You might think that writing or designing or coding (or whatever your job title is) is your most important job at work. But it’s not. Communication is. (Stay with me for a minute). As First Round Review writes:
“No matter what, the fate of every company depends on the team’s ability to communicate clearly and constructively.”
This is hard to argue once you take a second to think about it. Without being able to clearly communicate and be heard, you won’t be in alignment. And as companies and products get more and more complex, this will only get more important.
As Caroline Fairchild, LinkedIn’s Managing News Editor, explains:
“In both developing and advanced economies… doing jobs that require human interaction (such as teachers and managers) will become more in-demand, while physically demanding jobs or work that requires processing data (like accountants) will fall by the wayside.”
So the good news is that communication is important. Here’s the bad: We’re not very good at it.
In fact, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees. We can only assume that number is even higher when you turn the tables.
Soft skills like communication have historically been shoved aside as ones we should all “just know” how to do. But more and more it’s clear that to do our best work, we need to actively learn how to communicate better.
“Good interpersonal skills are correlated with higher degrees of resiliency, satisfaction and higher productivity,” says Ann Mehl, an executive coach who has worked with companies like Kickstarter and Etsy.
“People start to feel safe in their immediate environment, and that allows for vulnerability and authenticity when it’s most important. If you can figure out how to make this standard at your company, you can focus on the work more.”
So, how can you make sure that you’re communicating clearly at work?
3 ways to improve your communication skills at work
1. Look for the bigger issues
Most people only realize they have a communication issue at work when something goes wrong.
A deadline gets missed or a deliverable isn’t what was expected and we blame it on not having enough information. So what happens next? New emails, more meetings, company-wide newsletters, Slack channels, and Trello boards.
However, taking problems at face value is a great way to solve the wrong problem.
As Art Markman, psychology professor and author of Smart Thinking explains, when working with a fast-growing company that was dealing with what they thought were communication issues:
“The assumption is that greater access to information is the solution. But the problem was not, as the organization first thought, that people weren’t communicating. The problem was that there was no clear structure defining what employees could and could not do.”
It’s easy to know what everyone’s doing and solve problems on the fly when you’re a small team. But when you grow, assuming everyone knows what to do is a recipe for disaster.
Before jumping into fixes for communication issues at work, start by examining what’s getting in the way of proper communication.
- Are roles and responsibilities clear so people know what they should be doing and what they should be communicating about?
- Does everyone have access to the information they need or even know what information they need access to?
- Are there processes in place so that people know where to look or who to talk to when they have problems?
What seems like an issue with communication is often just a symptom of something bigger. If people are unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing and don’t know where to turn, more unguided communication isn’t the answer.
2. Use open language to elicit more insightful and meaningful conversation
If a lack of structure and clarity isn’t causing your communication issues, it might be because people are afraid or unable to say what they truly mean.
Communication at work can either be transactional or relational. That is, it can be either used to get a quick answer to a question or to elicit real insight. Sure, sometimes all you need is to know when the meeting is starting. But for more nuanced conversations, there are some techniques you can use to make sure you’re getting the most from the person you’re talking to.
First, try to use open questions instead of closed questions. A closed question is one that only requires a yes or no answer. It does nothing to suggest there are subtleties to the work you need to do and can cause people to become tense and agitated. For example, “Will you hit your deadline this week?”
On the other hand, an open question asks for valuable input. It uses words like who, what, where, when, why, or how to show the person you’re speaking with that you value their input. For example, “What do you need to hit your deadline this week?”
Using open questions gives the person you’re talking to the opportunity to discuss factors you might not be aware of, like resource constraints or issues outside of work. Rather than treating your communication as purely transactional, this way you build a relationship, get more context, and can make better decisions about how to react.
And when it comes to reacting to communication, every workplace would benefit from more of what executive coaches Ann Mehl and Jerry Colonna call “nonviolent” communication. In a nutshell, this just means separating our observations from judgements.
“We might observe, ‘Jane is late to this meeting. Jane is late to a lot of meetings.’ That’s fine. We get into trouble when we tack on, ‘Jane has no respect for her colleagues.’ That’s not an observation. That’s a judgment. To get observation right, just stick to the facts,” they write in First Round Review.
Instead, a better response would be something like: “When you’re late to a meeting, it makes me feel like you’re not prioritizing the time.” This gives ‘Jane’ a chance to explain herself and give new information to help clarify what’s going on.
3. Better communication starts with better listening
The easiest thing you can do to get better at communication in the workplace is to simply stop talking for a second. As John Milinovich, product manager at Pinterest writes:
“Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is just give someone your full attention and make it clear to them that this is their time no matter what else I might have going on or how busy I might be.”
However, this isn’t always easy. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote how “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”
It’s that fighting for your turn to talk that causes communication to break down. When we don’t actually listen, we’re again treating communication as simply transactional. We’re not being open to learning and finding out new information. Instead, when we put in the effort to listen, we’re more likely to get what we need (and more) from the conversation.
Listening also allows us to dive deep into the subject. When Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks started to study conversations, she found that follow-up questions “seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.”
It can be hard to put your own thoughts aside and listen—especially when you’re in a heated conversation. But communicating clearly is as much what you don’t say, as what you do.
Read anything on what the future of work might look like and one thing seems almost certain: We’re going to be talking a lot more. The importance of communication in the workplace can’t be understated. And it’s only going to get more valuable in the years to come.
According to a recent report from McKinsey, “Workers of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others.”
This is nothing new. In fact, more than a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote that
“Communication and interpersonal skills remain at the top of the list of what matters most to recruiters.”
Take the time to diagnose your communication problems. Then, be conscious of how the language you’re using is limiting your conversations. Do that, and communication will go from an added layer of confusion and uncertainty to a tool to quickly express ideas and make decisions.