What Constitutes Good Communication Skills and How Do We Develop Them?
We are always talking about honing communication skills; how they make or break business deals, job interviews, relationships, etc. We even groom and assess our students on this. But what constitutes good communication skills? Is it the words we use? A prolific vocabulary? Speed of response? Well, partly yes, but there’s more… "Good communication skills" is a package deal of multiple elements, to help us collaborate with family, friends, colleagues, customers, to make our listener understand, and—maybe—agree with our point of view.
In the workplace, the ability to communicate effectively is probably one of the most important skills to master. A manager who fails to do so could lead his team to confusion and demotivation; maybe even lose his best talent to other departments or organizations. When poor communication impacts the customer experience and/or shareholders, the ramifications are even more severe.
So, how do we make communication more effective ?
The below elements, by no means an exhaustive list, may seem pretty obvious, but the challenge lies in recognizing how to apply them in the right situations.1. Language Proficiency — Use the correct words in the right context to get your message across, especially if the language you're using isn't your native language, or the native language of those you're working with. If in doubt, it’s better to use simple—but appropriate—words, rather than attempt a hi-fi vocabulary, in the wrong context. Here, I am reminded of a manager who wanted one of his physically petite colleagues to move to the front row in a meeting. He innocuously, without meaning any harm, said to her “I want to see every part of your anatomy." He was fortunate not to get arrested for sexual harassment, but everyone may not be so lucky! As in this instance, where native languages were not necessarily being used, if lost for the right word, don’t switch between languages unless your listener is just as familiar with both. For example, in a job interview, seek the permission of the interviewer to use another language. Avoid use of jargon and acronyms, which your listener may not be familiar with.
2. Sequence and Clarity of Thought and Expression — Our words reflect our thought process. Presenting ideas in a muddled sequence, or missing out or repeating concepts, could take away from a great idea. Therefore, it’s important to first structure your thoughts and express your point of view as succinctly as possible, in a coherent and sequential flow.
3. Pitch and Voice Modulation — Adjust your volume based on the size of your audience and the size of the room. For a one-on-one conversation, a low, soft volume is fine, but when addressing a room full of people, we need to speak much louder. If using a microphone, take care to moderate the volume accordingly. Tone is equally important. Too low and you may be inaudible. Too high is jarring to the ears. A sunny, smiling voice signifies a warm, bright personality, whereas a dull, listless tone could be construed as a sign of boredom and disinterest. How we say something is as important as what we say. The meaning of a sentence can completely change depending on which word you emphasize on. For example, try saying this statement, "I can do this”, each time emphasizing on a different word. Did you notice how it threw up four different connotations?
4. Pronunciation and Accent — In today’s global environment, comprehending foreign accents is a given. In India alone, multiple regional accents are present. As a speaker, if you are unsure of neutralizing your accent, it’s best to speak slower than usual, so that your audience understands your words. Faking a (foreign) accent to impress your audience is not a good idea (unless you are in the business process outsourcing—BPO—industry which trains you to do so).
5. Rate of Speech — Speaking too fast will make your words roll into each other and become incoherent. Too slow and you may lose your listener’s attention. A reasonable pace with pauses at the right places will hold your audience and give them time to absorb your words.
6. Conviction — How confident you are about your content, is what will convince your audience. And confidence comes from data and factual information. If you are not sure, it’s okay to say so, and volunteer to get back with the correct information. An “iffy” attitude could well put your listener in doubt, even if you actually mean “yes”. This is especially true in sales and customer service roles. On the other hand, say “no” when something is not possible. You will win the confidence and loyalty of your customer, or prospective customer, by telling him upfront what your product or service CANNOT deliver.
7. Cultural Sensitivity — Speaking in your local or regional language in a mixed group is okay, provided everyone understands that language. If not, include them in the discussion by translation. It is downright rude to carry on a discussion, without translation, in a language that is not understood by all present.
8. Empathetic Listening — Good communication is a two way street so it’s as important to be a good listener as a good speaker. Active listening is about comprehending, acknowledging and responding, not just to what is said, but also to what remains unsaid. A customer, who sends you a polite third reminder for a service you should have rendered two weeks ago, is bound to be frustrated by your tardiness. Just because he’s polite, don’t take it for granted that he’s okay with the delay.
9. Appropriate Response — Answer to the point and address all the queries raised. This is especially important in written communication, where a partly addressed query leads to unnecessary repeat communication, and conveys the message that you haven’t quite taken the time or effort to understand the question fully. Be proactive in offering alternatives when saying “no”.
10. Body Language — Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly transmitting non verbal messages through our facial expressions, eye contact, posture, gestures, etc. Like I mentioned earlier, what is unsaid is as important as what is said. What we usually don’t say are things like “I’m not interested in what you are saying”, or “Don’t waste my time”, but our body language says it loud and clear. For instance, not making eye contact, or checking your phone messages, or looking at your watch or the door repeatedly, while talking to someone, are dead giveaways. Body posture is another indicator of how involved you are in the conversation. To communicate an impactful message, engage your listener with eye contact and positive body posture.
11. Communication in Conflict Situations — Communication, or the lack of it, in conflict situations can often make or break relationships for good. Pitch and voice modulation are especially important when dealing with difference of opinion or conflict situations. A high pitch is a sign of uncontrolled temper or frustration, both of which do not help in resolving matters. On the other hand, dead silence or walking away from the situation also doesn’t help. Such situations are best handled by rationally stating facts (no perceptions or grapevine please!), patiently and non-judgmentally listening to the other’s point of view, and arriving at a consensus. Eventually, you may even agree to disagree on that particular issue, yet keep the relationship intact.
Lastly, before sending out any written communication, it’s always a good idea to proof read all that you’ve written, and check for spellings, grammar, flow and completeness of information. A well drafted and error–free communication is like a first impression. You may never get a second chance!