Employee Relations

How to help an employee improve communication skills

employees communicating

Updated on: 20/6/23


Communicating at work is essential for smooth everyday teamwork, and an essential soft skill for any employee in any industry. Communication helps us get tasks over the line, collaborate on essential growth ideas and even let us observe and empathise with colleagues on a day to day basis.

But how you effectively communicate at work isn’t always obvious, and upskilling employees on their communication skills may need more attention than you realise. In the past we shared the story of two individuals who couldn’t communicate effectively with each other. While one person was very direct, the other was reluctant to share information. Eventually, mediating these conversations became so painful, HR were forced to let one of the people go.

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. Our guide offers practical tips and advice on how to help an employee improve communication skills, including tips from business psychologist Simon Kilpatrick.

Why is communication in the workplace important?

Effective and clear communication in the workplace is important to reduce misunderstandings, build strong team relationships and to boost employee satisfaction and morale. When individual employees communicate effectively within a team, cooperation and productivity increase, prompting better quality work and driving more results from the organisation as a whole.

There are so many benefits to effective communication in the workplace, including:

  • More collaboration and better teamwork
  • Improved productivity
  • Less conflicts between employees
  • Reduction of employee turnover and improved loyalty
  • Improved engagement and motivation

Although important for all, communication skills are especially important for the leaders in your organisation. Line managers, team leaders, and even CEOs must know how to communicate effectively to improve the morale of employees and get their team motivated. Not only will it lead to less confusion or mistakes, but it’ll be a good example for other employees to follow.

Case study: the silent restructure

Communication is important at all levels in an organisation, and often bad communication at a senior level can have a detrimental impact on the success of a company. Rob, an advertising executive at Amelte, explains to PeopleHR:

“I remember going through a period of restructuring, 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, then maybe they would have retained more employees.

The three leading causes of poor communication at work

According to business psychologist Simon Kilpatrick, there are three main

 reasons why some employees may struggle to communicate in the workplace 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.

Every employee has to start somewhere, so you may find that these issues can be common throughout an organisation. But there are many ways to identify and improve these workplace communication skills. One key tool for identifying poor communication skills is HR software. It supports managers and HR teams to motivate their employees and identify any development of skills required such as communication.

How to improve communication skills in the workplace

There are ways to help an employee improve communication skills, no matter why they are struggling. Below are a few key ways to train an employee to communicate better, or ways you as their mentor or colleague can help them open up, with insights from Simon Kilpatrick.

1. Use visual aids to help cue communication

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.

Simon 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.”

2. Remember your body language

A lot of communication is delivered through body language, also known as non-verbal communication. Often, 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.

3. Clarity is key for written communication

Some people are fine communicating in person, but fall short when it comes to using email. Communicating via email or instant messenger is a completely different ball game, 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. Minding your manners, being polite and explaining everything with clarity is crucial to communicating over technology. And with more of us than ever working remotely or hybrid, it’s paramount that employers provide training on this where necessary to avoid misunderstandings between remote teams.

4. Use team building sessions to get employees started

If you want to give your employees a safe place to practise their communication skills, team building sessions are a great place to start. Not only does it break the ice between employees, but partaking in the sessions allows all employees to improve their communication skills, no matter their job title.

“The context of the [team building] activities should be light-hearted” Simon 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 practise when they get back to work.”

5. Improve listening skills

Listening is one of the key elements of communicating at work. Being able to sit, listen and respond when it’s appropriate allows the conversation to move forward, and for all parties to be satisfied with the result of the communication. You can improve your listening skills in a number of ways, including:

  • Practise active listening: This involves being fully present in the conversation, watching non-verbal cues and asking open ended questions. We’d recommend active listening as a part of a team building or training session.
  • Ask questions: Show you’re listening by responding with questions that open the conversation even further, and clarify to the speaker that you’re actively participating.
  • Don’t interrupt or judge: When you interrupt a speaker, you may come off as rude, or that you don’t care about what they’re saying. Listen out for cues for when you can speak.
  • Show that you’re listening: By using non-verbal communication skills, such as a simple nod, eye contact, and an open posture, you’ll give the speaker(s) a good idea that you’re engaged in the discussion. 

Listening is at the heart of communication, so must be one of the first places you look to when trying to improve workplace communication skills.

How to tell someone to improve their communication skills

Improving your own communication skills is one thing, but improving the communication of a fellow employee is another. The first step is to tell them about the issues with their communication that you’ve observed, and that in itself will be a test for you.

The employee with poor communication skills may not be aware of the problem, so the first step is to offer constructive feedback. Analyse their skills and write down some points as to why their communication isn’t satisfactory, as it gives you helpful cues to keep the conversation informational and easy for them to follow.

Here are the next steps you should take in telling someone to improve their communication skills:

    1. Explain the importance of communication: Use our guide to get ideas on why their communication problems aren’t satisfactory, and where it’s not living up to your company values. 
    2. Ask for their feedback and ideas: Hearing their side of the story is important, and will help them feel more actively engaged in their improvements.
    3. Talk through effective communication: Discuss with them the key fundamentals of effective communication, such as listening, body language, clarity and written communication. If they have a particular problem, focus your discussions in that area.
    4. Practice, practice, practice: Practice does make perfect, so try getting them to practise effective communication daily. They can try recording themselves and watching it back, sitting in more meetings, or simply practising listening.

Of course, it’s not always your place to tell an employee to improve their communication skills, as it may start a conflict. HR is the best place to go to help offer constructive advice, and through effective staff appraisals and performance reviews, improving communication can be one of their new goals to work on.

Start improving your communication with PeopleHR

Communication is fundamental to a smooth organisation. Not only does it make working in a team easier, it also drives productivity and growth. There’s no wonder it’s one of the most sought after skills in pretty much every industry; there’s no wonder why HR and business owners alike are searching for new ways to improve communication skills in the workplace.

A HR system is one of the definitive ways to start improving communication on an individual and company-wide scale. With HR processes streamlined, HR managers have more time to resolve conflict and dig into communication issues, kickstarting more effective communication. And with performance review software included to set individual progress goals, productivity will increase in no time. 

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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