A leader’s ability to communicate clearly and effectively with employees, within teams, and across the organization is one of the foundations of a successful business.
And in today’s complex and quickly evolving business environment, with hundreds of different communication tools, fully or partially remote teams, and even multicultural teams spanning multiple time zones, effective communication has never been more important—or more challenging.
Thus, the ability to communicate might be a manager’s most critical skill.
The good news is that these skills can be learned and even mastered.
These eight tips can help you maximize your communication skills for the success of your organization and your career.
1. Be clear and concise
Communication is primarily about word choice. And when it comes to word choice, less is more.
The key to powerful and persuasive communication—whether written or spoken—is clarity and, when possible, brevity.
Before engaging in any form of communication, define your goals and your audience.
Outlining carefully and explicitly what you want to convey and why will help ensure that you include all necessary information. It will also help you eliminate irrelevant details.
Avoid unnecessary words and overly flowery language, which can distract from your message.
And while repetition may be necessary in some cases, be sure to use it carefully and sparingly. Repeating your message can ensure that your audience receives it, but too much repetition can cause them to tune you out entirely.
2. Prepare ahead of time
Know what you are going to say and how you are going to say before you begin any type of communication.
However, being prepared means more than just practicing a presentation.
Preparation also involves thinking about the entirety of the communication, from start to finish. Research the information you may need to support your message. Consider how you will respond to questions and criticisms. Try to anticipate the unexpected.
Before a performance review, for instance, prepare a list of concrete examples of your employee’s behavior to support your evaluation.
Before engaging in a salary or promotion negotiation, know exactly what you want. Be ready to discuss ranges and potential compromises; know what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. And have on hand specific details to support your case, such as relevant salaries for your position and your location (but be sure that your research is based on publicly available information, not company gossip or anecdotal evidence).
Before entering into any conversation, brainstorm potential questions, requests for additional information or clarification, and disagreements so you are ready to address them calmly and clearly.
3. Be mindful of nonverbal communication
Our facial expressions, gestures, and body language can, and often do, say more than our words.
Nonverbal cues can have between 65 and 93 percent more impact than the spoken word. And we are more likely to believe the nonverbal signals over spoken words if the two are in disagreement.
Leaders must be especially adept at reading nonverbal cues.
Employees who may be unwilling to voice disagreements or concerns, for instance, may show their discomfort through crossed arms or an unwillingness to make eye contact. If you are aware of others’ body language, you may be able to adjust your communication tactics appropriately.
At the same time, leaders must also be able to control their own nonverbal communications.
Your nonverbal cues must, at all times, support your message. At best, conflicting verbal and nonverbal communication can cause confusion. At worst, it can undermine your message and your team’s confidence in you, your organization, and even in themselves.
4. Watch your tone
How you say something can be just as important as what you say. As with other nonverbal cues, your tone can add power and emphasis to your message, or it can undermine it entirely.
Tone can be an especially important factor in workplace disagreements and conflict. A well-chosen word with a positive connotation creates good will and trust. A poorly chosen word with unclear or negative connotations can quickly lead to misunderstanding.
When speaking, tone includes volume, projection, and intonation as well as word choice. In real time, it can be challenging to control tone to ensure that it matches your intent. But being mindful of your tone will enable you to alter it appropriately if a communication seems to be going in the wrong direction.
Tone can be easier to control when writing. Be sure to read your communication once, even twice, while thinking about tone as well as message. You may even want to read it out loud or ask a trusted colleague to read it over, if doing so does not breach confidentiality.
And when engaging in a heated dialogue over email or other written medium, don’t be too hasty in your replies.
If at all possible, write out your response but then wait for a day or two to send it. In many cases, re-reading your message after your emotions have cooled allows you to moderate your tone in a way that is less likely to escalate the conflict.
5. Practice active listening
Communication nearly always involves two or more individuals.
Therefore, listening is just as important as speaking when it comes to communicating successfully. But listening can be more challenging than we realize.
In her blog post Mastering the Basics of Communication, communication expert Marjorie North notes that we only hear about half of what the other person says during any given conversation.
The goal of active listening is to ensure that you hear not just the words the person is saying, but the entire message. Some tips for active listening include:
- Giving the speaker your full and undivided attention
- Clearing your mind of distractions, judgements, and counter-arguments.
- Avoiding the temptation to interrupt with your own thoughts.
- Showing open, positive body language to keep your mind focused and to show the speaker that you are really listening
- Rephrase or paraphrase what you’ve heard when making your reply
- Ask open ended questions designed to elicit additional information
6. Build your emotional intelligence
Communication is built upon a foundation of emotional intelligence. Simply put, you cannot communicate effectively with others until you can assess and understand your own feelings.
“If you’re aware of your own emotions and the behaviors they trigger, you can begin to manage these emotions and behaviors,” says Margaret Andrews in her post, How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence.
Leaders with a high level of emotional intelligence will naturally find it easier to engage in active listening, maintain appropriate tone, and use positive body language, for example.
Understanding and managing your own emotions is only part of emotional intelligence. The other part—equally important for effective communication—is empathy for others.
Empathizing with an employee can, for example, make a difficult conversation easier.
You may still have to deliver bad news, but (actively) listening to their perspective and showing that you understand their feelings can go a long way toward smoothing hurt feelings or avoiding misunderstandings.
7. Develop a workplace communication strategy
Today’s workplace is a constant flow of information across a wide variety of formats. Every single communication must be understood in the context of that larger flow of information.
Even the most effective communicator may find it difficult to get their message across without a workplace communication strategy.
A communication strategy is the framework within which your business conveys and receives information. It can—and should—outline how and what you communicate to customers and clients, stakeholders, and managers and employees.
Starting most broadly, your strategy should incorporate who gets what message and when. This ensures that everyone receives the correct information at the right time.
It can be as detailed as how you communicate, including defining the type of tools you use for which information. For example, you may define when it’s appropriate to use a group chat for the entire team or organization or when a meeting should have been summarized in an email instead.
Creating basic guidelines like this can streamline the flow of information. It will help ensure that everyone gets the details they need and that important knowledge isn’t overwhelmed by extraneous minutia.
8. Create a positive organizational culture
The corporate culture in which you are communicating also plays a vital role in effective communication.
In a positive work environment—one founded on transparency, trust, empathy, and open dialogue—communication in general will be easier and more effective.
Employees will be more receptive to hearing their manager’s message if they trust that manager. And managers will find it easier to create buy-in and even offer constructive criticism if they encourage their employees to speak up, offer suggestions, and even offer constructive criticisms of their own.
“The most dangerous organization is a silent one,” says Lorne Rubis in a blog post, Six Tips for Building a Better Workplace Culture. Communication, in both directions, can only be effective in a culture that is built on trust and a foundation of psychological safety.
Authoritative managers who refuse to share information, aren’t open to suggestions, and refuse to admit mistakes and accept criticism are likely to find their suggestions and criticisms met with defensiveness or even ignored altogether.
Without that foundation of trust and transparency, even the smallest communication can be misconstrued and lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict.
Communicating with co-workers and employees is always going to present challenges. There will always be misunderstandings and miscommunications that must be resolved and unfortunately, corporate messages aren’t always what we want to hear, especially during difficult times.
But building and mastering effective communication skills will make your job easier as a leader, even during difficult conversations. Taking the time to build these skills will certainly be time well-spent.