Have you ever watched someone give a presentation or run a tough meeting at work and thought…
“How can I be the one doing that?!”
Time for some real talk...
As much as corporate culture claims to reward loyalty and hard work, more often than not, it’s the people who have excellent communication skills who get hired and promoted.
It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just human nature.
Learning how to improve communication skills will pay off for the rest of your career.
People who are able to communicate with confidence and finesse have an easier time building a rapport with others.
When you’re more likeable, people’s cognitive biases tend to assign you other positive qualities as well--whether or not you fully deserve them.
If you feel like you’re struggling to communicate in your career, or that you’ve been passed over one too many times for that project or promotion, consider learning how to improve your communication skills!
At a certain point in your career, you look around and realize EVERYONE is technically proficient. Developing better communication skills is what will help you stand out from the crowd.
Also, a side benefit is: You'll communicate better in your personal life as well as your career!
Win/win! Let's dive in!
In this article, you’ll learn…
Let’s dig in!
What Are Communication Skills?
First, I want to start by acknowledging that the term “communication skills” is incredibly broad.
There are so many forms of communication--and so many reasons to communicate!
In this article, we’ll be discussing skills that revolve around communication in the workplace.
Because “workplace communication skills” are just regular communication skills being used in a specific context, you will probably also find that your personal relationships and conversations will improve along with your skills!
And now that we’ve covered that, let’s dig in! ...Again!
1. Active Listening
Active listening can sound like a contradiction, but it doesn’t mean listening while doing other things.
Active listening means paying close attention to the person you’re speaking to and actively engaging with them.
This can be accomplished by giving this person your full attention, asking questions at appropriate pauses, and rephrasing what they’re saying.
Active listening is a powerful tool in communication because it helps you build a rapport with the other person.
When they can sense that you are fully engaged in the conversation, it builds trust and makes it easier to be vulnerable and honest.
It’s like “getting credit” for listening because it creates a positive feedback loop between you and the person you're communicating with.
This means that you’re going to get more out of the conversation, and--because you are actually giving this person your undivided attention--you’ll be able to retain critical information.
This can help you identify and solve any problems they may be having.
Action steps to improve your active listening skills:
Active Listening Pitfalls
A common pitfall with active listening is that it can quickly become a one-sided conversation. You’re so busy listening, you forget to talk!
To avoid making them feel like you’re interrogating them with all your thoughtful questions--or worse, that you zoned out!--make sure that you throw out thoughts and ideas of your own to keep the conversation going.
Just make sure they were done talking first!
Empathy is the ability to go beyond just understanding someone’s feelings (which is sympathy). Empathy means you’re able to share in the emotions of others--you can put yourself in their shoes.
This is an important skill in both group and one-on-one settings because if you can understand other people’s emotions, you can select the appropriate response for the situation.
It also helps you build rapport with the people around you. After all, who doesn’t like to feel understood?
For example, when a co-worker is frustrated and venting, empathy can help you acknowledge and diffuse the situation.
The more empathetic you are, the easier it is for you to relate to other people--a huge skill for those who work in teams or with clients.
Here are some concrete ways you can showcase empathy at work:
One thing you have to watch out for when you’re building empathy is to make sure you’re not swept away by emotion! Especially in the workplace, there is a time and place for everything.
You may understand why your co-worker is running behind on a deadline, but make sure that helping him out doesn’t come at the expense of getting the work done.
3. Nonverbal Communication
Did you know that over 70-93% of communication is nonverbal?
That means, if you’re not tuned in, you’re missing the majority of the conversation, bud.
This is probably why you get that feeling that goes something like, “Why don’t people just say what they mean?!?”
Maybe they are--nonverbally--and you’re just not picking up on it!
Now, there is a whole genre of self-help out there devoted to the idea of learning how to read body language, but that can get very scammy very quick. (Looking at you, PUAs)
Nonverbal communication should be about recognizing and appropriately controlling how your body takes up space so that you’re visually approachable and comfortable.
Orient your body language towards the person you’re talking to to indicate they have your full attention.
Don’t cross your arms or hunch over your phone if you’re standing alone and want someone to approach you.
Stand up straight to project confidence.
And realize that your “neutral” expression could be confused for resting bitch face.
And look for the same cues in other people!
Are they facing away from you while you talk, or are their feet pointing away from you? Time to wrap up the conversation!
Are they leaning in and standing fully facing you? Keep talking!
Nonverbal Communication Pitfalls
Try not to get too focused on particulars like, “She looked up and to the left so she’s probably bored” or “He’s crossing his arms so he must be closed off to my idea”.
Maybe she’s just thinking, or he’s been standing all day and he’s tired.
Don’t get so wrapped up in “reading” people that you forget to talk to them!
Humans hate uncertainty. I get it. But that’s part of life! Accept the uncertainty and just do your best.
4. Giving Feedback
This is an incredibly important communication skill to develop in the workplace--especially if you’re a supervisor or manager (or aspiring to be).
Whether you’re in charge of a project or leading a team, being able to give clear, unbiased feedback in a tactful way is the surest way to improve performance.
Remember, feedback isn’t criticism.
Saying, “Wow, Charlie, you really messed that up,” is criticism--it’s not helpful and it’s kind of a jerk thing to say.
Good feedback is tying a specific behavior to that behavior’s impact in a judgment-neutral way.
“Charlie, it seems like you focused so much on this section of the code that the overall logic model was neglected. Walk me through that....”
