Why do some people consistently get better results in the workplace? Their projects seem to progress better, their teams work better, they get better promotions and assignments, and their clients and managers love them. While it’s easy to assign much of this success to better technical skills – after all, most people think of companies as meritocracies where talent rises to the top – the answer is probably something less expected: communication skills.
Good communicators can achieve results that far exceed their technical skills and know-how. Poor communicators, on the other hand, constantly feel stymied in everything they do and tend to under perform relative to their potential. So how can you tell if you have poor communication skills, and what can you do about it? Here are 8 simple signs to look out for:
1. One-Way Communication
Poor communicators often feel frustrated that they don’t get feedback – in meetings, emails, project planning, etc. They present their ideas, explain their plan, and wait for questions or comments, but get nothing.
The problem may be talking too much. Being a good communicator requires the ability to sit back and listen, in a way that invites conversation. Be conscious of leaving space and time for input, and don’t present ideas in a final “This is how it is and there are no possible alternatives” manner.
2. “You” Directives
If you find a large portion of your communication with co-workers, managers, and employees begins with the word “You” and a directive (“are”, “should”, “will”, etc. – words that demand an action from whoever you’re communicating with), you may have poor communication skills. Statements like “You should have been here an hour ago” or “You have to do this immediately” make people feel like they are being communicated at rather than communicated to.
Instead of using “you” followed by a directive, consider using “you”-neutral statements – the word “you”, followed by a statement of fact – “I noticed, you were the last person to arrive” or “Last week on Monday, you had agreed to get that report to me by end of day”. The people you are communicating with will feel less defensive, and are more likely to respond positively.
3. Only Negatives
Consider the way you react to ideas presented by others – if your first reaction is to shoot down the idea, you may have poor communication skills. While it’s important to thoroughly explore potential downsides of new projects, initiatives, and other ideas, being known as the “no” guy can seriously hinder your work progress.
Before responding negatively to others’ ideas, take a quick mental inventory and answer these questions:
- Is there a solution to the problem I see?
- Is my solution objectively better or do I just think it is because it’s mine?
- Do I understand the reasoning behind this idea, and can I express that?
- Are there aspects of this idea that can be built upon?
Instead of just saying no, express your understanding of the thought process that got the presenter to their idea, and identify some positive aspects that can be used to find a more optimal solution. Instead of dismissing others’ ideas as bad, present your own ideas as better.
4. Getting Personal
One of the biggest signs of poor communication is focusing on people rather than on problems. Examples would be dismissing a co-worker as stupid or an idiot for presenting a plan that needs improvement, or calling your employees lazy rather than focusing on specific impediments to better productivity. If you identify a problem, and your first thought is to direct a negative personal comment at the person you believe to be the source of the problem, you may need to re-evaluate your communication skills.
Instead of getting angry at or belittling people, make the problem the focus of your communication. Separate the issue from those you feel are responsible, and zero-in on possible solutions instead of apportioning blame. There is NEVER a situation where a negative comment directed at someone personally will get you good results.
5. Disregarding or Invalidating Feelings
Modern corporate culture has evolved to de-prioritize the emotions and feelings of workers, but doing so in your personal communication can lead to big problems. When you invalidate negative feelings (“I don’t care if you’re upset about this”), those feelings tend to become more strongly embedded. On the other hand, when you invalidate positive feelings (“Don’t get excited about that milestone, you’re still behind schedule”), the feelings can go away quickly and be replaced by apathy.
Whenever you are presented with an employee, client, manager, or co-worker who is communicating the way they feel about something, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if you disagree with them. Showing understanding of their emotions can make them more receptive to constructive criticism and make them more likely to make improvements (“I understand you feel frustrated with this project, but we need to change the design slightly …”).
6. Passive-Aggressiveness and Sarcasm
If you find yourself responding with sarcasm or passive-aggression in professional and personal communications, you may be doing yourself and whoever you’re communicating with a big disservice. Both approaches get in the way of presenting real solutions to problems, and are often interpreted as belittling or condescending.
Instead of replying sarcastically to something that you see as a problem, be earnest about what you believe the issue to be and present straightforward and honest possible solutions. Using sarcasm or passive-aggression is often seen as a personal attack, and can escalate an already tricky conflict-resolution scenario.
Communication Is Key
The good news is that changing the way you communicate is not terribly complicated. It can be difficult, as is changing any behavior, but it is a straightforward process. Even better, there are plenty of tools that can help you both identify if your communication skills need work and help guide you through the process of improving them.
Being a good communicator is more than just about making the people around you feel better and getting your points across. It is essential to creating the kind of workplace where your ideas are really heard, where collaboration is smooth and seamless, and where teamwork isn’t just a buzzword. Poor personal communication, on the other hand, can not only set back your career, it can make work feel like … well, a lot of work.