Be it written, virtual, or in person, every interaction involves communication - both at work and in our personal lives. Yet, the sheer amount of time we spend in communication doesn't always translate into better results.
The art of speaking is often overlooked as something that feels natural, but effective communication is a skill that needs to be honed.
In this article, we'll look at how to effectively communicate in the workplace, so that you can get your message across without any misunderstandings or conflict.
The Challenges of Effective Communication
In theory, effective communication should be easy. All it takes is sending out a clear message and getting a response from the other person. But we all know that, in reality, it's not so straightforward.
In simple terms, everything we say has at least 3 messages:
- What was said
- What was meant
- What the other person understood
And rarely do all of these three messages line up, because communication is a delicate balance of the words we say, as well as the way we say them.
In some studies, nonverbal communication has been shown to carry between 65% and 93% more impact than the actual words spoken, especially when the message involves emotional meaning and attitudes.
It was hard enough when all communication was done in person, and we could all read each other's body language and tone of voice. Now that we're communicating through virtual platforms, it's become even harder to decode the messages behind our words.
The Importance of Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace
Nonverbal communication is, as the name suggests, any communication without words. This includes our body language and facial expressions, as well as the way we speak and our tone of voice.
Nonverbal communication is especially important in the workplace, because it can reveal a lot more about what we're really trying to say.
And you probably don't need a study to tell you how important nonverbal communication is. In any conversation, the words we say don't mean as much as our body language and tone of voice.
If your colleague comes stamping into the office, slams their bag onto the table, and tells you they had a “good” morning, it's pretty easy to tell that it wasn't such a great one.
But even when it's less obvious, nonverbal communication plays a huge role in how effective our words are.
Think presentations, sales pitches, and team meetings: if your delivery isn't confident and enthusiastic, the words you use don't carry as much weight.
Barriers to Effective Communication
So nonverbal cues are one of the main obstacles to effective communication. Both sending the wrong ones during face-to-face communication, as well as the lack of them in written communication.
But apart from these physical barriers, there are other things that can get in the way, including:
Language Barriers - Here we not only mean different languages, but also jargon or overly complex language. This can be due to cultural differences and age gaps, but also how people from different departments or disciplines may use specialized language.
Cultural Differences - Cultural differences do not only apply to language, but also to ways of thinking and communicating. Some cultures may be more direct, while others may prefer to use indirect language.
Organizational barriers - Here we mean things like hierarchies, geography, and bureaucracy. It can be hard to get clear messages across if there are too many levels in the communication chain.
Psychological/Emotional Barriers - This is the broadest and most difficult to deal with. It includes things like mistrust, fear of criticism, defensiveness, as well as preconceived notions or judgments about the other person. These are all things that can distort our message, making it harder to reach an understanding.
Given all these obstacles, it's no wonder communication can be so challenging.
How Can you Improve Communication in your Company?
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot that can stand in the way of effective communication in the workplace, so in order to optimize your internal communication strategy, it's important to understand these obstacles and work to overcome them.
The first step in doing so is to recognize which barriers are at play and why. Depending on the size of your company and the type of communication methods you use, some will be more relevant than others.
Smaller companies, that aren't as geographically dispersed, might not struggle with geographical barriers. Whereas bigger companies that rely on email and instant messaging may find language or cultural differences to be a hindrance.
Written and verbal communication also requires different strategies.
Each of them comes with its own set of advantages, but also its own challenges. To make sure you're communicating effectively, it's important to remember that words don't always carry the same meaning in both scenarios.
How to Improve Verbal Communication in the Workplace
Humans are tuned to pick up on body language and tone of voice so face-to-face communication isn't as prone to misunderstanding as written communication - in theory, that is.
In practice, often times other things can get in the way of getting your point across, especially so in the workplace, where there are often a lot of people with different interests and agendas.
So what can leadership do to improve verbal communication in the workplace?
1. Encourage Open Communication
In order for communication to be effective, all members of the team must feel comfortable voicing their opinions, so leadership needs to foster an environment in which everyone is heard and respected.
When employees feel like they are being heard and their voices actually matter, they are much more likely to speak their minds directly rather than resorting to passive-aggressive behavior.
It's also much more likely that their verbal and nonverbal communication will be congruent since their message will be authentic, and that in turn will lead to more effective communication.
