The importance of communication skills is often discussed in employment circles. Most of us have it tucked away on our CV along with ‘proficient IT skills’ and ‘eager to learn.’ But what is really meant when we talk about being a better communicator, and how can be learn to improve and enjoy the benefits good communication can bring?
The question of why bother to actively work on communication skills, given that most human beings spend their lives communicating with others at work, school or in the home, is a valid one. Studies show we spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. It is precisely this relative ease that we assume of communication that leads us to take such skills for granted, and also to allows us to assume that we must by now have mastered its art.
Yet research has shown that we are not in fact at good as communicating as we might think. Inc.com contributor Marcel Schwantes recently argued that communication is the foundation for building strong relationships between individuals, and, by extension, groups, but that we often forget communication is a two-way street. With studies showing that we retain only about 25 percent of what we hear, and Schwantes’ own surveys showing that among the top three biggest mistakes leaders make (as voted for by employees) was that they don’t listen, it seems there is a communication deficit which must be addressed.
1- ACTIVE LISTENING
Given these somewhat un-optimistic statistics, the question of what can be done to improve communication skills is crucial. For Schwantes, one of the most effective ways is to work on active listening. Active listening can be best understood as requiring the listener to concentrate completely on the conversation at hand, understand, respond appropriately and then, importantly, remember what has been said.
Fast Company argues that one of the most important ways to do this is to put yourself fully in the moment. That might sound like an easy task, but with so many distracting thoughts inside your head, combined with the now constant distraction of smartphones and connection to email, being actively present in the conversation can be tricky.
Fast Company suggests ‘when listening pay attention not only to the words but the tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. This will give you information that will be as important as the words themselves.’ Using this additional information as a tool with which to assess someone’s true message, whether this is your employee, business partner or prospective client, can provide a strong foundation upon which to build future relations and foster trust between parties.
2- RECIPROCAL FEEDBACK
Guest blogger for Entrepreneur.com Kes Thygesen argued that although it is by now commonplace for organisations large and small to have structures in place to provide feedback to employees on a regular basis, very often this structure is not reciprocal. Thygesen argues that making feedback one sided is one of the most common communication mistakes made, causing ‘employees [to] feel disrespected because they aren’t given a voice.’
Thygesen suggests that there are a number of ways to overcome this barrier, the first of which is making employees feel comfortable giving their input, and actively seeking feedback so that they start offering tips and insights into how things could run better. It is also argued that part of improving communication in this regard is demonstrating that this feedback has been acted upon. Even if the suggestion wasn’t eventually implemented, or was tested but didn’t deliver the desired results, relaying this information effectively is vital in ensuring that employee engagement levels remain positive and bonds of communication are maintained.
3- TALK LIKE YOU WOULD TO AN INDIVIDUAL
While the two above recommendations may at first glance seem most suited to one-on-one style conversations, in fact an important element of bettering your communication skills is to recognise that all these elements are in fact applicable to a group context too. Forbes contributor Travis Bradberry argued that when asked to give a speech, ‘whether [in] a small team meeting or a company-wide gathering, you need to develop a level of intimacy in your approach that makes each individual in the room feel as if you’re speaking directly to him or her.’
This can be a tall order when demanded on a large scale, but it is a worthwhile venture. Bradberry suggests ensuring there are no distractions to draw the crowd’s attention away from the message you are trying to deliver, and ensuring that you ‘exude the same feelings, energy, and attention you would one-on-one, as opposed to the anxiety that comes with being in front of people.’
With employee engagement being one of the biggest drivers of innovation and growth, and ultimately profitability, improving your communication skills as a leader to ensure that your team members feel engaged, valued and appreciated is a worthwhile investment of time and energy.
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