At the most basic level, communication skills are the tools we have to convey information to our audience. If we’re talking about the workplace, that audience could be a colleague, manager, customer, or industry at large.
Communication skills definition: the ability to convey information clearly and effectively.
We could be pitching an idea about a new project or pitching ourselves to a hiring manager. We could be updating the team about a conference we attended or updating a colleague on our progress. The audience, content, and context may vary. But one thing is for certain: we use communication skills every day.
Often we hear about good communication skills. But “good” isn’t always clear enough. It’s not helpful to think about having “good” communication skills because it implies a black and white distinction: You either have good communication skills or you don’t.
The truth is that everyone has a toolbox. And everyone’s toolbox has some communication skills. That means they can get more tools if they want to. There’s a reason why they’re called skills and not abilities.
Important communication skills in the workplace include:
What it looks like: You’re paying full attention to the person speaking to you. If a notification pops up, you ignore it. If you’re in a meeting, you’re not secretly checking email. You think about questions, comments, ideas you can contribute once the speaker has finished.
Why it matters: We all know how discouraging it is to feel like we’re not being heard. Active listening shows respect to the speaker and gives the listener a chance to reflect on their own opinions.
What it looks like: You probably don’t talk to a boss the same way you talk to a colleague, right? Being adaptable means changing your delivery based on the person you’re talking to. It means knowing how to deliver the message and thinking about which delivery would best suit the recipient. Do you need to email? Set up a call? Send a quick message?
Why it matters: If you’re always communicating via one channel and using one tone of voice, you risk alienating your audience. What if your colleague hates talking on the phone and you insist on surprising them with a call every time you have a question? They’re probably not going to appreciate you for it.
3. Giving and Receiving Feedback Well
What it looks like: We all know the sting of unwanted critical feedback with no explanation of how to do better. Giving good feedback involves starting with something positive and offering clear tips on what and how to improve. Receiving feedback means acknowledging the speaker for taking the time to give you feedback and explaining what changes you’re going to make.
Why it matters: If you’re not giving feedback well, you risk distancing or even offending the recipient, making them less likely to listen to what may be useful suggestions. If you don’t receive feedback well, you risk making the speaker think that you don’t want or appreciate what they’re saying. Either way, giving and receiving feedback well encourages more open communication.
What it looks like: Empathy gives us the ability to acknowledge and share the emotions of those around us. In the workplace, it means making an active effort to understand where your colleague is coming from by listening without judgment. If your colleague vents about a frustrating situation, you make them feel like they’re being heard, which can often diffuse the situation entirely. Or at least open the discussion for constructive ways to deal with it.
Why it matters: Having and showing empathy is the key to developing open communication in the workplace. To put it simply, empathy shows that you care. For teams working remotely, empathy is a particularly important skill to have. Without face-to-face interaction, managers and team members have to make an intentional effort to show that they care through regular check-ins.
Why Managers Must Have Effective Communication Skills
Managers are essentially doing double duty: they have to have good communication skills themselves and be able to improve the communication skills of their team.
What happens when a manager’s toolbox of communication skills is limited?
- They struggle to get the trust of their team
- Their team members aren’t comfortable going to them for feedback or questions
Managers who have developed a wider range of communication skills will:
- Adapt to the diverse communication styles of each individual on their team
- Promote a collaborative atmosphere
- Be able to convey the company vision to the team, even if that team is distributed
- Help employees understand their role and the “why” behind it
- Motivate employees who might fall behind or experience struggles
- Break down language and cultural barriers and help company culture feel more inclusive
As you can see, a large part of what makes a good manager comes down to effective communication skills.
What managers need to know about how to improve communication skills:
1. Use the Right Tools
Whether you’re managing remote blue collar workers or desk-bound employees, you need to choose your tools carefully if you want to create an environment for good communication skills to develop.
If a company doesn’t use any digital tools and relies solely on paper documentation, it’s going to have a hard time keeping everyone on the same page.
On the other hand, if a company is using five different apps to manage time, expenses, and communication, they’ll give employees a headache.
Some questions to consider when choosing tools to create a digital workplace:
- Is the tool mobile friendly? If employees are always at their desks, working on their computers, this might not be as critical. But if you’re in the hotel industry, for example, a mobile tool would allow an employee to instantly access information for any guest at any location. Those in construction would be able to find important safety protocol documentation on-site.
- Does the tool allow you to engage with your team? This could be in the form of surveys that you can send out to employees to get their views on the latest product release. Or it could simply be a messaging capability that lets you connect directly with one or more employees.
