We all know that good communication is essential to strong relationships in both our work and personal lives. Communication is the glue that holds relationships, families, and friendships together. At work, it can be the difference between a project succeeding or failing – or even a business floundering or thriving.
There’s also a financial incentive to get communication right. According to Dynamic Signal’s 2019 Annual State of Employee Communications and Engagement, 52% of companies reported lost revenue due to poor communication.
No-one is born a great communicator. It is a skill we must all learn if we want to succeed at work, grow our businesses, and maintain strong relationships with important stakeholders.
Fortunately, it isn’t too hard to learn how to communicate well. There are a few common traps that hinder workplace communication. I see them again and again, and have fallen into a few of them myself!
Read on to learn about some of the most common barriers to communication at work, how to diagnose them, and how to fix them.
Consistency is defined as “conformity in the application of something, typically that which is necessary for the sake of logic, accuracy, or fairness.” A lack of consistency can be hugely detrimental to communication and can leave people feeling frustrated, alienated, and confused. Not exactly what you want in your team!
Are you, or is someone you work with, giving mixed messages? Are you, deliberately or inadvertently, giving different messages to different people? If so, you might be suffering from the communication barrier known as inconsistency.
What to do about it
If you’re the person being inconsistent, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you accidentally giving mixed messages because you’re not sure of the right answer? If so, you need to ask some questions to get the correct information clear in your mind.
One of the most common explanations I’ve seen for inconsistent communication in the workplace is fear of conflict. No-one likes upsetting people. But if you’re giving inconsistent information because you’re afraid of upsetting or angering someone, that’s a problem.
To fix a problem caused by your own inconsistency, bring the team together, and talk to everyone. If this is impossible due to distance (or the pandemic), get everyone on a conference call. Tempting though it might be to just send an email, this is likely to result in more confusion rather than less. Resolving communication inconsistencies requires a face-to-face discussion.
Start like this: “I realize I have been giving inconsistent or confusing messages around the X Project, and I wanted to clear that up.” Then state in plain language what you need everyone to understand and answer any questions your team may have.
If the inconsistent communication is coming from someone else, speak up, and name it. This doesn’t have to be an adversarial conversation. Here’s a simple script for you: “I’m getting some mixed messages here because I was told X, but Jane seems to think Y. Could you clarify for me, please?”
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Poor listening skills
Most of us are better at talking than we are at listening. That’s just human nature. Active listening is an essential skill that too few people develop. But effectively listening to others is just as important as being able to get your point across.
If you, or someone you are speaking to, is frequently interrupting, repeating points, or zoning out during conversations, your communication problem can be best diagnosed as poor listening.
What to do about it
Chances are, you could stand to improve your listening skills. Most of us could! Make an effort to practice active listening. The graphic below highlights seven key active listening skills.
Essentially, you should give the person speaking your undivided, non-judgmental attention. Do not interrupt. Reflect on the words of the person you are speaking to and seek clarification if anything is unclear. Summarize what you heard back to the speaker to make sure you understood them correctly. Only then should you begin to share your thoughts on what they’ve said and bring in your ideas.
If you’re the person feeling that somebody else isn’t listening to you, it can be incredibly frustrating. If it’s a problem for multiple people (and it might be!), you should consider some communication training for the whole team with a focus on active listening.
If you have problems with one particular poor listener, name the problem in a non-confrontational way and ask for their input. You might be surprised. For example, you might learn that they struggle with processing information that is given verbally and would rather have it in writing to digest at their own pace. You might also find that you’re consistently catching them at a bad time and breaking their flow.
Different work styles, learning styles, and communication needs can look like rudeness from the outside. Practice empathy and approach your colleague as a collaborator, not an adversary.
Finally, if someone is not listening to the point of being disrespectful, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself professionally. If someone interrupts you, it’s fine to say, “please let me finish.”
Your words say one thing, your body language says something else
Have you ever heard someone say something, while their body language seems to be communicating the exact opposite? It’s surprisingly common.
Communications experts believe that body language is responsible for around 55% of the impact we make when speaking to someone:
In other words, what you don’t say verbally is at least as important as what you do say. Your words might be conveying a positive or neutral message, but if your body language is conveying frustration, anger, or annoyance, that’s what the other person will take away.
What to do about it
Say what you mean! I don’t mean that you should let every thought come out of your mouth unfiltered. But be as honest as possible while remaining professional and polite.
Pay close attention to your body language – many of us adopt closed-off postures such as crossing our arms out of habit. When you’re talking to someone, follow these simple body language tips:
- Angle your body towards the person you’re speaking to
- Make eye-contact
- Smile when appropriate. Avoid negative facial expressions such as furrowing your brow
- Don’t fold your arms
- Stand or sit up straight
- Don’t play with your hair, jewelry, or clothes. This makes you look nervous.
If you’re speaking to someone and their body language doesn’t match their words, it can be confusing. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re deliberately misleading you or that their words are untrue. Contradictory body language can just as easily mean someone is having a bad day – it might have nothing to do with you or the conversation at all.
But it’s fine to ask! In fact, if someone’s body language and words don’t match, it’s sensible to dig deeper. Say something like this: “you’re telling me that X, but your expression is saying Y. Do you have some concerns? I’d like to hear them and address them if so.” Keep your tone supportive and your own body-language receptive.
I work in the ecommerce space, which is notorious for jargon. But those outside my industry might not know their API (Application Programming Interface) from their CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) and why should they?
Many companies, and industries, have their own jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations which new employees and external stakeholders may struggle with. Excessive jargon reduces communication quality and sacrifices clarity in favor of buzzwords.
What to do about it
Try to eliminate jargon from your vocabulary as much as possible. It might be fine to use some when you are sure everyone in the room has a similar understanding of the terms, but it’s better to avoid it. And it’s essential to avoid jargon when you’re talking to new employees and people outside your company. Using lots of words they don’t understand makes people feel alienated and causes them to switch off.
Try to build a jargon-free culture at your company. Encourage everyone to use plain English and avoid creating endless acronyms and abbreviations. This might involve leading by example by cutting down on your own jargon usage. Precise language and direct communication make life easier for everyone.
Oh, and try to avoid the above universally-hated expressions.
We all make snap judgments about people based on actual or perceived characteristics such as gender, race, culture or background. Most of us would never do it intentionally, but cultural messaging about people who belong to particular groups is very powerful. The assumptions we make about others without intending to are known as unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias is proven to impact modern workplaces at every level: hiring, retention, performance management, and promotions. It can be very difficult to diagnose unconscious bias in yourself. The Harvard Implicit Bias tests can be an eye-opening way to expose prejudices you might not have been aware you were carrying.
What to do about it
We could all be doing more to overcome our unconscious bias. Many companies now include Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training as part of their onboarding process. You can include a module on unconscious bias within this. You can also organize training for the whole team to tackle this issue. It can be challenging to talk about, but recognizing it exists is the best way to mitigate its impact.
Remember: don’t beat yourself up if you find you’re harboring some unconscious biases. Most of us are! By being aware of them, you’re better positioned to interrogate them and work to eliminate them.
Overcoming communication barriers for better teamwork
We all understand the importance of communication in our workplaces, but few people know how to get better at it or overcome communication blocks.
It’s amazing how often the same workplace communication blocks crop up. If you recognize your team in any of the common problems I’ve outlined here, don’t despair! With a little time and effort, you can all become better communicators. And better communication leads to stronger teamwork, greater team cohesion, and, ultimately, a more successful company.