Communication is one of the most sought-after 'soft skills' by employers, yet it's a skill many employees could stand to improve upon.
In this article, we will look at communication skills in the workplace - why they matter, how to use them and crucially, how to improve workplace communication skills.
Whether you are currently in work or you are seeking your next job, there are various opportunities every day to practise communicating more effectively.
That includes personal communication skills - how you interact with others in informal settings - and also professional communication skills, which can be the most important in the workplace.
Communication is a skill that is never 'done'. You can continue learning throughout your career, but there's no way to become a 100% perfect communicator.
While that might sound like a negative thing, in fact, it's a positive. No matter how good you become as a communicator, there is always more to be learned.
Here we will look at some of the basics of workplace communication and how to move beyond them to intermediate and more advanced communication skills.
Why Are Communication Skills in the Workplace Important?
Workplaces thrive on teamwork, collaboration and interaction. At the heart of all those things is the same skill: communication. When you communicate clearly and concisely, you make progress faster and more coherently.
For employees, that means work gets done faster, with less stress and confusion, which is all good news. For employers, it means productivity is higher, tasks are completed more efficiently, and teams pool their talent more effectively.
Clear communication can also help you to meet your personal career goals. For example, when asking for a promotion or pay rise, it's important to set out exactly what you want and communicate effectively throughout any negotiation that follows.
This is equally true when applying for a new job. Your interview is the first workplace interaction you have with a new employer - so demonstrate that you are an effective communicator, while also making clear what you expect while working there.
In every business interaction, whether it's with an interviewer, employer, colleague or customer, a positive outcome depends on effective communication. That sometimes involves negotiation, but it can also be as simple as placing an order accurately.
As you progress through your career, you have the opportunity to hone your communication skills, including in specific areas like interview technique, marketing and PR, sales and procurement. Aim to steadily improve in these areas and you'll boost your future employability as a natural result too.
What Are the Most Important Communication Skills?
There's an adage that says "you have two ears, but only one mouth" and it's worth remembering for two reasons:
- You should spend more time listening than talking.
- You should make your words count.
In business communication, this is often the case. For example in negotiations, you can achieve a lot by saying very little, and then waiting quietly for the other party to come back with an offer or counter-offer.
You might be tempted to keep talking when you are a candidate in job interviews, but knowing when to stop talking is essential. Keep your answers to the most relevant information and signal clearly when you have finished answering the interviewer's question.
This not only maximises the impact of your answers, but it also demonstrates to the interviewer that you know how to communicate clearly and concisely - valuable transferable skills across many roles, from entry-level to management.
In short the most important communication skills are:
- Small talk
- Knowledge sharing
- Knowledge transformation
- Written communication
- Verbal communication
- Non-verbal communication
- Interpersonal communication
- Formal vs. informal
The Four Layers of Communication
Communication can be 'sliced' into four basic layers. Across many different kinds of interactions, this remains true, and it can be beneficial to recognise what layer you are currently communicating in.
The four layers of communication are:
Greetings form a surprisingly significant portion of workplace communication. A firm handshake and a friendly 'hello' can set the stage for the entire interaction that follows, including in job interviews where we know first impressions count for so much.
At the same time, these initial introductions are quite shallow in communicative terms, and should normally form the briefest part of any conversation.
Moving on from the initial greeting, the next level up is small talk - which is still relatively shallow in terms of the information you share.
This is the friendly but inconsequential chatter that takes place between colleagues, customers and suppliers who don't know each other well. You might mention the weather, or ask "how's it going?" while only expecting a one-word answer.
Again, this kind of communication occurs constantly in workplaces all around the world. It can help to make newcomers feel welcome, even though nothing world-changing has been said.
Workplace communication really starts to change things when you share significant knowledge about a situation, for example when you discuss a particular project or give a status report about an ongoing client contract.
Sharing knowledge simply means telling another person what you know. It's a useful skill in human communication, as it allows us to teach others, but it's not the most sophisticated way to communicate with one or more other people.
That's because when you share knowledge, communication can take the form of a one-way broadcast. A newsletter or notice board can share information and, while it may be relevant and interesting to the reader or listener, their input is not always required.
Finally, at the top of the communication pyramid, we come to knowledge transformation. This is where one party shares some information and the other party responds in a way that develops that information into something new.
An example of this in the workplace is brainstorming. A group of colleagues throw out ideas around a particular topic and bounce them back and forth to develop them into something new - something better than anyone person would have come up with.
