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A few weeks ago, I shared the story of Bethany Plaza – a CEO who was struggling to mediate conversations between two individuals who couldn’t communicate effectively with each other. While one person was very direct, the other was reluctant to share information. Bethany tried everything in her power to encourage these two people to communicate better – but eventually, mediating these conversations became so painful, she was forced to let one of the people go.
Poor communication is responsible for so many big business failures. From Nokia failing to keep up with the smartphone trend, to the PR disaster faced by British Petroleum. In most cases, mistakes are nothing to do with how “skilled” a person is. It is a simple lack of communication that is to blame.
So if you’ve ever struggled to get results from your team, because some of your employees find it difficult to communicate effectively, then carry on reading – today’s interview with business psychologist Simon Kilpatrick offers practical tips and advice on how to help an employee improve communication skills.
There are three leading causes of poor communication at work
According to Simon, there are three big reasons why some employees may struggle to communicate effectively. These are:
- Lack of social awareness and/or emotional intelligence. This person may not realise they are communicating ineffectively.
- Lack of understanding of effective communication techniques. This person is probably aware that they struggle to communicate, but does not know how to improve.
- Lack of confidence. This person probably knows that they struggle to communicate, and may understand in theory how to improve, but lacks the confidence to do so effectively.
There are ways to help an employee improve communication skills, no matter why they are struggling. I asked Simon to share his advice.
Helping an employee improve their verbal communication skills
“Verbal communication is very important at work” says Simon. “Whether it’s suggesting a solution during a meeting, or simply asking somebody to do something for you, you’ll get much better results if you can voice your thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently.”
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Simon advises that for planned discussions, such as meetings, employees can improve their communication skills by preparing notes in advance – these can serve as verbal cues that help them articulate their contributions. He says it can also help to make notes during the conversation, as this will help them to remember which points they wish to discuss later on – especially if they don’t feel confident interjecting. But for those who do feel confident interjecting, Simon warns that they should take care with their timing – a poorly-timed interjection can appear rude, and this may mean people pay less attention to what you actually say.
“During all verbal communication, you should also make affirming vocalisations” adds Simon. “Listening is just as important as speaking – and actively showing that you’re listening will help the speaker put their point across, because they know you are paying attention.”
Speak, listen… and remember your body language
It is often said that a huge chunk of communication is delivered through body language. Simon says that clearly speaking and listening is not enough – you must pay attention to your body language.
“Face the person you are speaking to, make regular eye contact, and keep an open posture” explains Simon. “This shows that you are listening, but also that you are open to their opinions. You should also allow yourself to express your feelings visually – if you’re happy, smile; if you’re confused, wrinkle your face a little. Of course, do not shout or get aggressive – your goal is to open up the conversation using visual cues, it is not to intimidate the other person!”
Simon also says that while it is good to use hand gestures to add dynamics to what you’re saying, you should avoid looking like an orchestra conductor – this can be very off-putting. And while using body language may feel forced if you’re not used to it, with practice, it can become natural.
Communication advice for keyboard warriors
Some people are fine communicating in person, but fall short when it comes to using email. Communicating via email is a completely different ball game to communicating in person – largely because you can’t very easily use tone of voice or body language to support what you’re saying.
Simon says that people who struggle to communicate via email should consider the following advice:
- Address people appropriately – don’t use an overfamiliar name if you don’t know them very well
- Clearly explain the most important parts of your message straight away – the recipient may switch off if you’re rambling on for several paragraphs before you get to your second point
- Follow up with a phone call, or even an in-person meeting – this is especially important if the email is of a more sensitive nature, as it is more likely that misunderstandings will arise due to the lack of social cues
If you’re adding an attachment, Simon says you should mention this in the email, because they are often missed or overlooked. It also goes without saying that you should mind your P’s and Q’s during an email conversation, just like you would in a face-to-face or telephone conversation. That means being polite, and minding your manners!
Get the team together – it’s a safe way to practice
If you want to give your employees a safe place to practice their communication skills, then Simon advises organising a few fun, non-work related “team building” sessions.
“The context of the activities should be light-hearted” he explains. “People learn more effectively when they are having fun. And in this context, mistakes can be forgiven – meaning people are more likely to step out of their comfort zone. Done right, team building activities will bring out individuals’ strengths, and will help people communicate more effectively due to the reduced pressure of the situation. They can then put this to practice when they get back to work.”
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You can learn more about how team building can help you strengthen your team, by watching our video interview, “What’s the point of team building?”
The silent restructure that kept everybody guessing
It’s worth reminding you that communication is important at all levels in an organisation. And during a recent conversation I had with Rob – an advertising executive, who blogs at Amelte – I learned how bad communication at a senior level can really impact the success of a company.
“I remember going through a period of restructure” Rob tells me. “It was announced at the senior level first, so everybody knew what was going on. But then everything went silent for three months. This meant everybody started to second-guess the worst case scenario. Nobody was properly briefed, and a lot of people left the company during this period of silence.”
It turns out that the restructure was actually far less worrying than people had guessed it to be. And if senior management had only communicated this – rather than hiding their heads in the sand for three months – then maybe they would have kept more employees.
Why senior employees should embrace clear communication
Simon Kilpatrick says this is a classic example of change management – people at the top fail to tell employees further down, either because they’re worried about the impact, or because they don’t feel it’s important enough. From their ivory towers looking down, they forget how these changes might impact people at the bottom – and employees who get wind of it via the grapevine, might hear a warped view that is totally wrong.
“People who don’t know what’s going on get insecure, lose trust, and become disengaged” says Simon. “You should never forget to communicate organisational changes with all employees – you might not think it affects them, but it does. If you want to go one step further, you can even get their input when making change decisions. Research suggests that including your employees in decision and change makes your organisation more successful.”
Your employees are the experts in your organisation, after all. Why wouldn’t you consult them?
About Simon Kilpatrick
Simon is a business psychologist, and founder of Intrinsic Links. He is also a lecturer of psychology at Leeds Beckett University. His company helps to teach positive psychology and management techniques that build great teams and top performers. You can visit Simon’s website here: www.intrinsiclinks.com