Effective workplace communication can be learned!

You may think you know how to communicate to your team or employees. But communication is not about what you think has happened when you speak with someone, it is about what actually happens between two people in mutual dialogue. Some common mistakes people make in their assumptions about workplace communication are:

  • The other person heard me
  • The other person understood me
  • The other person agrees with me
  • The other person will do what I asked

Notice that these assumptions are all based on the idea that the speaker is the baseline, center and source of correct information for the other person. It is essentially a superior attitude that misses these important points:

  • The other person may have priorities, tasks or preoccupations that have nothing to do with our workplace communication
  • The other person may not like me
  • The other person may know more or have specific insights into things I do not know
  • I have no idea what the other person knows, is or desires
  • What ever I think I do know is probably wrong or, at least, incomplete

Now you are starting to think about the other side of the communication story – the other person! As soon as you are able to focus on the other person, you are making progress towards effective communication. Remember that if you are the only one who speaks, or if you are the one who always listens with no response, there is no communication. It is a monologue laden with potential for misunderstanding and mistakes.

Elements of communication

To correct faulty assumptions and improve your own communication skills think about communication as a dialogue where two people exchange on multiple levels. There is a social exchange, a physical exchange, a psychological exchange, an informational exchange and a contractual exchange in most workplace communications.

The social aspect exists because communication can never be entirely one-sided. At minimum there are two people and you are speaking together. If you dislike each other, this social exchange will be difficult, unsatisfying and prone to misunderstanding. Without finding at least one thing you can like and appreciate about the other person, you cannot communicate effectively.

The physical aspect of communication requires that you be in the same space together, and yes, this applies to virtual communication as well in the sense that you have to be on the same wave length. If you are allowing yourself to be distracted by something in your physical environment, you cannot have a physical exchange and communication does not fully take place.

In the psychological exchange, you pay attention to the emotions and moods of the other person. You may not say anything about your observations or address them openly, but you notice and respond to the emotional clues you get from the other person. For example, you may notice resistance. If you don’t pay attention to this, you could make mistakes in your assumptions about getting a task accomplished.

The informational exchange requires focusing on clarity and accuracy, allowing access to references and memory aides, and correcting mistakes or misunderstandings. In the context of a presentation where you are the presenter, this means that the you are clear about the “why” of what you are communicating first and foremost. You explain steps or key concepts in multiple ways, perhaps using a document or visual that everyone can refer to. You invite the audience to ask questions and offer comments, then engage with the group to dialogue about the information you are sharing so that you can assess the group’s understanding and adjust your presentation techniques accordingly.

Finally the contractual aspect of communication connotes that you have agreement from the other person to work on the topic you have been discussing. Some aspects of this agreement can be negotiated, and some require following instructions. Timelines and outcomes are also a part of this “contract.” Once you and the other person have agreed, you should both know what your responsibilities are to each other and to the goal so that you can create an accountability structure that ensures the task gets done.

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Improving communication patterns

What follows outlines key strategies you can use to improve your skills in developing the kind of communication patterns that meet the above criteria. They are not difficult, but they do require self and other awareness, and practice. Start by building just one into your repertoire and then observe how improvement in that area could lead to skill building in one of the other areas.

Skill #1: Acknowledge the other person before you speak

You may ask something about the person, like “How was your weekend?” or “Are your kids in sports or music lessons?” This is a person with thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, expectations that are all just as valid as your own. Know it. Feel it. Be fully aware of that before you try to share anything.

While this seems basic, do not underestimate the importance of this skill. In our world of gazing at screens and listening through headsets, we rarely notice the personhood of others. It takes a conscious effort, but it is the basis of real communication.

Skill #2: Find out something about the other person’s experience before you start in on your own agenda

I have had people tell me that they don’t care to know what the other person knows or has experienced. I respond truthfully: “You are handicapping yourself with this attitude.” Nobody knows everything and everyone has something to contribute to understanding the world. To access this knowledge, start developing curiosity about others and you may be surprised by what you learn. Make it a regular habit to ask something about what other people know or have experienced, and you will find you are the greatest beneficiary of that practice.

Skill #3: Clearly state your purpose, then use several check-in techniques to make sure your intent was understood

If you don’t really know what you want or can’t state what you want, your communication will be vague and frustrating for everyone involved. Clarify your message in your own mind, write a note, identify who of your family and friends are good communicators and then ask them to listen to you explain something and tell you honestly how you can improve your clarity – then receive their feedback and try again. Once you are sure your side of the communication is not fuzzy, check that the other person understood. Use one or all of the three check-ins below to find out how much was understood:

  1. Ask the other person to explain back to you what you have shared. Listen carefully, making corrections if something was missed.
  2. Ask the other person to show you, or draw out, how the task will be done.
  3. Ask the other person to teach you or explain how he/she would teach someone else how to do the task.

If you have done one of the three, you have established clarity and received feedback.

Skill #4: Get feedback from the other person on the topic and listen intently to what that is or what it might imply

There may be something important that the other person knows and you really need to hear. Ask if there are suggestions, obstacles or other things that would interfere with accomplishing the task. Listen and see what you can address together.

This is an important step that is often missed in one-on-one and group meetings. If this question is not asked, you may miss important connector points that will affect success or failure.

Skill #5: Ensure you have the cooperation and agreement of the other person to proceed

What if the other person is not willing, able, or ready to address this task? Ask for commitment: “Do we have agreement?” or “Are you able to commit to this?” or “Do I have your assurance that this can be done?” or “Are we on the same page with this do you think?” These are all ways to check compliance and commitment. You can also ask, “Are you willing to do this?” or “Is our team ready for this?” or “Do we have what it takes and who it takes to accomplish this?” Without this necessary closure you may miss out on full communication and in achieving deliverables.

Here is the recap:

  • Workplace communication is a dialogue between two or several people. Assumptions about self and others can interfere with dialogue and turn the situation into a monologue instead of a dialogue.
  • To ensure true dialogue you need to consider social, physical, psychological, informational and contractual exchanges between people.
  • Some skills to help build a receptive environment for real dialogue are:
  1. Acknowledge the other person before you speak
  2. Find out about the other person’s experience and knowledge on the topic
  3. Clearly state your purpose and make sure you have three levels of feedback to ensure it was understood
  4. Get feedback from the other person about the task at hand
  5. Ensure you have cooperation and commitment to accomplish the goal.

Begin by choosing just one place to start, and watch as your efforts begin to improve the overall communication quality in your workplace and personal relationships.