Communication skills consistently top out the list of most desirable skills that employers look for. It is also a skill that we all have at least some ability in and can always improve upon. Communication skills is much more than talking and writing so let’s review it and see where you could do better.
Active Listening. This is probably the communication skill that most people struggle with. So often when we are in conversation, we are thinking of what we are going to say next that we are not really listening. This is especially true when we are in a heated conversation. Active listening is important because it allows you to build relationships as well as see the big picture and small details of any situation. It also allows you to learn much better. If you are actively listening you are not only picking up on verbal cues and words but also body language, all of which conveys the full message.
So how do you get better at active listening? Practice mostly. Pay attention when someone is talking, use good eye contact and nod occasionally. Use good body language: relaxed but with good posture open arms (don’t cross your arms; the non-verbal cue is that you’re not open to what is being said). Defer judgment over what is being said by not interrupting. Allow the speaker to finish. Ask questions to clarify what was said rather than assuming you understood. Be open and honest in any response and assert any opinions with respect. Be mindful when you’re practicing active listening. Most of us are bad at it and have developed poor habits. It takes work to get good at it. Read about active listening to learn more and get more tips. There are lots of internet articles about it.
Non-verbal Cues. We touched on it in active listening. Non-verbal cues include body language, facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice. Practicing good non-verbal cues and reading them appropriately is essential to proper understanding. Practice good eye contact when communicating. Use a positive tone of voice. Use appropriate posture (for example, sitting up and leaning slightly forward shows interest). Be mindful of your facial expression; you can’t go wrong with smiling in most situations. Be mindful of your appearance, too. For example, if you want to discuss a raise with your boss, dress in more business like attire to create an impression. You can learn more to how to read and practice non-verbal cues. There are several interesting books on the subject.
Responsiveness. Fast communicators, whether returning a phone call or email, are seen as more effective than those that are slow to respond. This is an easy area to correct if you fall in the latter category. Return communications as soon as you are able. If a request will take a while because it’s complex or involved, a quick email stating you’ve received the request and an approximate time they can expect a completed response will be much appreciated.
Respect. We touched on this in active listening, too. Having respect for others, especially in communications will get you respect in return. Not interrupting, using a positive tone of voice, and respecting others opinions even when you disagree are all ways to show respect. It also means when communicating with others to respect their time by staying on topic, asking clear questions, and responding to any questions asked of you. Always remember that ultimately to get respect you have to give it.
Empathy. This means you not only understand but can share in the emotions of others. This skill is useful in both group and one-on-one settings. You need to understand the emotion they are feeling and select the appropriate response. This skill is also very useful for defusing stressful situations. If a person is frustrated or angry, recognizing the emotion, acknowledging their emotions with understanding, and responding calmly can change the situation entirely.
Presentation Skills. Presentation skills coupled with the public speaking it entails is often dreaded by many people. However, there may be times in your life in which you need use these skills whether in a formal or informal setting, to a large group or a small gathering. The key to this skill is to focus on the point you are trying to get across and build your presentation around it. If you’re not familiar with presentation software, get someone to help you so it looks professional. Remember that graphics are nice but don’t clutter your presentation with them to the point of distraction. When your presentation is complete, there’s no way around the next step: practice! Feeling comfortable with your presentation will increase your confidence. Also take some time to discover what will calm your nerves. Maybe music will help. Soft music might help quiet you down. I personally love to listen to upbeat music because it pumps me up and gets me enthusiastic. Find what works and use it on the day of your presentation. Watch other presentations. Whether you employ TedTalks or YouTube or, if you’re a part of a conference, watch other people and take cues from their presentation style and what’s working. Also check out the mood of the audience. Are they stiff and formal or ready to laugh at a small joke? You can take cues from them as well. Speaking of the audience, remember that they are most likely there because they want to hear what you have to say. They aren’t there waiting for you to screw up. They are also likely to be sympathetic. Public speaking is a phobia for many people. Remind yourself to breathe and take deep breaths if you feel your anxiety climbing. Your body finds it difficult to panic when deep breathing; it is a physical phenomenon. As is smiling naturally. It’s hard to feel anxious if your smile is genuine. I could go on and on. There are a lot of tips to help you with presentation skills. Google them and find what works for you.
Written Communications. It seems that written communications has really taken a hit with texting. Text language is creeping into our emails, even our speech. That’s on top of some of us simply being bad at spelling and grammar. It’s important to be above average in our written communications if we want to be professional and respected as such. Think of it this way. Would you be comfortable buying from a website that was rife with spelling and grammatical errors? Probably not. After all if they can’t get that right, what does it say about their products, service, shipping, etc.? I get it though, not all of us are English majors. Taking the time to review even a simple email before hitting send can make a difference on the receiver’s impression of you. If you’re really bad at spelling and such, there are tools available to help. Take advantage of them but nothing is a substitute for reading something aloud to yourself. You will catch errors this way. You can also ask a trusted colleague to proofread for you.
This is by no means a complete list of items that fall under communication skills. There are others such as friendliness, confidence, open-mindedness, and feedback. Do a little research to see what areas you could improve or ask a trusted co-worker or supervisor. Our communication skills can always get better, and it will benefit you in all aspects of life in the long run.