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Effective communication at work: The four elements and techniques to improve it

Effective communication in the ever-changing, dynamic workplace

Amy Rigby

What do employers value most in new hires? Communication skills. In a survey of nearly 1,000 employers, the 2017 Corporate Recruiters Survey Report found that expertise in areas such as oral communication and listening are among the most highly sought after skills in job candidates.

It’s clear that companies understand the importance of communication. But when you work with a diverse group of team members across multiple departments, communication becomes challenging. How can you make sure your message gets across in a dynamic work setting? 

Below, we’ll break down eight effective communication skills and how you can master them.

What is effective communication?

Effective communication is relaying a message in a way in which your intended audience can understand. Simple enough in theory, not so in practice.

What does a workplace that effectively communicates look like? Here are some clues:

  • Everyone understands what they are supposed to be doing and knows the value of their work.
  • Team members seek to understand their team dynamics and individual motivations.
  • Everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard.
  • When misunderstandings inevitably arise, they are addressed immediately and openly.

Why effective communication matters to every company

  • It boosts productivity. A survey by Watson Wyatt found that companies that communicated effectively had a 47% higher return to shareholders.
  • Your workers want it more than any other perk. When 15Five surveyed 1,000 U.S. full-time employees, 81% of them said they’d rather work for a company that had “open communication” than one that offered perks such as top health plans, free food, and gym memberships.
  • It can reduce turnover. Eighty percent of the U.S. workforce feels stressed by poor company communication—and 63% has wanted to quit because ineffective communication hindered their work, according to Dynamic Signal’s 2019 State of Employee Communication and Engagement Study.
  • It’s a critical ingredient for a successful remote team. With more teams working remotely than ever before, effective communication needs to be a top priority if businesses want to keep up. Misunderstandings due to poor communication is common in the remote workplace, but it doesn’t need to be. More employers than ever are prioritizing strong communication skills when hiring employees exactly for this reason — they know their distributed team won’t survive without them.

Caught in a misunderstanding? 3 critical questions to ask yourself

Before we dive into some effective communication strategies, there are three questions to ask yourself when you think you might be mired in a misunderstanding at work.

#1 Am I using the right tools?

Email and instant messages are great for relaying simple information. Trying to resolve a conflict via a tool like Slack, though, may not be the best way to navigate complicated emotions. In situations where tensions are running high, opt for an in-person meeting or at least a video chat.

#2 Am I using their preferred communication style?

In our research on workplace motivations, we found that people have different driving forces that affect how they communicate. For instance, during decision-making, some people prefer to be guided by their personal criteria or experience, while others won’t be convinced until they see external research or check in with stakeholders.

Why does this matter for communication? Well, if you use phrases like “you will decide” or “your opinion” with someone driven toward external reference, you will end up demotivating them. They’re more likely to feel motivated with words like “do some research” and “check with others.”

Or, if someone is highly motivated by hearing, and you’re constantly sending them emails to discuss an issue at hand, they could feel overwhelmed. To fix this, you can just offer to switch it up by hopping a quick call with them.

If you need help deciphering a colleague’s motivations, F4S takes the guesswork out of it with our evidence-based assessment.

#3 Am I misinterpreting their reaction?

Miscommunication often arises when we think we’re not being understood by someone, which can happen when we misinterpret their actions or words. For example, because they don’t favor overt gestures and facial expressions, neutral communicators may be difficult to read. Instead of relying on their body language, you may need to ask them to describe how they’re feeling. 

On the other hand, affective communicators tend to be very perceptive to unspoken communication and can easily ‘read between the lines’. This acts as a double edged sword, as they might sometimes interpret a signal that wasn’t there, and take a perceived slight personally when they don’t need to.

This is another situation where using our people analytics tool can help you sort out what kind of communicator your colleague is.

8 strategies for effective communication in the workplace

Now that we’ve got those three questions out of the way, let’s break down some top strategies for effective communication in the workplace.

#1 Hone your emotional intelligence

There is power in naming things. If you can correctly identify your emotions, you can communicate how you feel and determine how to cope with a situation.