- Will the tool be easy to implement? You definitely don’t want to give employees more work in adapting to a new piece of software. Tools should help make their lives easier, not harder. Test out new tools to see if they’re intuitive to use.
- Look for customization capabilities. You might find a tool that fits your needs like a glove and you won’t want to change a thing. At first. But eventually, you’ll probably want to customize it to include another app that solves one specific problem.
Looking for an app that has all of these features? Try Beekeeper.
2. Offer Frequent and Timely Feedback
Don’t be the manager who only gives feedback during the quarterly performance reviews. This can be hard with a distributed workforce or remote team because you don’t have the opportunity to see your team face-to-face as often.
But there are tools out there that let you stay connected with your team even if you have never met. With a mobile app like Beekeeper, for example, you can send messages to your employees no matter where they’re located. You can also create surveys to get feedback on anything from their thoughts on a specific project to their job satisfaction.
3. Ask Questions to Spot Potential Conflicts Before They Escalate
Most workplace conflicts start as miscommunication that could have been resolved in their early stages. But they can be hard to catch early on, especially if your team doesn’t always tell you what’s going on.
One of the most important interpersonal communication skills when it comes to resolving conflict is the ability to ask the right questions. You could do this in person, or you could consider using surveys that relieve the pressure that often comes with having difficult conversations IRL.
- Is there anything you would have done differently on a recent project?
- Have you ever held back your own thoughts because you didn’t want to upset the team dynamic?
- Do you feel like you can express your opinions freely?
These can reveal red flags for when there is some tension between employees or between one employee and the project they’re working on.
4. Build Authentic Relationships with Your Team
We’re not saying you have to be best friends with your employees.
Authentic relationships between managers and employees are based on mutual trust and open-mindedness. Effective communication skills build bridges between managers and employees, creating the foundation of great company culture.
One of the biggest barriers to authentic relationships in the workplace is hierarchy. When communication between management and employees is minimal, that hierarchy becomes more apparent. If, on the other hand, managers stay in touch with employees, and employees feel like they can reach out to managers, it creates a bottom-up culture.
By using Beekeeper and other mobile tools, companies can build authentic relationships based on the trust that comes with frequent communication.
5. Empower Employees
Sometimes, if you want to know how to improve communication skills, you have to look for phrases you don’t want to hear as much.
Like: “Let me ask my manager.”
We’ve all heard it before. Maybe we’ve said it before.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase. It could just mean we have a question we genuinely don’t know the answer to. We could be new to the company or have come across an unfamiliar situation.
It’s when “let me ask my manager” becomes a habit, a part of company culture, that it can be problematic.
If employees default to asking their manager whenever they aren’t sure about something, that doesn’t only slow down getting the answer to that question. It makes employees feel less empowered that they can search for answers and make their own decision.
If, on the other hand, a company makes its documentation available on an app, employees feel empowered to get answers and resolve situations much faster.
Best Practices If You Want to Improve Communication Skills in the Workplace
1. Make It a Habit
In his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg defines a system that underlies all of our habits:
Cue -> Routine -> Reward
He argues that you can re-shape any habit by identifying the routine, isolating the cue, and experimenting with the reward.
Let’s say a frontline employee has an idea about how to improve worker safety on a construction site. She sends an email to her manager, who is in an office far away from the building site. Her manager thanks her for her suggestions, which makes her feel like she made a difference. That manager brings up her suggestion in a board meeting, but it takes months for it to make any real impact on worker safety.
The cue in this situation is the frontline employee noticing that worker safety could be improved. The routine is sending an email to her manager. The reward is receiving a thank you for her effort.
What if the manager didn’t thank the employee for her suggestion. What if the manager encouraged her to start a conversation on the company app about improving worker safety?
She isn’t getting the immediate reward of a thank you from her manager. But if she brings up the issue in an app like Beekeeper, she can start a conversation that involves her colleagues. Other people might have valuable suggestions on how to improve worker safety. And because more people are involved, there is greater accountability for doing something about it.
If employees make it a habit to openly discuss issues they see, it’s going to improve communication skills throughout the company.
2. Consider Context
Being sensitive to context is one of the most important factors in what makes someone a good communicator.
Context could affect anything from timing to tone to the tool you use to deliver your message.
Most of us do this intuitively in our personal lives. We don’t bring up the current rate of divorce at a wedding.
But in the workplace, context blindness often happens without anyone noticing. This is especially true when it comes to new technology, which is often geared towards white collar, desk-bound employees.
Many companies that employ frontline workers experience a disconnect between workers out on job sites and in-office management. To bridge that gap, you need a communication system that’s appropriate for the day-to-day lives of frontline employees.