2. Promote Active Listening
The term active listening is oftentimes simply defined as being present and engaged while showing that you're listening and understanding what the other person is saying.
But how do you actually do that? And more importantly, how do you go about encouraging active listening in the workplace?
Well, first and foremost, you need to lead by example. This means that, whenever you're involved in a conversation, you need to:
- Listen to the other person without interruption
- Show that you understand by repeating back what they said in your own words
- Ask questions when appropriate, to clarify any misunderstandings or show that you are actively engaged
- Make sure that you're communicating without any distractions (phones, laptops, etc.)
By doing this, you will be demonstrating how active listening works and showing others that it is a skill worth cultivating.
3. Provide Training
In addition to the steps above, it is also important to provide training on communication skills and how to use them in the workplace.
This could be anything from basic courses on public speaking and nonverbal communication etiquette to more elaborate classes on conflict resolution or negotiation strategies.
Or simply, use your internal knowledge-sharing platform and have employees talk about their own experiences and come up with practical solutions.
By investing in training and providing the necessary tools, you will be enabling others to develop better communication skills, which in turn will lead to more effective communication overall.
Receiving feedback on your lacking communication skills is understandably not an easy pill to swallow. But, it can be a very effective way of improving communication in the workplace.
If you notice any areas where a particular person is lacking in their communication skills, provide constructive feedback and help them identify what they can do to improve.
But do it the right way. Putting someone on the spot in front of their peers isn't going to help them, and will only add to the tension.
Instead, sit down with them one-on-one and provide constructive feedback on how they can improve. And while doing this, be sure to emphasize the positive aspects of their communication as well.
And also, be prepared to receive feedback yourself. After all, it takes two to tango and you need to be willing to take responsibility for any communication failures that may have occurred.
How to improve Written Communication in the Workplace
Written communication is a practical solution in most cases, but it's also more tricky, as it comes with not only all the above-mentioned issues but also the added challenge of deciphering the meaning of the message without the help of nonverbal cues.
Something as simple as "have a good day" could be misinterpreted as sarcastic or passive-aggressive and potentially lead to conflict, imagine what could happen when more complex matters arise.
Apart from that, there's also the fact that written communication tends to lack personality and emotion. This is especially noticeable in emails and other official documents which often come off as cold and distant, making it hard to build a relationship and trust.
To avoid any misunderstandings, here's what you should do to improve written communication in the workplace:
1. Build Trust and Cohesion
A major part of miscommunication is a lack of trust and cohesion between coworkers.
When a friend sends you "have a good day" you can be sure it's meant positively, but if it's a colleague whom you have never spoken to, it can be difficult to know if the message is genuine.
This adds to the emotional barriers and makes it difficult to communicate effectively.
Building trust in the workplace is not a small task, but there are a few things you can do to start the process, such as team-building activities, or even setting up a social intranet, where employees can interact and get to know each other better.
2. Divide Your Channels
If you want your employees to be able to communicate effectively, then you'll need to provide them with adequate channels.
For example, emails are great for official documents and announcements, or maybe sending a link to an internal document.
Instant messaging, on the other hand, is great for fast back-and-forth conversations and informal exchanges.
If you want to make information and knowledge sharing easier, then implement the right tool, too.
What this does is not only streamline your internal communication but also help mitigate the effects of the lack of nonverbal cues.
The purpose of each channel will give context to the conversation, making it easier for the recipient to understand the message and thus making it less likely for it to be misinterpreted.
But don't go overboard. You do not want to add to the communication overload in your company, so make sure to evaluate the existing channels and see which ones need to be improved and which ones need to be removed.
3. Increase Transparency
Creating a transparent workplace has a plethora of benefits, from improved morale to better communication.
When people know what is expected of them and their colleagues, then it makes it easier to convey messages more clearly.
Conflict resolution also becomes simpler when everyone understands the situation and can provide constructive feedback.
To make sure that your employees have access to all the necessary information they need, consider providing them with a single source of truth.
This can be achieved through a centralized repository or an intranet, where everyone can access all the needed information related to their job.
We live in a world where technology dominates communication and there's no reason why this shouldn't apply to workplace communication, as well.
Take advantage of all the available tech options to help improve your employees' ability to communicate effectively and efficiently.
Not only will this make it easier for everyone in the office to collaborate and complete tasks, but it will also enhance trust and cohesion between colleagues, which is essential for any successful business.