5 Tips for Workplace Communication

June 9, 2010

When listing one’s strengths during an interview or on a resume, most of us include “excellent communication skills” because we know this is valuable to employers. But how many of us are really capable of communicating effectively? For that matter, how many employers are excellent communicators?

I studied journalism in college, worked as a freelance writer for a while, and published some short fiction. Nevertheless, I still find writing to be one of the most challenging things I do.

At times I also find it difficult to speak effectively with clients, friends and my own family members. So much can be misinterpreted or misunderstood due to a lack of clarity when I am talking or not being careful enough when I am listening.

Ineffective communication skills in an organization can dramatically impact the bottom line. In fact, according to research by Watson Wyatt, Gallup Consulting and Towers Perrin, these costs can include:

  • increased employee turnover
  • increased absenteeism
  • dissatisfied customers from poor customer service
  • higher product defect rates
  • lack of focus on business objectives
  • stifled innovation

No wonder communication skills are so valued in the workplace. Whether it is the need to carefully compose an email, raise a sensitive issue in a staff meeting, or discuss poor performance with an employee, making our messages succinct and clear can dramatically help an organization run more effectively.

So much can be lost in translation—the coding and encoding that is done between sender and receiver. Jargon exists in every industry and this can often impede clear understanding. Acronyms enable quicker delivery, yet they also make deciphering a challenge for those who are unfamiliar with them. And do emoticons really aid our written information?

The ability to clearly convey our intention and message is extremely important at work. Just as important, yet rarely emphasized, is our ability to carefully listen to what is spoken and what is unsaid yet conveyed through body language. It is this combination of both clearly conveying and accurately receiving that makes up effective communication.

Here are five tips to improve communication in your workplace:

Be specific and clear. Get to the point regardless of whether you are speaking or writing. Don’t ramble or include needless details. If you’re giving instructions or issuing a directive, take special care to be accurate and precise.

Establish true dialogue. Encourage your listener to ask clarifying questions or to follow up to aid their understanding. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know an answer, and be sure to get back to them with the correct answer when you do know.

Carefully read and listen. So much can be read between the lines of what is spoken or written based on the tone or body language associated with a message. Therefore, when on the receiving end, it is important to take into account the overall context of the message and be on the lookout for a disconnect between words and subject matter.

Stay positive. Petty or passive-aggressive sniping should not be tolerated. Even the harshest feedback can and should be delivered in a positive, supportive, team-centric manner. Focus on behavior or performance and not character. When on the receiving end, it is equally important to avoid getting triggered by difficult messages.

Make a habit of on-the-spot communication. Nothing can be more destructive than waiting to deliver significant feedback, praise, criticism or complaints. If you’ve got something important to convey, don’t put it off until the next meeting or the next annual review. Make on-the-spot communication a priority.

Following these five tips in your workplace can take time and self-discipline to master, but they can help dramatically improve overall communication. And improving this so-called soft skill can deliver hard bottom line results.

Mark Craemer      www.craemerconsulting.com

Are Your Email Messages Working Against You?

August 13, 2009

Choosing to use email to convey information versus face-to-face interaction or a telephone call should be carefully considered. Email, of course, has many advantages over the others. The trouble is, many email messages are not entirely clear and often are misinterpreted. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ((Vol. 89(6) pp. 925-936)), nearly 40% of email messages are misunderstood! This should cause all of us to hesitate before hitting the send button.

The study further found that without the benefit of paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation, email makes it very difficult to convey emotion and tone. Using ALL CAPS, bold type, or emoticons 😉 are poor substitutes for facial expressions and tone of voice. Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at UCLA, posited the three basic elements of face-to-face communication are words, tone of voice, and body language. Words, according to Mehrabian, account for just 7 percent of the overall content being received, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent and body language accounts for a whopping 55 percent! If only 7 percent of information is effectively communicated via the words themselves, then a great deal of effort should be considered in choosing which words to use and the order of them in our email communication.

Should we instead abandon email altogether? Certainly not. There are many great reasons to use email, including one-to-many distribution, the timing and speed at which information can be delivered, the inclusion of hyperlinks and attachments, and the level of detail that can be included. However, too often we assume that our audience can correctly interpret our intention behind our words. Not aligning our intention with our content can lead to greater misunderstanding.

Communication can easily break down even under the best of circumstances in face-to-face interactions. With this in mind, it is essential to put great care in writing emails so they are not misunderstood. To do this, I have several suggestions:

1) Consider your audience. What assumptions are you making regarding culture, gender, age, level of education, etc? When in doubt, provide a greater level of background information than you might otherwise. And spell out acronyms.

2) Double check the title you use in the Subject box to ensure that it accurately encapsulates the body of the message. Sometimes these titles can confuse or even contradict what is written in the message itself.

3) Before sending the email, reread your message with a dispassionate eye and from an objective point of view. Ask yourself if your words could be interpreted any way other than you intend.

4) If you are sending to a large group, first send the message as a draft to only two or three people to learn whether or not your intention and the message are entirely clear to them. Only send it on to the entire group when you have agreement.

No matter what you use email for, it is essential to keep in mind the limitations of this medium. In spite of developments in video conferencing, Skype-enabled calls, and other video-enhanced technologies, the majority of our business communications are currently conducted via written words alone. The ability to clearly communicate with these words is more important now than ever.

Mark Craemer                                                                                          www.craemerconsulting.com