Improve communication skills with these tips

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John Masse
John Masse

Communication is hard. Communication is so complicated it has been the issue I have heard the most when talking to businesses and teams. If we overlook the value of developing communication skills, we limit our ability to grow, share ideas, or develop others. Good leaders can communicate effectively, but how can a manager help someone else build their ability to communicate with others?

After fifteen years of practice, I have learned that less is more.

The number of spoken words is not a measure of the quality of message delivery. Many times we confuse "speaking" with "communicating." Speaking and communicating is different. Communication is the goal, and speaking is one medium to communicate, similar to writing, sign language, or pictorial. I have made the mistake of thinking that whenever I speak, I am communicating effectively. I have realized that I tend to give much more information than necessary to achieve the current communication goal. When I give too much information, it muddies the purpose of why I started speaking. Uncontrolled speech has:

  • Too much content has led to irrelevant subjects, moving away from what the conversation was supposed to cover.
  • Introduced subjects into the mix that risks conflation of topics, or worse, cause the audience to grow concerned by making something sound more complicated than it is.
  • Eventually disengages the audience from the conversation.
  • Frustrates individuals looking just for the facts so they may move on with their day.
  • Adds ambiguity to what a stakeholder is trying to understand, "Is this done or not?", "Are we going to meet our budget?".

Less is more when it comes to speaking. So what do we do? How do we start improving our communication or help someone else with theirs? One way to do this is by understanding that communicating ideas or messages is not the same as speaking, and from this state of mind, we can work on either of these independently.

Assuming the ability to speak is separate from the ability to communicate.

If speaking and communicating are different skills, combined, these skills make magic, but we can grow them separately. To develop speaking, we work on understanding words and terms in context and learning new words to communicate intricate patterns of description. Communication is possible through speaking, and we have to develop the right speaking skills to begin to use it for communication.

Now that we understand that speaking and communicating are different skills, how do we improve communicating? And the first thing I like to explore is building frameworks around communication goals to control our speaking.

Establish communication goals.

If we are not enjoying casual chit-chat, we are communicating with purpose. There is an idea in our head and an audience in which to share. When speaking to our colleagues, our primary objective is to give the information they need to make the next decision. If you're working on an agile team, then often, your ability to communicate any blockers in your work is a priority. Other examples of communication goals could be:

  • By the end of the presentation, what is it that you expect to have happened? Is it a series of personal transformations, or perhaps you want someone to make a decision.
  • During this meeting, I need to understand the state of a project.
  • There is an issue with our product, and we need our stakeholders to understand the impact so they may do their jobs effectively.
  • My work is blocked, and I need guidance.
  • I have a new idea, and I want more people to get involved.
  • I am designing a workshop, and I want people to learn something specific.

The goal of communication is to establish concrete thoughts in the minds of those we are speaking. Going through the exercise of defining an objective before speaking is an excellent place to develop a small speaking framework.

Develop a communication framework for speaking.

Every meeting has a format. Pitches and presentations require decks, agendas, motivation in the form of "what's in it for me" objectives, and more. For scrum practitioners, the daily standup asks that we share our accomplishments from the previous day, the goals we expect to achieve on the current day, and, most importantly, anything in their way of success. Each engagement has a pattern we can follow for successful communication. We have to add communication objectives to each leg of these meeting patterns to stay on track.

For example, develop a communication framework for the daily standup.

Let's improve our point of communication for the daily stand up.

The objective

  • To inform my colleagues at a high level about how I have spent my time over the previous day.
  • To share what I think I will accomplish for the day.
  • To discuss any blockers that I might have with my work.

Consider your audience using empathy

We are adding the team as our stakeholders in how we are communicating. To communicate well, it is useful to put ourselves in the position of those we are sharing. Empathy can help us understand what details are the most significant to achieve a good connection. For the daily stand up, we are talking with our teammates. And what I would like to know from my teammates the most is if we are on track and if my teammate needs any help. As a scrum team member, we are accountable for delivering a successful iteration, and if I know anything, a blocker can put our commitments at risk. With that in mind, and at this time, we can establish bullet points for communicating our previous day's effort and current-day plans and expect to highlight my thoughts on timing and my blockers.

  • Make a list of what you plan to complete for the day.
  • Highlight milestones or areas of possible risk. Early signal for caution ahead.
  • Highlight blockers and specifically ask for help.

What we have here now is a list of concrete objectives we plan to accomplish during a daily ceremony.

Applying a communication framework

Caution hesitation in applying structure to communication. Without using a framework around how we communicate, we rely on our ability to get it right. Relying on spontaneity alone lowers the communication rating because we have not established why we began the communication. One is at risk of being disengaged from communication development when:

  • We feel like escaping the meeting altogether.
  • Colleagues lack engagement with what others are sharing.
  • We are calling on one another during the session. These are low dynamic meetings and could stand to be removed from the calendar altogether.
  • Ambiguous delivery. If more than half of the meeting, people have nothing to take away from what others have shared.

For unconscious professionals, this will go overlooked.

Coaching for communication development requires constant check in's

If you are working with someone else on their communication skills, constant feedback is critical in the early development stages. Be in the places your mentee is communicating and provide feedback as soon as possible. A fast feedback loop, an environment that allows practicing in combination with a structured framework, will fast track communication progress for many situations.

When embarking on a communication journey with someone, consider committing to an outline that includes:

  • With your mentee, discuss communication skills as a developmental proficiency. Engaging our colleagues and establishing a shared understanding of what you are working on together.
  • Review ordinary meetings to seek out places the mentee may practice communicating. Presentations, writing an email, sending a communication over messaging systems like Slack or MS Teams; these are all places a manager can be present for their mentee.
  • Design a simple communication framework together. Help the individual isolate the critical components of the meetings they take part in and discuss how they can stay on track to achieve their communication goals.
  • As a manager, listen intently at how the coachee communicates, noting down places where they veered off course, lacking clarity in message, or outright missed the mark. Early development stages require a keen sense of when a coachee is engaging in feedback the manager is providing. The manager should remain patient, and in follow up sessions, congratulate and acknowledge even the smallest effort put forth by the coachee. The early stages of coaching are critical to establishing engagement, which is critical for long term adoption.
  • Repeat meetings, bi-weekly if you can, focus on the communication feedback. Use the real situational stories and guide how the framework could have helped them.
  • Practice communication with the coachee. Mock interviews, mock presentations, or dry runs of production allow the coachee to give it their best effort in a developmental environment. Refine messaging with the individual; these practice sessions will not only help the coachee navigate the problem, but it will also build their confidence.
  • Most importantly, from a coaching perspective, try not to give all of the answers away. Developing others requires that we allow the one being developed to come to their own conclusions. The coach's role for communication is to provide as many points of reference as possible to enable the mentee to solve their problems.

Conscious engagement in communication

Conscious engagement in developing skills means we are mentally committing a goal we expect ourselves to accomplish. Building small frameworks around the types of ceremonies or meetings we engage in can lead to focused delivery while also heading you or your mentee on the road to influencing others.