Communicating Is Not A Competitive Sport

In my family, we hated inhaling. Exhaling was by far our favorite respiratory function. You could talk while exhaling (not so much while inhaling). You see, in my family, endless debate was more popular than Monday Night Football, and debating was the ultimate challenge of endurance and breath control. The expression “talk till you are blue in the face” was not so much a clich? as it was a colorful description of the perpetual facial hue of a family gathering in my childhood. Dinner was not an occasion to consume food, it was a chance to move to another room and continue the discussion while chewing. Dinner gave the real champions the opportunity to show their skill at controlling a conversation while consuming a Thanksgiving Dinner complete with gravy, dressing and debate points. We liked a lively debate in my family. Subject matter, facts, point-of-view, and consistency mattered only as long as their presence did not interfere with a good argument. (The first time I heard the expression, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!” I did not realize it was considered a humorous expression.) More often than not, we would change sides during a debate if there were an absence of decent opposition and as a result a lack of vehemence in the “other sides” presentation. In many ways, this was the verbal equivalent of Tag Team Wrestling, only without actual teams, fewer rules, and better table manners. (No metaphysical body slams at the table please!) We learned to love the art of debate, the use of words as tools to communicate a thought and initiate an action, and the thrill of influencing another’s decision and ultimate course of action. However, we were not trying to sell anything. There was never a tangible outcome, nor was their the intent to have a tangible outcome. None of us wanted the debate to end. I mean, if we could not debate, what was the point of talking? (Nice shoes. Are they new?) For some recruiters, the same attitude about communications seems to persist. Unsuccessful recruiters, I might add. Those who feel that as long as they keep talking, the deal is not dead. Those who feel that communications is not unlike an avalanche, burying their candidates or clients under a deep blanket of salesmanship, bravado, endless chatter, and random shots of assumed closing arguments, flung with the same purposelessness and abandonment of a 2-year-old child showing dislike for its stewed peas and carrots by decorating both the parent and the wall behind the parent. For those whose recruiting communications style has been less than successful, I recommend one of the following signs for your office or cubicle wall:

  • Silence is golden. So be quiet and get golden!
  • Communication begins when YOU stop talking!
  • Listen to the other person. You already know what you think.
  • If you are not making the decision, why are you talking?
  • If you are talking, how will you learn what the customer wants to buy?
  • In sales, the one who talks the most loses!
  • The time you spend talking is in indirect proportion to the size of your wallet.
  • Your influence on the outcome comes from what you know! Not what you say!

In radio school, they teach that communication requires a transmitter and a receiver. One is essentially giving up information while the other is absorbing that information. The more time you are “transmitting,” the less time you are “receiving” and the less information you have to influence the decision making process of another. A great communicator is always a great listener. It does not hold true that a great speaker is also a great communicator. There are several basic staffing communications styles I have identified in my career:

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  • The Law Giver: This person preaches to candidates during the interview. “Do you know why we are the best? I’ll tell you why we are the best! Hallelujah…”
  • The Sandpaper or Cheese Grater: This person wears a candidate down through redundancy, repetition and redundancy. “Think about it, I mean, think about it. Isn’t this just what you want, isn’t it? I mean you could just die this is so good for you!”
  • The Bear Trap Interrogator: Every question has a pointed purpose and each answer is pounced upon like scared prey. “But I thought you said you liked working in a team. Well, which is it, team or individual contributor? Well, speak up. I don’t have all day! ANSWER ME!!!”
  • The Faint of Heart: This person is afraid to hear any answer that changes their preconceived notions. “I guess wanting to do sales is not all that different from mechanical assembly. Yeah, that’s not a problem.”
  • The Helmsman: This person steers the conversation to fit their desire. “But I would think you would really rather have the opportunity to change industries now…before you risk excelling and making a name for yourself!”
  • The Angry Suitor: This person takes the candidate’s remarks personal. “So (sigh!), I go to all the trouble to arrange this interview, and now you want out of it? Thanks, thanks a lot ole’ buddy.” (Stamp feet on floor now.)
  • The Leave It Till Later: No question is so important that it cannot be ignored for at least one more day. “The position title? Well, what’s in a name? I can always call you back with that information. But really, is what they call you all that important? I mean, Project Manager, Vice President, Custodial Engineer. What’s in a name?”
  • The Apparent Parent: They assume the candidate still needs a Mommy or a Daddy. “Now, I know that you think silly ole’ Mr. Money is important, but trust me, in time you will see how right I am. Yes you will! Yes you will! Goobely goobely, goobely!”
  • The Big Buddy: Tries to use imagined closeness to communicate. “Hey, how long have we been working together on this? One, two, maybe three hours? After all this time, you still do not trust me with your future? Like, wow!”

