Research has consistently shown that communication is one of the most highly valued skills within the workplace. For example, in the 2017 Future of Work report, communication was identified as the most important skill for future workplaces. Similarly, a recent survey by Hays found that communication is one of the top skills Australian employers look for in permanent employees.
While strong communication skills are highly sought-after, they are not something we are really taught in school. Being an effective communicator also requires constant effort and attention, as every interaction is a test of your skills.
The good news is, there are a few simple things you can do to become a better communicator. Here we explore what these are and share our advice on the best ways to keep your communication skills sharp.
The importance of good communication
At its core, effective communication is all about developing a shared understanding. It is the exchange of information and ideas, usually with the goal of creating consensus, attaining agreement, or securing support. As such, the strength of your communication skills ultimately underpins your ability to engage with others and build relationships.
This is particularly true in the workplace, where your success will generally rely on your ability to relate to others. You will often need to collaborate and build rapport with people from different backgrounds and life experiences. This is where having a good grasp on the basics of effective communication can really help.
Sharpening your communication skills
Even if you feel you are already quite an effective communicator, there is always room to improve. Whenever you are interacting with others, we recommend focusing on the following five elements of good communication.
1. Active listening
We tend to think about communication as a one-way street, focusing on how well we get our point across. However, effective communication is reciprocal, with each participant playing an equal role. As such, it is important to be conscious of both the give and take of your conversations.
As part of this, you need to understand the difference between listening to hear and listening to respond. When you are listening to hear, you are actively paying attention to, and fully processing, the content of the conversation. Whereas when you are listening to respond, you are just waiting until you can talk again.
People can usually tell when you are not really hearing them and will assume this means you are not interested. To overcome this, whenever you talk to someone, make sure you give them your full attention. Asking questions and repeating key points are also great ways to show that you are actually listening.
2. Understanding your audience
How you talk to a colleague will usually be quite different to how you talk to a client. Your tone of voice and the language you use will generally change based on who you are talking to. Even the structure of your conversation can vary depending on the audience.
With that in mind, you should always be conscious of who you are communicating with and adjust your style accordingly. By understanding the motivations and interests of each audience you engage with, you can tailor your messaging to them. This should help them retain the information, build trust and rapport with them, and, ultimately, make your communication more effective.
It is also worth taking the time to understand each audience’s preferred communication methods and, where possible, use these. For example, imagine you have a client that rarely answers phone calls but responds to emails almost immediately. This would suggest that email is their preferred contact method and how you should generally communicate with them.
3. Being direct and consistent
Ideally, you should have some idea of what you want to say before you start communicating. This means taking the time to think about your key messages and the outcome that you are hoping for. It also means considering the best way to express this and the additional information you will need to provide.
As a general rule, it is always better to err on the side of brevity. To help with this, imagine you only have 30 seconds with your audience – how would you get your message across? Focus on these key points and only provide additional information if it is relevant or requested.
Where possible, you should also aim to repeat your key points throughout your communications. This will make your messaging clearer, more consistent, and easier for your audience to remember.
4. Following up words with action
While a good conversation is great, it means little if it does not result in tangible actions. As such, it is important to make sure any expected outcomes are clearly defined and agreed in your communications. You should also agree on the expected timeline and set up a follow up conversation, if required.
Once commitments have been made, it is critical you deliver on them, on time and as agreed. Failing to do this will lead to distrust and undermine the credibility of any future communications. If you run into any issues, call these out early and explain how and when you expect to overcome them.
5. Communicating regularly
Chances are, most of the communicating you will do within the workplace will not be a once-off. From colleagues you speak to every day to clients you interact with multiple times a year, most conversations will be ongoing. They will also build over time, as your relationship strengthens and your shared knowledge increases.
Acknowledging this, having some structure to your communications can make it easier to keep the conversation going. For example, scheduling a weekly meeting with your colleagues will help make sure you regularly check in with each other. It also provides a forum to raise issues, increases accountability, and can help reinforce good team dynamics.