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Are you succeeding at work? 4 methods to foster effective communication

7 min read


 This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

Why isn’t your career soaring when you work hard and are also talented? Could it be the way you communicate with others?

For instance, have you ever wondered why credit for your suggestion goes to someone else? Or been afraid to speak up because you can’t articulate your ideas? Wondered why your presentation wasn’t well received? Misinterpreted your boss’s request?

Thousands of books and blogs have been written on effective professional communication. Synthesized here are the four fundamental types; learn these concepts well and your career should skyrocket. Remember: the way in which you communicate influences everything, whether you’re the CEO or the new hire and regardless of what type of work you do. If you master how to better communicate, you and your career will enjoy definitively improved results.

You communicate by 1) writing 2) speaking 3) listening and 4) engaging interpersonally, whether it’s with one person or one thousand. The commonality for succeeding with each form of communication is the clarity of your focus. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes listening and engaging, which I’ll explain further on. Understanding each type is critical for business communication.

Writing: This skill should be continuously honed through practice, practice, practice. Always keep the focus on your audience so you can answer the question “Why should this be important to them?” Select your words carefully. History reminds us almost all conflicts, whether between individuals or societies, involved communication problems.

A senior State Department official taught me how to become a more powerful writer. He instilled in me the golden rule of writing: Conceptualize, then succinctly state the central point. Have clarity. Everything else should build on it. Don’t allow yourself to ramble in voice or pen.

Later, I learned that when writing e-mails, it’s helpful to first draft and then shrink the draft — if possible — by 50% because short e-mails generate the greatest response. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin and other notables throughout history, “Please pardon the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

Further, quality usually trumps turnaround time. When your supervisor requests something, submit an articulated and thoughtful response rather than something dashed off, which frequently can’t be well thought-out or composed. Never allow your work to be late, but remember that your second draft is almost always better than your first. Of course, it’s even better if you become known for quality and rapid response.

Speaking: Typically, you want people to be influenced by what you say. In addition to clarity of thought, effective speakers convey confidence. Repeated studies validate “confidence” correlates to “influence.” In all interactions, even before you begin speaking your audience is influenced by the way you comport yourself. Your posture, eye contact, voice tonality and general attitude convey multiple unspoken messages, affecting the sway of your influence. If you want to be convincing, before you speak, ensure your comments are relevant and interesting, stated with certainty and poise.

How do we overcome our fear of certain discussions? By recognizing fear only exists internally and is not necessary shared by others. Realize most people aren’t as judgmental as we think they are. Don’t let pre-existing assumptions dictate your discussion; stick to hard facts. This will help you determine whether expressing yourself facilitates or hinders the discussion.

If you’re still not feeling confident about speaking in general, practice by accepting speaking opportunities or through groups such as Toastmasters. Your professional skills and confidence will improve, helping you beyond the office in personal relationships, acing job interviews, etc.

Listening: Frequently this is the most undervalued communication skill because it appears to be more passive than active. Wrong. Studies reveal people absorb less than half of what they hear. No wonder there is so much misinterpretation, error and wasted time.

You can actively listen by focusing on what the speaker is saying. Block out extraneous clutter. Don’t let your mind wander or be planning what to say when the speaker finishes. If possible, look at the speaker and maintain eye contact.

You can’t actively listen if you don’t let the speaker finish speaking. So don’t interrupt! If the speaker rambles or is confusing, wait until they pause or finish to ask questions for clarification. It’s also critically important to listen to what isn’t being said. The spoken word conveys only a fraction of the message; pay attention to nonverbal cues. They speak volumes.

Learning and practicing active listening is harder than you think. If you do, though, you’ll be a more accurate and effective communicator.

Engaging: President Bill Clinton is famous for making you feel like you’re the only person in the room. Do what he does naturally and learn the “Art of Focus.”This is the essence of good interpersonal skills — engaging with others by utilizing all your verbal and nonverbal skills.

Your goal is to totally understand other perspectives, whether it’s clients, colleagues, supervisors, etc. Do your homework. Know your audience and their perspectives. Show interest in their thoughts and ideas. And guess what? Those who can best engage with their audience are often thought to be the best communicators. They’re actively engaging with verbal and nonverbal skills — always a plus in your professional reputation.

For instance, retired U.S. Sen. John Warner knew the importance of engaging with his audience. To understand their perspective, he would always read the local paper before making remarks to them.

Most importantly, engagement begins with the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you. The ethic of respect fosters the best ways to communicate, creates a stronger working environment, and saves time and energy, allowing your office to stay focused on professional responsibilities.

Just remember everything begins — or ends — with the ways you communicate. Can you improve your career through effective communication? Practice these steps for more effective writing, speaking, listening and engaging. You should be pleasantly surprised at the new heights you are able to scale.

Travis Horel is a seasoned strategist with 25 years in the public affairs and policy arenas. She is adept at creating and managing strategic programs and business development, as well as executing communications campaigns for public and private policy issues. Horel currently heads her own company in Washington, D.C., The Horel Group LLC, which creates and executes short-term business development, management and communications strategies. From 2009 to 2013, she was the managing director for strategic development at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. Horel’s other experience includes vice president of international relations at JPMorgan Chase, deputy assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the U.S. Department of State, senior adviser and counselor to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, legislative assistant for health, financial services and other issues to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and founder of Business Solutions, a communications/government affairs firm she headed until 2003. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.