Then there is the alternative:

  • The Great Communicator or Echo Chamber: Uses previously “received information” sending it back to the “original transmitter”. It is a familiar message–their own (not yours!). “When we first met, it was your concern for the future of your company that was motivating you. Has something happened to make that change?”

A skilled communicator started listening to the candidate at the first point of contact. They saved email traffic and took notes during phone conversations. The face-to-face interview notes were saved for future reference. (That is why many of us actually take notes and refrain from drawing airplanes and “Army guys” during an interview.) The file is updated with each contact. Most conversations begin, “Hi! Good to hear from you today. What can I do for you?” The conversation does not begin, “Hey, am I glad you called, I was about to dial the phone. Let ME tell you what I have done for you today!” Do not fear the potential information the caller has for you. Listen to your candidates and clients and learn to respond to their actual input, not your “spin” on their input. Refrain from feeling the need to fill each silence with the sound of your own voice or to blunt any comment before it is made. Information is the tool we use to do our jobs. How often have I given a vendor an update on a situation only to have them lead into the presentation they had planned before the call, or my update, making no effort to change that presentation? (“Look, I have no entry level positions open right now. What I really need is an intermediate candidate with 5-7 years experience.” Response, “I hear ya, you don’t need to tell me. But, I have this bright kid, right out of college…”) I have to wonder if this vendor does such a poor job communicating when screening their candidates. If that is so, then how much faith should I place in what they have to say? The natural response people have when they know you are not listening to them is not to listen to you. If they are not listening, they are not buying. If they are not buying, you are not selling. (You ARE in the selling business, not the “talking” business, right?) It is not just an issue from a Vendor-Client perspective, there are the candidates and their expectations of us to consider as well. Many candidates are not all that sure about what it is they want in their career. They are still working it out themselves. In a perfect world, of unlimited time and opportunities, maybe the perfect job can be found. However, time and opportunities are not unlimited. The candidates rely on the agency recruiter and the company-staffing representative to help them. They assume that since we “live in the job world” that we have the knowledge to assist them in finding the 80% match that seems to be the nominal level of acceptable staffing. To do that, we have to communicate, and to communicate, we have to listen. But listen to what they want, not what we have available. That also means truly listening to what is being said and not inserting your own perception of what the candidate probably meant. Whether for reasons of selfishness, selflessness, or enlightened self-interest, recruiters (agency and corporate) are bigger spin-masters than all the politicians in the world. In a class on communications, I once said that all too often we act out the following sentence, “Is that what I thought I heard, when you say you said what I wasn’t really listening to as much as you assumed when you said it?” There is a time to speak in any business transaction. However, the more time you spend listening, the less time you will need to speak. From listening, you will have discovered the real needs of the candidate or client. Unencumbered by all the extra weight of your own rhetoric, you will have more directed energy to focus on the critical point of the sale, thereby achieving a successful conclusion to your business, at the expense of not engaging in an endless debate with no conclusion. (Sigh! Sorry, got homesick.) There is a lot you can do with the information a candidate, client, or vendor has to share. However, first you have to communicate. If you want to communicate, at some point in time you have to hear what the other person is saying. To hear what the other person is saying, you have to let them speak. To let them speak, you have to {Insert Answer Here}. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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