Based on his research on emotional intelligence, Dr. Marc Brackett co-created a framework for mastering our emotions: RULER. It goes like this:

  • Recognize the emotions in yourself and others. Notice the cues in your body and mind that hint that you’re experiencing an emotion. It’s also important to recognize the facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice of others that can clue you in to how they’re feeling.
  • Understand the source of your feelings. This can help you narrow down which emotion you’re experiencing so you can move on to the next step (label). Many of us aren’t educated about the nuance of emotions and therefore need to build our emotion vocabulary. For example, Brackett points out that few people know the difference between anger (a result of perceived injustice) and disappointment (a result of unmet expectations). 
  • Label the emotions accurately. Knowing the exact emotion matters because it determines how you will deal with it.
  • Express the emotions appropriately. Find someone who is willing to listen to you.
  • Regulate the emotions by employing strategies to manage them in a healthy way. 

Brackett’s research found that those who have higher emotional intelligence perform better and are less burned out at work.

How to put it into practice:

Help your team exercise labeling their emotions by doing a two-word check-in. As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown shared on her podcast, Unlocking Us, she does this with her team by having each person give two words for how they’re feeling before the start of each meeting.

#2 Cultivate empathy

There are two types of empathy: 

  • Emotional empathy, which is being able to feel what someone else is feeling
  • Cognitive empathy, which is being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, also known as “perspective taking”

Empathy is not sympathy, which is a bit more removed and involves feeling pity for another. 

What does all this have to do with effective communication in the workplace? Well, empathy is tied to a lot of positive outcomes, including: 

  • Better employee retention.  Ninety-three percent of employees say they’re likely to stay with an empathetic employer, according to Businessolver's 2019 State of Workplace Empathy.
  • Higher satisfaction and compliance. In a 2004 study from Michigan State University, Sung Soo Kim and colleagues found that physicians who showed empathy had patients who were more satisfied and more likely to comply with treatment plans. 
  • Reduced burnout. In a 2015 study on social workers, Alex Wagaman and colleagues found that components of empathy may reduce and even prevent burnout.

How to put it into practice:

The next time a colleague comes to you and expresses a concern or an emotion, pause for a few seconds and put yourself in their shoes: How would you feel if this were you? You can then continue with something like, “You must feel [frustrated, confused, etc.]?” This does three things: 

  • It encourages you to flex your empathy muscle by trying to feel what they feel.
  • It makes them feel validated because you are acknowledging their feelings and trying to relate. 
  • It prevents misunderstanding because if you are wrong in your assumption of their emotion, they can correct you.

#3 Mirror your conversation partner

Mirroring is when we reflect our conversation partner’s behaviors, subtly imitating the other person’s gestures, facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice. Much of the time, we do it without noticing. Mirroring has powerful effects on building positive relationships. 

A 2011 study from the University of Southern Brittany found that when retail sales clerks mimicked the verbal and nonverbal behavior of customers, it resulted in a higher sales rate and greater compliance with the sales clerk’s suggestions.

How to put it into practice:

Mirroring isn’t so important when strictly relaying information—such as when someone’s giving a rundown of last quarter’s earnings—but if you’re trying to build rapport with someone or negotiate a deal, then mirroring can help.

Don’t be too overt here; if your conversation partner notices your mimicry and thinks you’re mocking them, it’ll backfire. Start with trying to keep the same pace and tone as the other person, and use the same posture (if their hands are on the desk, for example, place your hands on the desk too).

#4 Practice active listening

Recall the last time you had an important conversation with someone: While they were talking, were you mentally practicing how you should respond? Instead, practice active listening. A key part of active listening is asking follow-up questions. These differ from regular questions in that follow-up questions address something that the speaker said earlier. This shows that you were listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.

Further, to avoid misinterpretation, confirm you’ve grasped the message by summarizing what you think the speaker meant.

How to put it in practice:

Don’t go overboard; you don’t need to summarize what someone said every time they talk to you (that’d be really annoying). But in complicated situations or when discussing sensitive topics, it’s essential to make sure you understand where the speaker is coming from.

Give your full attention to the speaker. Then, pause to think about what they’ve said and say something like, “I want to make sure I understand. It sounds like you’re saying [insert summary]. Is that correct?”

#5 Don’t just give instructions, give meaning

In terms of effective communication, you may think it’s enough if a team member understands what you want them to do. But there are clear benefits to also helping them understand why you want them to do it. Employees who feel their contributions make an impact on business goals are 58.6% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than those who are unaware if they’re making an impact, according to Ceridian’s 2018 Pulse of Talent Report

An example from my own life:

During a volunteer project, the coordinator pointed to some old wooden window frames and told me to use sandpaper to rub the red paint off of them. Without any context, I assumed he didn’t like the color and wanted me to rub it completely off. 

