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The most successful people never stop learning. This is true in life, and it is certainly true in business. Regardless of where you are in your career or what type of business you’re in, there are universal skills that will help you get to the next level. This six part series will delve into key areas that are imperative for success, starting with one of the most important skills: communication.

Of course you know that communication is important. It’s a no brainer, really. Good communication skills are necessary for so many business functions, from leading a team to relationship building and connecting with customers, not to mention writing business plans, and communicating clearly with clients, vendors and internal stakeholders.

But even though you know that communication skills are important, have you spent time developing yours? Many people assume that strong communication skills are innate: either you have them or you don’t. But the truth is, anyone can become a better communicator if they put in the work.

Research shows we spend some 70% or more of our time engaged in communication. Almost half of that time is spent listening, followed by speaking, reading and writing. Clearly, listening is a big part of our daily lives, but so is speaking. According to a 2014 University of Arizona study, we speak 15,000 to 16,000 words a day on average. That’s a lot of talking!

With speaking and listening making up three-quarters of the time we spend communicating, these are areas where we have the opportunity to make the biggest impact. But in order to improve our skills, we first need to be aware of the two major components of this type of communication.

Verbal Communication

Obviously verbal communication involves talking, but it’s more than just the words you use. It’s also how you speak. Delivery plays a big part in how your messages are received by other parties. Likewise, your ability to interpret messages effectively is equally important.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal cues give context to the words a speaker uses. Posture, facial expressions and gestures sometimes tell us more than the words spoken, particularly when the speaker’s behavior is incongruous with what he or she is saying.

So how can you improve your ability to effectively communicate?

Here are 10 Tips for Better Communication Skills

1. Learn The Art of Active Listening

Listening is possibly the most important skill you can build to become a better communicator, and the best type of listener is an active one. Like the name implies, active listening means listening actively. In active listening, all of your attention is directed to what is being said. It’s different to merely hearing someone else speak. Active listening requires being fully engaged with all of your senses and conveying your active participation to the speaker. This can be achieved with nonverbal cues such as nodding, smiling and maintaining eye contact, and verbally by asking questions, using encouraging or agreeing statements and most importantly, not interrupting the speaker.

2. Think Before You Speak

It might seem obvious to think about what you are going to say before you say it, but how often do you actually practice it? We’re often in such a rush to speak that we blurt things out without thinking first, which in many cases results in an unclear message or excessive rambling.

Try to remember the BRIEF acronym, which stands for:

  • Background (providing context)
  • Reason (why you’re speaking)
  • Information (key information to be conveyed)
  • End (provide conclusion)
  • Follow Up (prepare for questions)

This is a great strategy for getting your message across clearly and succinctly.

3. Use Good Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the most important nonverbal cues. When used appropriately, it shows that you are fully engaged in the conversation and focused on the speaker. It also displays confidence and influences how people perceive you, however, there can also be too much of a good thing! Learn how to maintain good eye contact and avoid any awkwardness with this helpful article.

4. Watch non-verbal cues

Body language speaks volumes. Whether you are speaking or listening, the way you sit or stand, use hand gestures, facial expressions and eye contact all convey what you are thinking or feeling – regardless of what you are saying. Sitting with your arms crossed and frowning while telling someone you’re not angry is likely signaling to them that you are in fact quite angry and lying about it. On the other hand, if you appear relaxed and open, you will be much more approachable to others.

One other important note particularly in the business world: do not look at your phone while someone else is talking. If you simply can’t pry your eyes away from your mobile device, put it away when speaking with others or going into meetings.

For more on body language and how you can use it to your advantage in the workplace, check out this article.

5. Always Be Respectful

Respect is fundamental to developing strong relationships, and showing respect in your communications is one of the key ways to build it. Actively listen. Don’t interrupt. Ask thoughtful questions or provide helpful feedback. Use the person’s name. If you’re communicating via text or email, review your responses – and edit if required – before sending. By remaining respectful in your conversations, be it in person, on the phone or via message, you will in turn earn the respect of others.

6. Provide Feedback

Taking the time to provide feedback to others can be a highly effective tool for developing morale and building motivation. This is especially true when it comes to employees, but it is a skill that can be employed with great effect by anyone working in a team environment. Even a simple thank you or acknowledgement of a job well done can really make a difference to employees or coworkers. Additionally, make sure your feedback is constructive, and also, listen to the feedback you receive from other people.

7. Know Your Audience

Knowing who you are talking to – and taking the time to tailor your message to them – will make you an incredibly powerful communicator. From casual conversations to formal presentations, keeping your audience in mind will help create a better delivery. If the conversation or meeting is important, preparing beforehand can also be beneficial. You don’t necessarily need to memorize a script, but some practice and preparation for potential questions is advantageous

8. Be Engaged

This might seem like the same thing as active listening, but it’s actually a lot more. While active listening plays a large role in being an engaged communicator, so does actively participating in the conversation. For instance, asking questions, showing interest in the other party and generally approaching the conversation with attentiveness is the hallmark of an engaged conversationalist. Even if it’s just small talk, try to go the extra mile when it comes to finding out more about the other person and topics of interest to discuss.

9. Try A Little Empathy

The next time you’re in a conversation, whether it’s serious or not (but especially if it is important or divisive), practice putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Being able to understand the other person’s point of view and their feelings about the topic at hand will make you not only a better human being, but better equipped to respond in a way that is appropriate.

Being empathetic is especially important when you’re in a disagreement. When conversations get heated it’s easy to become argumentative and dismissive of the other’s viewpoint. Try to avoid this mistake by really trying to understand where the other person is coming from. And if you’re struggling to do so, think about how you would like your opinion to be respected and apply it to the other person’s viewpoint.

10. Speak With Clarity

People who speak clearly and directly are generally easier to listen to and understand. Therefore, they are definitely more persuasive. When you’re speaking, watch for these common pitfalls:

  • Talking too fast or too slow
  • Lack of proper enunciation
  • Using conversations fillers like “um” and “ah”
  • Repetitive words and phrases or redundancies
  • Not speaking with confidence

If you’re looking for more in depth information for improving your communication skills, some free online resources include: