Communication is the most important soft skill, because all other soft skills are built on the ability to communicate clearly and professionally. Communication is more than just sending a message – it is also the ability to receive messages, listen actively, and “hear” what isn’t being said. Many times we focus on learning to speak or write clearly, but this is only one component of communication – and perhaps not even the most important!
Human communication is complex. The first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “communication” is often words – either spoken or written. But the words we speak and hear are just one way we communicate, and some studies show that most of our communication takes place through other means. Humans communicate in many different ways:
Most of us have a preferred method of communication, but all of use these different forms at one point or another. Learning to communicate effectively in many forms helps not only when you craft your own messages, but when you receive messages as well.
Studies show that up to 70% of the information we communicate comes through nonverbal communication – gestures, eye contact, posture, personal space, and all the other ways we use our bodies to send messages. Other studies show that if a person’s nonverbal communication and verbal communication don’t match in terms of message, the listener is more likely to doubt what he or she is saying. Improving your nonverbal communication can help improve your overall ability to both send and receive messages.
Improving your nonverbal communication starts with awareness. Pay attention to how you use your body when you are talking or listening to someone. An open stance, frequent (but not continuous eye contact), nods, and a relaxed posture help to communicate that you are open and approachable, and that you are communicating honestly. A closed stance, folding your arms across your chest, staring at the floor, or refusing to make eye contact all indicate that you are not listening, or that you are not communicating openly. Shifting from foot to foot, pacing, or otherwise moving continuously indicate impatience. We do many things without thinking about them, especially when we are otherwise busy. Take time to notice both your own nonverbal communication and others’, and especially your reaction to others.
The ability to receive messages is as important, if not more important, than the ability to send them. Listening is more than just hearing the words someone speaks. It is a total way of receiving verbal and nonverbal messages, processing them, and communicating that understanding back to the speaker. Many of us listen in order to respond – we are formulating our next message while another is still talking. We should instead listen to understand – to fully take in, process, and comprehend the message that is being sent.
“Active listening” is sometimes thrown around as a buzzword, but it’s a valuable soft skill to develop. Active listening is a form of listening where you listen to the speaker and reflect back what you understand the speaker to have said. You may also give the speaker nonverbal feedback through nods of agreement or other techniques which indicate you are listening and understanding. Active listening involves staying focused on the present, both by giving the speaker your full attention and by keeping the discussion to the issue at hand. Reflect back to the speaker what you understand him or her to have said by carefully rephrasing the message, such as, “So, I hear you saying that….” Check for understanding and use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.
Open, honest communication is the key to building workplace relationships and demonstrating professionalism. While you do not need to discuss personal or private topics in the workplace, being transparent and honest about work matters and generally being willing to communicate with others is vital. People can sense when someone is hiding something or withholding information, and tend not to trust him or her. This damages workplace trust and relationships, and may lead to lower productivity and morale. Each of us has a different level of comfort with what we choose to disclose about ourselves, but being willing to share parts of yourself with your colleagues also helps to build rapport.
Austin wasn’t a big communicator. He liked to get right to the point so that an issue could be solved or a project moved forward. He especially didn’t like it if someone seemed to be taking too long to get to the point. He tended to listen with his arms folded across his chest, and sometimes even tapped his foot without realizing it. If a person came into his office while he was working, he’d continue working while the person talked. This meant sometimes he missed important details. During his yearly review, Austin’s manager told him that Austin’s coworkers and direct reports felt that he never really listened, and that they were bothering him even when they had to come to him with important things. Austin’s manager suggested he take a one-day communication course and try some of the techniques. Austin agreed, but only because he felt he had no choice. In the course, they talked about nonverbal communication, and Austin realized how off-putting his habits were. He decided to try to be more mindful of his nonverbal communication and listening style.