How important are communication skills? If you think about it, an organization is a network of conversations. From water cooler chit-chat to quarterly state-of-the-union updates, our days are full of linguistic interactions with each other. Communication skills are an integral component in building successful relationships.
Both of these, if they are not made and understood clearly, have the potential to create misunderstandings, conflict, the erosion of trust, and a loss of psychological safety and employee engagement. Here’s how to make sure you’re understood clearly.
Be Conscious Participants
- Both the speaker and listener need to be paying attention to, and willing to engage with, each other.
- Be sure to eliminate distractions and give your complete attention to each other.
- Schedule a time to talk rather than having an impromptu conversation in the hallway.
- Make eye contact with each other and be conscious of your body language. Don’t read emails or text while conversing.
Start Verbal, Follow-Up Through Email
If at all possible, have the initial conversation in-person or over videoconference. Eighty-five percent of our communication is nonverbal, so being in each other’s presence (even virtually) makes a big difference. This also gives the opportunity for clarifying questions, feedback, or other discussions.
After talking in person, follow up with an email to recap the major points listed below, and ask for the recipient to confirm their understanding.
Here’s a real-world example that I experienced. The CEO asked the sales director to “increase sales by 50 percent.” The sales director ran a 50 percent off discount and made the sales, but at a loss. Obviously the CEO wasn’t happy, but he realized the breakdown in communications and didn’t blame the sales director. A clearer request would have included a limit on discounts, or to increase net profit by 50 percent, or even a request to review the sales director’s plan first.
Both parties need to understand this is not micromanaging or insulting anyone’s intelligence. “But I shouldn’t have to explain all that” is a common response to this suggestion. Well, if you’re willing to gamble on the results and relationships, see what happens. In my experience, it’s better safe than sorry.
Set a Timeframe
If we continue with our previous example, the CEO did not specify a timeframe. The sales director could have assumed he meant this week, this quarter, or this year. Conditions such as “as soon as possible” or “when you have a moment” are too vague. You can also ask the recipient to give you a timeframe.
“I’d be happy to help by creating the charts for that presentation” is a specific offer but doesn’t include a timeframe. What if your partner gets you the data at 1:00 am, the night before the next morning’s meeting?
It may seem difficult to attach timelines to some requests. “Please pay more attention to details” is a general request, but you could say, “Please pay more attention to details. Let’s see how you do on the next report.” This instills some urgency while specifying in greater detail the conditions of satisfaction.
Frame the Conversation
Providing context can help the listener understand where you’re coming from and why your request matters in the overall mission of the company. Let’s say your receptionist went home sick, and you’ve got a major client coming to the office. You need to ask a mid-level employee to staff the front desk for the afternoon. Here are two options:
“Bill, I need you to staff the front desk this afternoon. Thanks.”
“Bill, I know this isn’t in your job description, but Kelly went home sick and Cletus & Co. is bringing in their executive team for a meeting. Would you sit at the front desk this afternoon so they can be greeted when they arrive?”
Which one will leave Bill feeling like he’s stepping up to help out?
Notice the Mood
Pay attention to moods, too. Does the recipient look angry, distracted, or upset? Maybe now isn’t the best time to make a request. If you’re in doubt, ask to schedule a time to talk. Likewise, avoid making requests when your emotions are high. Timing is everything.
Practice these communication skills and they’ll soon become natural. Find a partner or work with a coach and role-play a few times to get the feel of the conversation. At first, it will feel staged, but with practice, you’ll be able to frame the context and make effective requests in any circumstances.
Adapted from “Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence” by Chalmers Brothers and Julio Olalla.