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A Step by Step Guide to Effective Communication

by: Shiv Sharma

Have you ever been in a meeting where two people are talking to each other, thinking they are discussing the same issue? However, you know that they are both talking about separate things. 

Of course, you have. Anyone who has ever worked in a team has. But it’s slightly unsettling to think that someone else must have also felt the same about us.

Effective communication at work doesn’t occur as often as we like. And that is the root cause of the majority of problems at the workplace, from miscommunication and misalignment to all-out conflicts. 

Unsurprisingly, organizations spend millions of dollars every year to streamline communication. By some estimates, a business as small as 100 employees loses at least $525,000 due to ineffective communication. 

So this guide isn’t going to solve your communication problems. However, if it can help you prevent even one case of miscommunication, we’d consider it a success. Let’s look at the steps to communicate effectively at work.

What are the basic principles of effective communication?

1. Don’t say “understood” unless you are 100% sure.

This is common among professionals, especially at the beginning of their careers when they are fresh out of university gleaming with imposter syndrome. I certainly have been guilty of it. We pretend to understand to avoid looking stupid. We feel that it’s better to clarify the doubts later at our own pace than to appear vulnerable in the moment. 

Such behavior can also result from cultural factors. Traditionally Asian cultures have had a tougher time saying “no” and “I don’t understand” at work as opposed to western cultures. Although, the lines are blurring rapidly with the influx of millennials in the workforce. 

Apart from improving your ability to comprehend, this approach has another vital benefit. It influences others to emulate. For example, if a young professional notices that their manager mentions it when they don’t understand something, they’ll feel confident to do so as well.

2. Lose the jargon

The modern-day definition of jargon according to the Cambridge dictionary is a set of words or expressions used by a profession or a group that are difficult for others to understand. However, I prefer it’s original, medieval era definition – a form of language regarded as barbarous or debased. 

This is the quickest hack in the book. Consciously avoid jargon, be succinct and you’ll communication skills will improve. In an age when anyone can google the meaning of any word in any language, using technical words is no longer a sign of knowledge. It’s a sign of an archaic mindset. This holds for both verbal and written communication. 

“I am busy” is a lot more effective than “I don’t have the bandwidth”. It’s about time we move the “Low hanging fruit” to the “parking lot” and permanently “take it offline”. 

3. Navigate language barriers with technology

Until the 20th century, only established enterprises had to worry about language barriers at work. Small teams didn’t possess enough resources to tap into global talent. It’s a different world today.

Teams are increasingly getting better at overcoming cultural barriers. The modern startup culture that emerged out of Silicon Valley has spread all over the world like wildfire. Even startups without a single American employee still are majorly influenced by the Valley work culture. This has created a new generation of employees that aspire for similar cultural values at work such as openness, transparency, empathy, and innovation. 

Language remains a challenge though. Employees who don’t have English as their first language are at a disadvantage if English is your organization’s language of choice. In such cases, the following tips help:

  • Be patient if either you or your colleague struggle to understand each other. Be especially mindful of nonverbal cues such as sighs or eye rolls.
  • Use team collaboration software. When you communicate in context through comments in tasks, it reduces the risk of miscommunication. 
  • Sponsor courses and learning programs to improve Engish. 

4. Pay attention to non-verbal cues

We all know the importance of non-verbal communication cues such as eye contact, posture, and tone. So, I won’t discuss them any further. 

But nonverbal cues care much more than that. They also include how things like team messaging etiquette and behavior during video calls. For example, if everyone has their cameras on during a video call, it’s better to keep yours on as well. Or refraining to eat during a meeting if no one else is. Ignoring such cues diminishes the impact of your communication. 

5. Develop the skill to listen

Listening is the most important skill one can develop to become a better communicator. The goal should be listening to comprehend rather than to retort. There are some practical tips to help with this:

  • Refrain from replying until the speaker has finished their chain of thought. It’s fascinating that doing so not just helps you understand better but also make the speaker more succinct. When people realize (even subconsciously) that they have your full attention, they don’t feel the need to ramble or repeat themselves. 
  • Visualize what the speaker is saying, like playing a movie in your head. It not only aids comprehension but also prevents the mind from wandering away. Visualizing also helps in retaining interesting points of conversation. 

The magical quality of effective listening is that even though you don’t spend time crafting your response during the conversation, you get much better at replying. 

6. Resolve conflicts on priority

Effective communication doesn’t call for conflict aversion. That is counterproductive. Conflict aversion is a sign of stagnant teams. It leads to teams compromising on excellence for the sake of harmony. Such teams struggle to achieve extraordinary results.

What effective communication demands is a culture of resolving conflicts professionally and on priority. 

An important mantra of conflict resolution is to assume positive intent, i.e. even if you are offended by something, assume that the speaker didn’t intend to do so. Focus on the specific behaviors or the root of the conflict rather than the subject. For example, saying “You’re difficult to work with” doesn’t do any favors to the recipient. Focusing on specific issues without making it seem like a personal attack is important. 

You might have noticed that all the six tips are internal in nature. They focus on ourselves rather than the team around us. I find that to be a more effective approach to improving communication at work. People are more likely to adopt behaviors that inspire them over those that are simply taught to them. 

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