Communicating well is complicated.
Good Communication Skills sits near the top of every job description. So we know it’s important. We also generally know it when we see it. But nobody really teaches us this stuff.
Writing for the real world is overlooked in our schooling. Sure, we’re taught about nouns and verbs and compound and complex sentences; and we learn how to write a thesis statement, topic sentences, paragraphs, conclusions; and maybe we write and defend our PhD dissertations. But we’re never really taught how to write for real life.
Same with speaking. We might be forced to take a public speaking or debate course; we all have to do a certain number of presentations. But I don’t recall it ever going beyond that. I don’t recall anyone ever explicitly teaching me how to give negative feedback in a gentle way; or how to disagree tactfully; or how to deal with a prickly and defensive colleague. We just pick this up as we go. Or we don’t.
But if we have a job, it’s “show time” with our communication skills. Business is about people. People buying or selling or teaching or serving or collaborating or…something. People interacting with other people. That’s what business is. So that means it’s about relationships. Which means it’s about communication.
Just for fun I Googled “what’s the number one reason people go to marriage counselling”. Guess what I found? Communication issues. Over and over and over. When communication is poor, relationships break down. Marriages, businesses…whatever. Good communication leads to better relationships.
And here’s the other thing about business. The further you go in your career the more critical your communication skills become. Initially, being good at your job – the tasks, the knowledge, the stuff you have to do – is good enough to progress in your career. At some point though, you’ll head toward a management role and then all of a sudden your role will be more about your skill with people than about just doing the “job”. You’ve got to eventually learn how to manage people, and that often comes down to your communication skills.
At work we’ve got a few different types of communication we might have to do. We need to be able to communicate to people below us, above us, beside us, and outside of our organization. You have to be able to adjust your communication based on these different types. Are you leading? Informing? Taking direction? Training? Correcting? Sharing? Proposing? Disagreeing? Collaborating? Selling? Problem solving? Directing? Mentoring? Ideally, we need to be developing the skills that allow us to have all of these different sorts of conversations, with all of these different sorts of people.
Okay, Lesley, that’s great, but how do we do this? What are the good communicators doing that the poor communicators aren’t doing? How do we improve if we’re not even sure where our weaknesses are?
We know good communication when we see it. We know that a good communicator is clear and to the point and connects well with the listener. They get their message read (all the way through), understood (on the first reading), and acted upon (because it’s crystal clear what the reader is supposed to do). But how do we get there?
What underlies good communication?
Here’s what I think:
A Clear Purpose
If you’re not sure why you’re writing or speaking or what you want to happen, it’s pretty unlikely that your audience will be able to figure it out. The moment your thinking is clear, your communication is clear.
You have to know what you’re talking about. Obviously, if you’re fuzzy about your understanding of something your communication will be fuzzy. Fuzzy communication reflects fuzzy thinking. Clear communication reflects clear thinking.
Emotional intelligence is too big to handle here, but empathy is, briefly, the ability to feel and understand another person’s emotional experience. How do we develop this? If you feel you’re a bit weak on empathy and are not sure what to do about it, my advice would be to “read and listen”. Talk to people. Be curious. Ask for feedback from others (so you start to hear what others think). Train yourself to pay more attention to non-verbal cues like body language, facial expression, tone of voice. Reading and listening will expose you to different ideas, different ways of thinking, different possibilities, different experiences …and will go a long way in helping you remain open and empathetic. This will help you “know” your audience which is absolutely critical to good communication.
Word choice and tone
Essentially, don’t be a pretentious so-and-so. Just speak like a person: from a person to a person. Nobody likes to feel confused or intimidated. So act, speak, and write accordingly. Know who you’re talking to and why, and that will direct your word choice and tone. Are you trying to persuade someone? Challenge them? Make them feel better? Get their cooperation?
Communication is complicated – because humans are complicated.
But there are lots of pretty simple things we can do to become better communicators. Hope this helps!
Thanks for reading!