Transforming knowledge is sophisticated and often forms just a small part of our daily interactions, yet it can be critical to problem-solving, innovation and effective teamwork.
Types of Workplace Communication
All of the above levels of communication can occur across different media types and different ways to express yourself.
Much workplace communication is in written form, from emails and memos to invoices and contracts. Written communication is a skill all on its own, and if you're working in a professional role it's likely you already have a good grasp of how to express yourself in writing.
Speech can be faster whether you're talking to one person or many. However, it's also where some people struggle to express themselves confidently and clearly. There are no shortcuts to confident verbal communication, so stay aware and aim to improve over time.
Body language encompasses everything from your choice of business attire to your facial expressions. Remember that when you walk into a room - even before you say hello - your appearance says a lot about you in an instant, so make good use of NVC to set the scene for what you say next.
There is no communication without an audience, and knowing how to address other people is another skill in its own right. We'll look at different audience sizes below, but in general, try to express yourself as clearly as possible for your readers or listeners, and pitch your choice of words appropriately for their level of technical knowledge, not your own.
Formal vs. Informal
Watercooler moments can be valuable in office environments. They're where you can discuss awkward topics that colleagues might not feel comfortable mentioning back at their desks. Equally, you might socialise with co-workers outside of business hours. Remember you still have a professional relationship to maintain - so even informal communication in social settings needs a certain degree of awareness and consideration.
How to Address Different Audience Sizes
Communication skills are not just about knowing what to say and do, but also about considering your audience.
We've touched on that above when thinking about formal and informal communication in the workplace, but you should also keep in mind the size of the audience you are addressing.
Some examples of this include:
Communication between two people is direct and can take place face-to-face, over the phone, or via another form of media like email or letter.
In some ways, it's the easiest way to communicate because you only need one other person to understand what you are saying.
For example, if the other person is a colleague with similar qualifications to your own, you might feel confident using acronyms and technical language without explaining what they mean.
Speaking to a small group, such as in a team training session, is a slightly different skill. It's a little way off from full public speaking, but you still need to make sure everyone is engaged at all times.
Continually work your way around the group, making eye contact and checking that everyone is still listening. If someone looks glassy-eyed - and if it's appropriate to do so - gently check that they're still following what you're saying.
In job interviews when you're facing a panel of interviewers, you need to use a hybrid of the above techniques. Address your responses to the person who asked the question, but make sure you are also speaking to the room, including any 'interviewers' who are acting as silent observers.
Sometimes you will find yourself addressing a crowd. That might be in a senior management role speaking to your entire company, or if you are asked to represent your business as a conference speaker.
Jobs in marketing and PR often involve communicating effectively to a large number of people, whether that's putting out a press release or managing the company's social media accounts.
Again, the skills are slightly different when communicating to a lot of people at once - especially when that communication is mediated, such as online, and you can't necessarily check that everyone understands what you are saying as you are saying it.
How to Improve Communication Skills
There are many ways to improve communication skills in the workplace. It's something you can do all the time, every day, just by looking out for examples of best practice from your manager, co-workers or interviewers.
Some simple techniques to improve communication skills include:
There are training courses and self-help books to help you improve your communication skills. If you're interested in getting a qualification you can put on your CV, for example, this can be a good way to go.
Talks and Seminars
You can learn effective workplace communication skills by watching talented individuals talk to a crowd. The internet is an excellent place to find all sorts of seminars and keynote speeches, which you can study as much for the speaker's communication skills as for the topic they speak about.
Finally, just pay attention to the people around you. Notice the ways they communicate - and how that changes depending on who they are talking to. Practice ways of speaking to different sizes and types of audience.
Also remember to practice different modes of communication, whether that's face-to-face verbal, written communication, or pre-prepared speeches and training sessions. For professional communication, in particular, you might also want to practice telephone, email and video conferencing skills, as these are media types that you are likely to encounter.
When Workplace Communication Goes Bad
Don't panic if you ever fumble or commit a faux pas, but be ready to apologise if you ever inadvertently cause offense. Nobody is perfect and in the workplace, sensitivities can be heightened. By understanding your audience, you can avoid inappropriate comments and keep making progress for maximum productivity.
Finally, be confident. The more you communicate with others around you, the more confidence you will gain. Effective communication can be a real joy when you use it to crack a challenge or bag yourself a lucrative pay rise or promotion - so learn to enjoy it.