Clear Communication is important when working collaboratively. Team members get their points across more effectively when they are straightforward and speak without clutter. The best communicators also change the mode of communication to fit the listener’s needs (communicating one-on-one, via email, in a meeting, or through some other method as needed), and successfully navigate the obstacles of working in virtual teams. These people have developed the skill of not just relaying their message, but choosing the best method for it to be transmitted.
A high score in the Clear Communication category indicates the ability to get to the point clearly and concisely over many different mediums. You are skilled at transmitting ideas and put in effort to understand others. This ability is a powerful asset for developing people skills and executing projects. Clear Communicators are likely accomplished collaborators, capable relationship managers, and skilled at achieving buy-in. Below are some examples of exercises to improve your Clear Communication:
BUILD YOUR SKILLS
- Get rid of sentence-fillers. All those “ums” and “uhs” subconsciously come from a good place – linguists suggest that we use them to avoid uncomfortable silences while we search for the right words. However, these fillers can be getting in the way of us appearing confident, and can harm our efforts when trying to persuade others. If you have a presentation, practice through the words you’ll use to avoid the need for fillers. If you find yourself in a casual conversation and can’t find the right words, try to catch yourself before the “um” slips out, and just pause instead. This can create more cohesion between your thoughts, and keep your conversational partner from tuning out.
- Know what kinds of questions will get you the answers you need. Oftentimes, it’s easy for us to quickly ask “yes/no” questions, when what we’re really searching for is a greater context. Asking an open-ended question can give us more useful specifics, while also providing us with a greater quantity of the kind of information we’re looking for. Instead of “Did you follow up with Carla yet?”, you might find that what you really want the answer to is “How did your conversation with Carla go?” This way, you can open up a dialogue about the project, how people are feeling about it, and what obstacles they foresee in their paths. If, however, you’re just looking for a quick, straightforward answer to a quick question, keep your phrasing simple. Instead of a potentially accusatory “Do you remember what we talked about on Friday?”, instead, ask, “How far is progress on Task X?”
- “Think about a person on your project team who does not seem to understand the team’s goal even after multiple communications. Try a different communication channel. Different people process information in different ways. Let’s say you have sent her an email five times and she keeps asking you questions that are clearly answered in the email. Some people are visual; they might want to see a chart, so try sending that person a chart. Other people are verbal and will do much better from a conversation. If you’re in an environment where you can do so, walk down the hallway and sit in front of her. If you’re in a virtual environment, call her on the phone. Figure out some other way to communicate your message to her.” - A Sixth Sense for Project Management, Tres Roeder.
For more information about how to improve your communication skills, see A Sixth Sense for Project Management, pg 69.
BE MINDFUL: BALANCE SCIENCE WITH ART
Companies with organizations who communicate well are more productive with their time and experience lower employee turnover¹. It’s no wonder communication is such a highly sought-after skill – but there isn’t always a clear-cut path to self-improvement. Not to mention, it’s easy to feel that we’re communicating just fine, but other people just aren’t putting in enough effort to properly listen to us!
If 100 people heard the same speech, there's potential for the speech to be perceived in 100 different ways. Similarly, at work, we can never assume that because we voiced a concern, everyone in the room understood it exactly as we meant it. Just because we phrase something in a way that we understand doesn’t mean the message is received perfectly by every unique listener, with their own perspectives, biases, and distractions.
Being able to effectively and consistently communicate with different kinds of people requires a masterful blend of both the scientific and artisitic components of communication. Luckily, both are skillsets that can be improved with time and intentional practice. We’ll discuss each below.
THE SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION
The foundational building blocks of communication are reliably applicable across most audiences. It all starts with a strong grasp of how to structure your thoughts effectively in the language and dialect you’re working with. If, while you’re speaking, friends or coworkers often ask you to back up and repeat something you said, aren’t sure how you got from Point A to Point B, or give you a blank look like they’re zoning out, it may help to revisit the basics.
Most of us haven't had a reason to brush up on our linguistic skills since school. Even in college, it's rare to find someone who had extensive instruction on the basics of grammar and sentence structure, unless they were a linguistics or English major. For most of us, it's been a fair number of years since we've had to wonder about comma placement, ensuring our sentences don't run on, and the right spelling of there/their/they're. If you’re having trouble communicating in person, try speaking in many short sentences instead of one long sentence, and stay aware of the train of conversation. Check in with your conversational partner often for comprehension. Asking "Does this make sense?" or "Do you know what I need from you?" will help ensure you're both on the same page with regards to next steps. If your emails don't seem to be getting your point across, try enhancing your writing skills by reading. Work on emulating the sentence structures you see in print. This will help remind you to give every sentence a subject (the what or whom of the sentence) and a predicate (what the subject is doing). For more information on these terms, you can review the basics here.
Knowing how to structure your sentences into a larger idea is essential. Even if you’re delivering all the right information someone needs to know, if it’s delivered in the wrong order, you risk the message not getting across. For example, if you put the main takeaway somewhere in the middle of a paragraph, what happens if your audience only had time to skim the email? They might come away from the email feeling like they understand, but not knowing what you need from them. In person, if you repeat nonessential thoughts, soften what you’re saying with extra words, or avoid conflict by speeding past the problem before changing the subject, you also risk the point not getting across.
Whether you’re speaking up in a meeting or writing an email, open the conversation with the bottom line². Keep your words as succinct as possible to not detract from the point. From there, determine if it’s appropriate to provide detail, backtrack, and answer questions. Throughout, remember that it's your responsibility to show your audience what you need them to focus on.
THE ART OF COMMUNICATION
It takes a lot of awareness and on-the-spot thinking to apply the science of communication to many different conversational partners. For this reason, communication requires at least as much listening as it does talking. It takes effortful understanding and empathy to listen properly. You may just be reading this Clear Communications section because you would like to learn to express yourself more clearly - and that's great! - but the best way to know what information to communicate is to listen first.
It’s important to not just listen to what another person is saying, but how they’re saying it. Are they telling you work is on schedule, but not meeting your gaze as they say it? Or are they telling you work is on schedule, but only after sighing, frowning, or scoffing? All of these are likely signs that not all is as well as it seems. Because we are all imperfect communicators, it may help to open the conversation for them. Ask something like “Do you have any concerns?”, or “Is there anything you need from me?” Allowing room for them to expand upon their thoughts will create more opportunities to fix problems before they arise. Make sure not to multitask while you are listening¹, as it can damage the rapport you could otherwise be building.
After listening, try not to put your thoughts or feelings into another person’s mouth. It is likely that when you saw the other person’s eye roll, you automatically assigned that behavior to an emotion. But it's important not to voice any conclusions you jump to. Saying “I noticed you were upset with me”, or “You think I’m being unfair” can deter someone from communicating in the future. Not to mention, telling them you already know what’s on their mind is an obstacle to truly understanding what’s on their mind. Make less obstacles for yourself by asking “Why?” instead of stating what you think you know. By listening, you have the opportunity to gain a wider understanding of the road ahead, and can make decisions based off of more than one perspective.
By mastering the foundations of language with the art of tailoring your message to the audience, you'll communicate more clearly and effectively than ever.
¹ An, Mimi. State of Inbound Report. Hubspot, 2017.
² Towers-Watson. How the Fundamentals Have Evolved and the Best Adapt: Change and Communication ROI Report. Towers-Watson, 2014