8 Tips For Better Communication Skills
Every workplace interaction—be it written, virtual, or in-person—involves communication. In fact, we communicate so frequently, we rarely even think about it. Yet the ability to communicate effectively might be your most critical skill as a leader.
Effective communication is challenging, however. Do you worry that you don’t always convey your message effectively? Do you tend to avoid talking about challenging topics? Do you find yourself caught up in endless rounds of unintended arguments? Powerful communication skills can help address these common leadership issues.
The good news is that better communication skills can be learned and even mastered.
You can start by approaching all your communications mindfully—always paying close attention to what you are saying, and how. Observe how others around you communicate, and the reactions—both positive and negative—that they elicit.
And if careful and mindful observation aren’t enough, you may even want to consider professional instruction. Good communication is so central to successful leadership, many leadership training courses or professional development programs incorporate communication skills into the curriculum.
As you think about your workplace interactions, these eight tips can help improve your communication skills.
1. Be clear and concise
Communication is primarily about word choice. The key to powerful and persuasive communication—whether written or spoken—is clarity and, when possible, brevity.
Define your goals and your audience before engaging in any form of communication.
Outlining carefully and explicitly what you want to convey, and why, will help ensure that you include all necessary information. It will also help you eliminate irrelevant details.
Avoid unnecessary words and overly flowery language, which can distract from your message.
For example, think through how you might prepare in these two common communication scenarios:
(1) You have to give a performance evaluation to an employee: You’ll want to be sure that you come prepared with a list of concrete examples of your employee’s behavior to support your evaluation.
(2) You want to negotiate for a better salary or a promotion: Be ready to discuss ranges and potential compromises; know what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. Be prepared to offer specific details to support your case, such as relevant salaries for your position and your location. Research publicly available information, so you don’t rely on company gossip or anecdotal evidence.
Before entering into any conversation, brainstorm potential questions, requests for additional information or clarification, and possible points of disagreement so you are ready to address them calmly and clearly.
3. Be mindful of nonverbal communication
Our facial expressions, gestures, and body language can, and often do, say more than our words.
According to research, nonverbal cues can have between 65 and 93 percent more impact than the spoken word. And we are more likely to believe the nonverbal signals over spoken words if the two are in disagreement.
Leaders must be especially adept at reading nonverbal cues. Your employees’ nonverbal cues can tell you a lot. For instance, team members who may be unwilling to voice disagreements or concerns may show their discomfort through crossed arms or an unwillingness to make eye contact.
At the same time, you have to control your own nonverbal communications to ensure that they support your message. At best, conflicting verbal and nonverbal communication can cause confusion. At worst, it can undermine your message and your team’s confidence in you, your organization, and even in themselves.
4. Watch your tone
How you say something can be just as important as what you say. As with other nonverbal cues, your tone can add power and emphasis to your message, or it can undermine it entirely.
Tone can be an especially important factor in workplace disagreements and conflict. A well-chosen word with a positive connotation creates good will and trust. A poorly chosen word with unclear or negative connotations can quickly lead to misunderstanding.
When speaking, tone includes volume, projection, and intonation as well as word choice. In real time, it can be challenging to control tone to ensure that it matches your intent. But being mindful of your tone will enable you to alter it appropriately if a communication seems to be going in the wrong direction.
Tone can be easier to control when writing. Be sure to read your communication once, even twice, while thinking about tone as well as message. You may even want to read it out loud or ask a trusted colleague to read it over, if doing so does not breach confidentiality.
And when engaging in a heated dialogue over email or other written medium, don’t be too hasty in your replies.
If at all possible, write out your response but then wait for a day or two to send it. In many cases, re-reading your message after your emotions have cooled allows you to moderate your tone in a way that is less likely to escalate the conflict.
5. Practice active listening
When it comes to communicating successfully, listening is just as important as speaking. But active listening is far more challenging than we realize.
In Mastering the Basics of Communication, Marjorie North, communication expert and instructor at Harvard Professional Development Programs, notes that we only hear about half of what the other person says during any given conversation.
The goal of active listening is to ensure that you hear not just the words the person is saying, but the entire message. Some tips for active listening include:
Give the speaker your full and undivided attention
Clear your mind of distractions, judgements, and counter-arguments
Avoid the temptation to interrupt with your own thoughts
Show open, positive body language to keep your mind focused and to show the speaker that you are really listening
Rephrase or paraphrase what you’ve heard when making your reply
Ask open ended questions designed to elicit additional information
6. Build your emotional intelligence
Communication is built upon a foundation of emotional intelligence. Simply put, you cannot communicate effectively with others until you can assess your own feelings and understand theirs.
“If you’re aware of your own emotions and the behaviors they trigger, you can begin to manage these emotions and behaviors,” says Margaret Andrews, Harvard Professional Development Programs instructor, in How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence.
Leaders with a high level of emotional intelligence will naturally find it easier to engage in active listening, maintain appropriate tone, and use positive body language. They will also find it easier to empathize with their employees and team members. Emotional intelligence—like good communication skills—may not come naturally to all leaders. Luckily, this too is a leadership skill that can be learned and mastered.
Do you find it difficult to start or engage in conversations you know will be difficult? Improving your emotional intelligence can help.
You may still have to deliver bad news, but (actively) listening to your employee’s perspective and showing that you understand their feelings can go a long way toward smoothing hurt feelings or avoiding misunderstandings.
7. Develop a workplace communication strategy
Today’s workplace is a constant flow of information across a wide variety of formats. Every single communication must be understood in the context of that larger flow of information.
Even the most effective communicator may find it difficult to get their message across without a workplace communication strategy.
A communication strategy is the framework within which your business conveys and receives information. It can—and should—outline how and what you communicate to customers and clients, stakeholders, and managers and employees.
At the broadest level, your strategy should incorporate who gets what message and when. This ensures that everyone receives the correct information at the right time.
From there, your strategy can detail how you communicate, including defining the type of tools you use for which information. For example, you may define when it’s appropriate to use a group chat for the entire team or organization or when a meeting should have been summarized in an email instead.
Creating basic communication guidelines can streamline the flow of information. It will help ensure that everyone gets the details they need and that important knowledge isn’t overwhelmed by extraneous minutia.
8. Create a positive organizational culture
The corporate culture in which you are communicating also plays a vital role in effective communication.
In a positive work environment—one founded on transparency, trust, empathy, and open dialogue—communication in general will be easier and more effective.
Employees will be more receptive to hearing their manager’s message if they trust that manager. And managers will find it easier to create buy-in and even offer constructive criticism if they encourage their employees to speak up, offer suggestions, and even offer constructive criticisms of their own.
As Lorne Rubis, organizational cultural expert and Harvard Professional Development Programs instructor, notes in Six Tips for Building a Better Workplace Culture, “The most dangerous organization is a silent one.”
Communication, in both directions, can only be effective in a culture that is built on trust and a foundation of psychological safety.
Authoritative managers who refuse to share information, aren’t open to suggestions, and refuse to admit mistakes and accept criticism are likely to find their suggestions and criticisms met with defensiveness or even ignored altogether.
Without that foundation of trust and transparency, even the smallest communication can be misconstrued and lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict.
Communicating with co-workers and employees is always going to present challenges. There will always be misunderstandings and miscommunications that must be resolved and unfortunately, corporate messages aren’t always what we want to hear, especially during difficult times.
But building and mastering effective communication skills will make your job easier as a leader. Taking the time to develop these skills through careful self-study and ongoing professional education will certainly be time well-spent.