That’s an emotionally neutral statement that lays out the behavior and what that behavior led to with no judgment values laid on the result.
Now Charlie doesn’t have to be defensive and you can talk about how to prevent the problem from occurring again in the future.
This is a very helpful model of communication, but you have to be sure to use it in the right context.
If you’re giving feedback all the time (helpful or not) it’s going to start coming off as condescending and nitpicky.
“I see you used three scoops of coffee in the pot today instead of four. That made the coffee weaker. Let’s discuss…” is not a good look.
Remember that you have to build a relationship with someone to be able to give effective feedback. Without that foundation of honesty and vulnerability, they’re going to get defensive.
After all, who are you to tell them how to make coffee??
5. Conversation Skills
Okay, this one feels obvious. “To communicate you have to have a conversation…” blah, blah, blah.
But this is a very real skill that you should not overlook if you’re trying to improve the way you communicate.
If you can’t chat with the boss over coffee or talk to your coworkers at lunch, you’re not connecting with them. And connection is the first step towards building a meaningful relationship with the people around you.
I have a LOT articles and videos on how to be a better conversationalist. It’s an art form and one that’s vastly underappreciated. Which means you can make even more of an impact by perfecting it in your own life.
Here are a few actionable tips to help you get started. And remember--the most important thing is to practice. You can’t get better at conversation by studying. You have to talk to people.
The only pitfall that can come from becoming a terrific conversationalist is if you let it distract you from work.
Don’t tie people up for 20 minutes at a time or spend 15 minutes of a 30 minute meeting shooting the breeze, that’s inconsiderate and unprofessional. In a workspace, try to keep it to a few minutes and then head back to your desk.
Their day will be just as brightened, I promise.
Check out this case study from my private coaching client Alex. We talk about how private coaching helped him in his career!
6. Precise Communication
Good communication doesn’t mean talking non-stop. That’s...information overload (or verbal diarrhea).
Good verbal communication should be saying just enough and using the right words to get your message across.
Speak thoughtfully and mindfully.
“But, Jeff!!” I can hear you saying. “How?!”
And you’re right. It’s easy to say, “speak clearly and concisely,” but how do you put that into practice?
Especially when the boss asks you an unexpected question, or you’re put on the spot in a meeting, the tendency to ramble can pop up as a defense mechanism.
Just take a deep breath, pause to think, and FBM.
FBM, or Fact, Bridge, Message, is a method I learned from past BMC podcast guest and media trainer Nicole Schwegman.
First - state the fact. Do not fudge the truth or try to hedge the subject. That sets up a precedent for mistrust in the future.
This is especially true if you’re trying to communicate why something went wrong or someone points out a fault or mistake. Just own up.
“I did forget to get approval. I’m sorry. That will not happen again.”
Now it’s over! You’ve deflated them completely, there’s nowhere else to go, you admitted it. So now you both move on.
Next comes the bridge. The bridge is a statement that gets you back to what you want to talk about--your message.
Here are some examples:
All of these statements guide you back towards your message.
And of course, the message is whatever it is you want to talk about.
And this works for uncomfortable conversations at work:
Or in conversations that are getting off track:
Precise Communication Pitfalls
The pitfall to avoid with communicating “clearly and concisely” is coming off as abrupt or like you’re speaking in soundbites. Try to scale back on jargon and corporate-speak to avoid this.
“Let’s put a pin in this and circle back…” (ugh.)
“That’s a great idea, but I’d like to focus on [x] this meeting. Schedule a meeting for tomorrow morning to talk about that.” (yessss.)
Assertiveness is a communication tool that allows you to communicate what you want and need in a confident, straight-forward way.
This is difficult for so many of us because we’re afraid of coming off as aggressive or demanding.
But let me explain why being assertive is actually one of the most polite, well-adjusted ways to communicate.
We’ve all had that thought before (I even mentioned it in the article above already)...
“Why don’t people just say what they mean?!”
It’s maddening! You read a two page email and you have no idea what your assignment is. You left a three hour meeting and no decisions were made!
When we dance around saying things, it creates uncertainty. And uncertainty is painful for people.
Assertiveness is the solution to this communication problem.
You know that passive email that goes:
“I know you don’t have much bandwidth, but...”, and “I’m sorry for asking, but....” and “if you could maybe please just…”
We’re all guilty of writing that email.
It’s unclear, and covers up the fact that you should have just set the deadline in the first place.
Instead, set clear expectations by saying, “Hey, [X name], I need this [deliverable] by Tuesday at 2 pm. Thanks!
There is no room for misinterpretation, they get the relief of clear expectations, and you get what you need!
It's a win, win, win situation.
To make this a common practice in your life, start looking at your emails and see how you could simplify and shorten them to more clearly state what you want.
Once you have a handle on that, try sending a few emails in that tone! Then you can graduate to practicing in person.
The natural pitfall with being assertive is coming across as aggressive.
But this can be avoided by watching your tone and facial expressions. Use a neutral tone with a slight smile on your face and people will think to themselves “how confident!” not “how rude!” (Also, if you practice skills #1, #2,#3 and #5, you're much less likely to be mistaken for aggressive.)
You can also use words like:
To soften your tone. The difference between:
Action steps: How To Improve communication skills:
Now that we’ve learned how to implement these different communication skills in our everyday work life--time to practice!
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Over the last 15 years, I’ve learned... (Read More)
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