Apps like Beekeeper have features that are designed with frontline employees in mind. Managers can send updates, coordinate shift schedules, and implement mobile training programs.
Improving communication skills often starts with improving context first: finding the tool that solves practical problems.
3. Make Written Communication a Priority
COVID-19 has ushered in remote work as the new normal, meaning that a lot of us rely on written communication more than ever.
But written communication has its pitfalls. Without the nuances of facial expressions and tone of voice, it’s easy for your message to get lost on screen. Choosing a period instead of an exclamation point can make sound annoyed. Writing a clear and specific project request can get the ball rolling, while vague wording stalls out in the form of endless back-and-forth.
Here are some tips for improving communication skills in writing:
- Write how you speak
If you find yourself talking about “intrinsically fostering client-focused products” and “efficiently cultivating multifunctional quality vectors,” it’s time to take a step back.
Don’t end up sounding like the Corporate B.S. Generator. Biz speak does not make you sound smarter. Nor does it help you get your point across.
When you’re talking, you’re probably using simple words and keeping your tone/word choice casual. That’s how you should be writing, too.
If you’re worried that you can’t write like you speak because you’re bad at grammar, try downloading the Grammarly extension to correct you as you write.
- Think like an editor
When we’re talking, we tend to front-load our speech with intros, tangents, and qualifiers. That’s because we’re usually figuring out the point as we’re talking. And qualifiers like “I think” or “In my opinion” can be useful for conveying the fact that you’re not a know-it-all.
But how often have you started reading a message carefully only to skim the rest of it? We’ve all been there. That’s why it’s best to start with your main point first, even if you think it needs an explanation. If you find yourself getting to the point in the last sentence of your email, try moving that sentence to the beginning. Try the BLUF (bottom line up front) method if you need more concrete info on how to put this into practice.
- Embrace the tl;dr
Tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) shouldn’t just be thought of as a lazy person’s cop-out to reading long text.
The truth is that we all benefit from a little summary when we’ve finished a long message or article. And for those of us who need a little convincing before we start reading something long, it gives a preview and sets us up to pay attention to the most important points.
As an added bonus, it forces the writer to summarize their own ideas. If they can’t do a tl;dr, are they clear on what they’re talking about? Maybe not.
4. When in Doubt, Over-Communicate
When we’re the ones communicating, it’s easy to assume that our audience is paying full attention, absorbing every word exactly as we intended it.
But that’s far from the truth.
We miss things. We forget. We get confused. We get distracted.
And even if we are listening, we don’t all have access to the same information. Nor do we bring the same experiences and knowledge to meet the information we’re given.
On the flip side, when we don’t have enough information, we naturally try to fill in the blanks. We make up our own reasoning. If someone isn’t responding to our messages at work, we might wonder if we did anything to upset them. They might just be busy or feel no need to respond.
On a company-wide scale, employees as individuals have their own agendas. It takes a manager or leader to convey an agenda or company values – not once, but repeatedly – to keep everyone moving in the right direction.
Bottom line: a lot gets lost in translation.
Over-communicating has several benefits:
- Reinforces important messages
- Prevents misunderstandings
- Keeps priorities top of mind
- Minimizes distractions and surprises
One caveat: Over-communicating doesn’t mean oversharing. You’re not looking to overwhelm someone with every possible detail that might be relevant.
That’s why a company app like Beekeeper can be so useful. Managers and employees can over-communicate using the chat feature with short, frequent updates and check-ins.
During a crisis situation, over-communicating becomes vital. If a company only communicates with its employees during a crisis, it can signal that the company is reacting to the crisis rather than being in control. Employees who are used to frequent communication will be better equipped in a crisis.
Even if there is no crisis at hand, over-communicating a company’s vision and goals only reinforces the culture it’s trying to create. What is company culture if not a repetition of the values and ideas it sets out to uphold? Over-communication is what takes company culture off the whiteboard and into the daily life of employees.
Faced with how to improve communication skills, it can be hard to know where to start.
A lot of advice out there is too vague to be actionable.
But there are a few concrete things you can do as a manager and employee to develop effective communication skills.
Managers should start by using the right tools to offer frequent feedback and be proactive about asking questions to spot conflicts early. They need to focus on building authentic relationships with their team and empowering employees to communicate with confidence.
For managers and employees, there are some best practices that will help develop communication skills continuously. One is to make it a habit so it happens automatically. Another is to keep the context in mind, prioritize written communication (particularly as remote work becomes more common), and when in doubt: over-communicate.