But when I looked at the other volunteers down the line, I noticed they were re-painting the window frames the same shade of red. I grew indignant because I thought the coordinator was just giving me pointless work to keep me busy.

But later, a fellow volunteer explained that the sandpaper was for buffing the window frames just enough so that the new layer of red paint would adhere to the wood better. This helped me in two ways:

  • Because I knew the purpose of my work, I was better able to perform it. I didn’t need to sand all the red paint completely off, as I had assumed before. Rather, I only needed to rough it up enough for the new layer to stick.
  • I was now motivated to do my work because I knew it was helping toward a common goal.

It’s up to leadership to communicate both instructions and purpose. People in managerial positions need to be careful that they’re not just giving out orders but that they’re also giving enough context for subordinates to see the value of their work to the company.

If an employee feels they’re just being given futile tasks, they’ll feel resentful and disengaged. Give them the reason and impact behind the work, though, and they’re much more likely to do a better job.

How to put it into practice:

When you assign work to someone, give them the why behind it. For example, instead of saying, “John, I need you to make 500 copies of this,” and then walking off, it would be better to say, “John, we have an important conference next month. Could you please make 500 copies of this program so the attendees will be able to plan their days?” 

It takes five seconds longer to give context, but it will make all the difference. In the first case, it sounds like you’re throwing a petty task at John. In the second, John will realize how important this task is to the company.

#6 Validate before giving negative feedback

Ah, peer evaluations. As it turns out, they may not be as effective as companies would hope. Based on field data from a company and research in a lab, Paul Green of Harvard and two colleagues found that negative peer-to-peer feedback doesn’t motivate employees to improve; it just makes them seek out new work partners who will affirm them. That is, unless there is already a relationship of trust where the recipient feels valued in a broader context.

In short, we don’t like taking criticism from people who don’t care about us. 

So what does that mean for the way you give negative feedback at work? Save it for when you’ve built a rapport with that person.

How to put it into practice:

It’s not about giving your team the “feedback sandwich,” where you hide your criticism behind a compliment. People don’t always like that, and it can make them tune out your praise because they’re anticipating your impending criticism. How can you show a colleague that you care?

Some ideas include:

  • Compliment their work.
  • Thank them for something they did.
  • Start a conversation with them with no agenda other than to get to know them.
  • Ask for their opinion.

#7 Opt for one-on-ones instead of group conversations, when possible

Ever been on a Zoom call with more than three people? Then you know how messy communication becomes when multiple voices are going at once. But that challenge doesn’t end even when meetings are in person. 

In The State of Miscommunication report, 55.7% of respondents said miscommunication is more likely to happen in group conversations than one-on-ones. They also cited “individuals interpreting messages and goals differently” as the number one cause of miscommunication during team meetings.

Group meetings are inevitable, but when possible, opt for meeting with people one-on-one, especially if you manage a team. Research by Gallup shows that employees who meet regularly with their managers are almost three times as likely to be engaged than those who don’t meet regularly with their managers.

How to put it into practice:  

If you lead a team, consider making one-on-ones a regular event between you and your direct reports, whether on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. Also, to prevent miscommunication, at the end of each one-on-one, review the messaging and goals to make sure you’re both in alignment.

#8 Learn your colleagues’ workplace motivations

Once you know what drives someone, you can figure out the best way to communicate with them in a way in which they’ll understand and feel more motivated.

Is your boss a neutral communicator, and that’s why it’s difficult to read her facial expressions? Is your coworker motivated by statistics they read in a report, and that’s why it’s hard to convince him based on your personal experience of the matter?

A fast, evidence-based way to figure out your team’s workplace motivations is through our people analytics tool, F4S. Everyone on your team can take the free assessment and learn about each other’s motivators and blind spots.

How to put it into practice:

Set aside 15 minutes to take the F4S assessment (it’s free!).

Feeling unmotivated?

Find out how to unlock your motivation.

Effective communication takes constant practice

Maybe after reading this article you realize you have a lot of work to do. But the good news is, these skills can be learned!

Bear in mind, however, that these tips mean nothing if you don’t tailor them to the unique needs of your organization. It takes awareness—of yourself and your team—to truly implement effective communication in your workplace.

Bring out the best in everyone.

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