Weekly roundup: 3 ways to improve your communication skills

Whether you’re working remotely, spending your days in an office with a big team, or your calendar is full of one-on-one meetings, communication is a big part of the workday for most of us. It’s also something we’re rarely trained in, so most of us could stand to improve our communication skills.

Try these approaches to lift your communication game with your colleagues, your boss, and even strangers.

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1. Ask more questions

Unfortunately, many of us struggle with making a good first impression when we meet someone new. If you’re like me, meeting a stranger probably involves a lot of internal conversation about what you should say, how to make them like you, how to be interesting, and what not to do.

The problem with this approach is that internal conversation makes us focus on ourselves and our behavior, rather than focusing on the person we’re talking to. We worry so much about not looking stupid and about being likable that we end up being terrible conversation partners because we’re so focused on ourselves.

An easy way to improve this situation is to ask more questions. A study actually tested how well this works by having participants use instant messages to chat with other participants. Each person in the study was told to either ask no more than four questions or no fewer than nine questions. After the chat, both participants rated how much they liked their conversation partner.

Those who asked a lot of questions (at least nine) ended up with the highest likability ratings. And the researchers found asking follow-up questions that encouraged the other person to expand on what they’re saying was the best approach. These questions show that you’re listening and you’re interested, so they tend to increase how likable you seem during a conversation.

Asking questions that follow up on what someone’s saying also forces you to listen intently, which gets you out of your head and stops you from focusing on your own contributions.

So next time you’re in a conversation, try to listen carefully and look for opportunities to ask follow-up questions.

2. Make requests in-person

Another common mistake we can avoid with a little education is that most of us overestimate how persuasive we can be via text-based mediums, like email, and underestimate how persuasive we are in-person.

One study tested this by having participants ask people to complete a survey either via email or face-to-face. The study found people were more likely to agree to do the survey when asked in-person than via email.

The study also asked participants to rate how successful they would be in persuading people to take the survey, and found most people expected email to work better than it did, and underestimated how well face-to-face requests would fare. Part of this inaccuracy in predicting which methods would work, suggest the researchers, came from the fact that participants expected their request would come across via email as legitimate and worthy of the other person’s time, because they believed it was.

But text-based communication methods lack a lot of the non-verbal cues that make our requests appear more legitimate and trustworthy:

… when we replicated our results in a second study we found the nonverbal cues requesters conveyed during a face-to-face interaction made all the difference in how people viewed the legitimacy of their requests, but requesters were oblivious to this fact.

So whether you’re asking for time off, a promotion, or just some help with a task, you’re better off asking in-person if possible. You might not notice any difference in the way you ask, but your request is more likely to be granted due to the presence of non-verbal cues.

3. Pay more attention to non-verbal cues

While we’ve just seen evidence of how non-verbal cues can make a big difference in how our communication is perceived by others, it can be easy to ignore or forget them entirely.

A handy exercise to help you identify and focus on your non-verbal cues is to practice a conversation or speech using made-up, gibberish language. Suppose you’re planning to give a speech at a friend’s wedding or birthday. You’re feeling a lot of pressure to perform well, and you want to be clear, understandable, and funny.

To get an idea of what body language you’re using and how you can improve it, try filming yourself giving the speech using gibberish. When you can’t use real words to get your meaning across, you have to rely more heavily on non-verbal behaviors, so you’ll be more clear in your gestures, your facial expressions, and your body language.

After practicing this way, you’ll be more aware of your body language when you give the speech using real language, and your communication will improve as a result.

Another exercise you can do to practice noticing and reading body language in others is to watch a movie scene on mute, or watch some colleagues having a conversation from far away so you can’t hear them. Using only non-verbal cues, try to figure out what the conversation is about, and what message each person is imparting when they speak. You might be surprised at how much you can figure out about a conversation without even hearing any of the words!

This exercise will make you realize how much is shared in body language and gestures, and will help you take more notice of non-verbal cues next time you’re having a conversation.


Do you have a go-to tip that’s helped with your communication? Let us know in the comments.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.