Your laptop or smartphone needs repair, so you take it to one of the highest-rated, best-reviewed IT techs in your city. Although he does great work for a reasonable rate with a fast turnaround, you don’t think you’ll use him again. When speaking with him, you felt ill at ease. You felt anxious and unsettled in his presence. The lines of communication between you were loaded with static. He seemed to be prickly, easily offended, and impatient with you. Chances are, you’ll seek out another IT professional the next time you need help.
Even though this person might be the best technician in town, his “soft skills” need some work. Specifically, his communication skills were weak. Your somewhat-unsettling experience is backed up by research. Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that “people would rather do business with a person they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if the likeable person is offering a lower quality product or service at a higher price,” notes Keld Jensen in a piece for Forbes.
Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture North America, runs a $16 billion business and oversees a team of more than 50,000 employees. In a CNBC interview she stated, “I think people underrate the importance of investing in your communication skills as a way to progress in your career . . . What’s the greatest advice I give? Develop excellent communication skills.”
Hone your workplace communication skills with these seven tips:
1) Be an engaged, active listener.
It’s easy to get distracted by things in the environment or in your own head when speaking with someone. Your phone, emails, colleagues, grumbling stomach, and weekend to-do list all compete for your attention. But active listening builds rapport, understanding, and trust — essential components of business-world success. To help you fully concentrate on what’s being said rather than just passively hearing it, integrate a few of PsychCentral’s 13 active listening strategies:
- Restating: Paraphrase what you think you heard the person say in your own words: “Let’s see if I’m clear about this…”
- Summarizing: Check your understanding by bringing together the facts and issues: “So it sounds to me as if…”
- Probing: Elicit more meaningful information to deepen your understanding of the issue by asking questions of the speaker: “What do you think would happen if you…”
- Validation: Demonstrate authentic empathy by acknowledging the individual’s situation and feelings: “I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a difficult issue…”
- Silence: Use open, silent spaces to give each of you time to absorb and reflect on what’s being said. Silence can also help slow down or diffuse an exchange that might be getting too heated or stressful.
2) Learn to speak body language.
Understanding nonverbal communication in face-to-face meetings is crucial for workplace success. The often-cited research by Dr. Albert Mehrabian breaks down human communication into 7 percent spoken words, 38 percent tone of voice, and 55 percent body language. Remember this when you want to communicate clearly with a client or colleague. Send positive body language signals to others by:
- Looking the speaker in the eye to appear confident and present.
- Raising your eyebrows and tilting your head to one side to communicate interest.
- Nodding your head to express agreement.
- Using hand and arm gestures to communicate power, express passion, and reinvigorate a conversation.
- Resting your arms across your belly button to signal you’re relaxed and open.
3) Conduct powerful group presentations.
Your career may find you called upon to speak in front of small or large groups. Practice and preparation are two of the most important keys to success. The third is understanding that great public speakers don’t dump information, they tell stories.
In a Leadership piece for Forbes, passionate public speaker Nick Morgan explains why burying your audience with information taxes the brain and causes them to forget what you say. Bullets points on a slide are quickly forgotten, no matter how interesting your product or service. But if you draw the audience in with a story in which they are they heroes and take them along with you on a thrilling journey, your message is far more likely to be remembered.
While you’re speaking, be sure to stand up straight and tall, keeping your head up. One of the world’s leading experts in Nonverbal Communication, Patti Wood, told CNBC: “When you hold or move your body the way you would like to feel, the posture actually sends a message to the brain: “Hey, I am feeling great, positive, and up.”
Other pro tips for public speaking:
- Jot down notes before your event to organize your thoughts.
- Don’t fidget. It implies nervousness, impatience, or eagerness to leave.
- Avoid speaking more quickly or in a higher tone than normal. Lower your voice to sound more powerful.
- Use a conversational, controlled tone to sound like a confident leader.
4) Master email communications.
Entrepreneur notes that employees read and compose up to 60 emails a day on average, making email the most widely used tool for business communication in the workplace. Effective written communication via email requires you observe some basic etiquette practices:
- Always add a subject line that’s informative and relevant to your topic. Summarize the communication’s content succinctly.
- Begin your email with a formal salutation. Even a “Hi there” is far preferable to launching into a message without any sort of opening greeting.
- Keep your messages clear and brief, using short and concise sentences. Long, tedious emails can confuse and bore readers.
- Use paragraphs that contain related points and change paragraphs to present separate ideas. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to read large blocks of disorganized text.
- Don’t use exclamation points, emojis, acronyms, or all caps. They are not professional or appropriate for formal workplace communications.
- Close the email by stating the outcome you expect from your message and sign off with a polite greeting and your name.
- Proofread your note and run it through a spellchecker before hitting “send.”
Remember that your reader can’t hear your tone or observe your body language, so choosing your words wisely and being extra polite are important. Always strive for diplomacy in all written communications.
When you’re on the receiving end, make it a habit to respond to business emails as soon as possible. If you can’t write a full reply immediately, acknowledge that you have received the communication and will address it shortly.
5) Polish your telephone tone.
In his opinion piece for Forbes, Tommy Mello, owner of A1 Garage Door Repair, states that while technical skills are important, “what differentiates great employees from the rest are their soft skills.” With over 140 employees in seven states, Mello’s got a lot of experience in hiring the right people. He ranks communication skills as the No. 1 soft skill he hires for: “We’re always trying to earn customers for life, and I can tell you that those who can close sales on the phone are A+ communicators.”
Although many people, especially millennials, would rather text than talk on the phone, the ability to engage in polite and professional phone conversations is a key component of effective business communication. Always try to maintain a courteous and respectful tone of voice with clients and colleagues who can’t see your facial expressions or read your body language.
If your position in customer service or public relations requires fielding complaint calls, it’s crucial that you learn to employ conflict management and active listening skills. Callers want to share their stories with understanding and sympathetic people who understand their plight and can take appropriate action. Remember in this age of social media and online reviews: “A single negative review can drive away approximately 22 percent of customers,” reports BrightLocal.
6) Practice tactful texting.
Although quick and convenient text messaging is becoming more commonplace in business, it’s not always the best choice for communicating professionally. It’s too easy for your recipient to misinterpret your tone, and the lightning-fast nature of the format can make you come across as flippant or abrupt.
Best practices for workplace texting include:
- Use texting only for simple notifications or reminders: “I’m running five minutes late” or “Please remember to bring the slides.”
- Write in complete sentences. Although abbreviations and acronyms are fine for friends and family, if you’re communicating with a customer or coworker, type out each word.
- Use “please” and “thank you” liberally.
- Don’t use a text to cancel a meeting or change a lunch date. Make a phone call if your communication is important or time-sensitive.
- Save serious conversations for face-to-face meetings to ensure clear communication.
7) Sharpen your software skills.
No matter what field you work in, a solid knowledge of the most widely used software programs gives you an advantage. Being able to create spreadsheets, presentations, documents, and infographics is often critical to success. Your team might make daily use of file-sharing and video-conferencing programs, or you could find yourself tasked with posting blogs to a website or overseeing social media.
A skilled oral and written communicator must also be proficient in the most popular technology of the day. Clear and effective communication is reliant on ever-evolving technology, so be sure you keep learning, growing, and evolving your own technical skills to keep pace.