few people (or none). But social events that accompany business meetings, political events, or conferences offer many opportunities for networking. One way to consider these events, rather than with dread or fear, is to approach them with a plan to “work the room.” RoAne (2000) defines working a room as the ability to circulate comfortably and graciously through a gathering of people; meeting, greeting, and talking with as many of them as you wish; creating communication that is warm and sincere; establishing an honest rapport on which you can build a professional or personal relationship; and knowing how to start, how to continue, and how to end lively and interesting conversations (p. xxviii). Working a room isn’t a cold, calculated process, but it does involve some thought and care. Before attending an event, think about what it is you’d like to accomplish. Do you want to learn about a Medicare funding proposal? Do you want to meet people in your professional association? Do you need to find colleagues to work on a grassroots campaign? As you make connections that turn into ongoing professional relationships, or even friendships, you’ll feel better about tackling the next event or meeting on your schedule. Working a room is a new skill for many professionals. Learn from others who are experienced. Watch what they do to move effortlessly between conversations and what they do to make people feel comfortable.

Making Conversation (“Small Talk”)

Your mother may have taught you that silence is golden and not to talk to strangers, but those rules are problems at social events (Fine, 2005). “Small talk” lays the groundwork for more substantial conversation and for building relationships. One of the most effective ways to communicate is to assume the burden of introducing yourself to others and initiating a conversation. Many people find it easier to attend social events with a friend; this allays anxiety. If you are alone at an event, consider that there are likely others like you who don’t know other attendees. Take responsibility and initiate conversations with a greeting and an introduction. You may approach an individual or group, introduce yourself, and start chatting about a general topic (the weather, the meeting topic, the food). Some conversations will become interesting, and others won’t. Some groups will welcome you and include you in the conversations, and others won’t. The more you try, the more comfortable you’ll be and you’ll know what works best for you. Box 11-1 demonstrates behaviors that draw people into a conversation.


Etiquette is the set of expected behaviors in social situations that help make the situation go smoothly. Pagana (2008) describes in a book written for nurses how to make introductions and remember names, handle compliments and gossip, and deal with many other social issues. These are all situations where knowledge and comfort with the rules of etiquette make social interactions easier to manage. Being comfortable and competent with etiquette at meetings, when dining, and at work will enhance your communication skills.

Networking in Person

Networking can be defined as making contacts that may be valuable to you in some aspect of your professional activities. Networking is critical for nurses involved in policy and politics because most issues are advanced with the support and power of allies, colleagues, and those interested in attaining the same goal. Networking can occur in many places—at a social event or meeting, in a hallway, even when traveling or shopping. Sharing information is seen as a valuable benefit derived from developing a healthy network of professional contacts. Everyone needs information—to learn about employment opportunities, to track the status of a legislative issue, to identify colleagues who share a common interest, or to influence a policy. Effective networking is based on developing relationships with “contacts,” or individuals from whom you may obtain information, advice, or business. Always carry business cards, and keep the ones you collect organized and accessible. Jot down notes about conversations on the back of a card to jog your memory. The social role of networking cannot be minimized. It is much more enjoyable to tackle a problem, write a press release, or plan a campaign when working with a team of friends and colleagues than to do it alone.

Business Cards

Your card is a vital networking tool—both the paper and electronic versions. Carrying business cards is important in fostering new connections; you won’t impress new acquaintances by tearing a napkin in half and writing your name and number on it. As you collect business cards from colleagues, you may want to jot notes about the acquaintance on the card so you don’t forget an important connection. Keep the cards you collect in a file so you can access a needed card quickly. E-mail systems permit the creation of an electronic business card that can be attached to your outgoing e-mail traffic and saved in an electronic file.

Brief Biography

Your brief biography can be an important tool to introduce you, and it can be an important networking tool. You may be asked for a brief biography if you are going to be introduced at a meeting or other events. It should be a concise (less than one page) overview of who you are and what you do. Be concise, write in the third person, and briefly highlight your major achievements (Sundquist, 2010). Templates can be found on the Internet. Read the biographies of others when you have the opportunity to locate people who may have similar interests as you.

Skills to Improve Communication Effectiveness in Person

Ask for What You Want

To make things happen—whether you are at a reception, a congressional hearing, or a meeting with your boss—you often have to ask for things. Whether you are asking for a budget increase for your unit or the support of a policymaker, there are several key points to keep in mind. Your chances of success will increase if you do the following:

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Mar 18, 2017 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Communication Skills for Success in Policy and Politics

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