Keys to Better Workplace Communication

Debbie Zmorenski

Corporate leaders are trained in economics, strategy and a variety of other business skills. Few are trained in communication, yet experts agree that communication is one of the most important skills leaders should have on their list of competencies.

To ensure successful communications within your organization, it is best to start with the very basics: your knowledge of verbal and non-verbal communications. In the workplace, these types of communications are continually exchanged, oftentimes without much planning or even the thought that such communications are taking place.

The Importance of Non-Verbal Communication

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian found that non-verbal language makes up 55 percent of how we communicate in face-to-face interactions. He also concluded that we communicate as much as 38 percent of our message through our voice (tone, pitch and so on), with as little as 7 percent through the words we actually say.

Understanding and recognizing the signs and signals that make up this 55 percent can help you when you communicate with others. There are times when we send mixed messages – we say one thing yet our body language reveals something different. This non-verbal language affects how we act and react to others, how they react to us, and whether we gain and maintain credibility.

For instance, it’s not always just what you say but how you “say” it, taking into account your eyes, your posture, your overall body language, the voice in which you offer the exchange and even your appearance at the time the communication is exchanged. In verbal communication, an active dialogue is engaged with the use of words. At the same time, non-verbal communication takes place, relying on non-verbal cues, such as gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, even clothing and personal space.

Non-verbal cues are very powerful, making it crucial that you pay attention to your actions as well as the non-verbal cues of those around you. If during your meeting, participants begin to doodle or chat among themselves, they are no longer paying attention to you. Your message has become boring, or your delivery is no longer engaging. When I was a business program facilitator at the Disney Institute, I had a friend who used to say, “Watch the audience. If they’re bored, you’re boring them.”

While eye contact, facial expressions, posture, gestures, clothing and space are obvious non-verbal communication cues, others strongly influence interpretation of messages, including how the message is delivered. This means paying close attention to your tone of voice, even your voice’s overall loudness and pitch.

Be mindful of your own non-verbal cues as well as the non-verbal cues of those around you. Keep your messages short and concise. This means preparing in advance whenever possible. For the impromptu meeting, it means thinking before you speak.

Barriers to Effective Communication

Barriers can arise at any stage of the communication process. When communication is failing, it is of primary importance to identify where the causes for failure are within the communication process.

Take a few minutes to think about the barriers to effective communication in your organization, division or department. Some of the most common barriers that I hear when working with leaders in organizations are:

  • Lack of time to communicate effectively
  • Staff is spread geographically
  • Don’t have the tools
  • Language barriers
  • Ethnic and cultural barriers
  • Educational differences
  • Differences in experience of the workforce

In reality, all barriers to effective communication fall into three broad categories. These categories are related to the:

  1. External Environment — This would include the space in which you are communicating, the communication tools used (handouts, PowerPoint or no tools used), the method of communication (written, verbal, meetings, one-on-one, etc.) and the communication as it relates to your corporate culture.
  2. Speaker — Any language barrier between the speaker and listener, lack of training for the speaker, lack of understanding of the audience, or educational difference between the speaker and the audience would be included in this category.
  3. Internal Receiver — This would involve any language barrier between the listener and the speaker, lack of experience of the listener, educational differences between the speaker and the listener, or any pre-conceived ideas or opinions of the listener.

It is always best to take the time to plan for any communication. The following simple process will help you overcome these barriers and ensure precise, professional and effective communication in your organization. Remember, the communication process is comprised of four basic elements: sender, message, method and environment, and receiver.

The Communication Process

Sender: The sender must establish credibility by displaying knowledge of the subject, the audience and the context of the delivery. The burden of responsibility lies with the sender to ensure that the message is understood and that expectations for deliverables are clearly defined.

Message: Consider the message being sent. Written, verbal and non-verbal communications are affected by the sender’s tone, method of communication and what is included or left out of the message. If you choose to send a written message, be sure that it is professional, precise, clear and written in simple language.

Always keep in mind that written communications are open to interpretation.

Proof your written communication for typos, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure to reduce the chances of miscommunication and to ensure that you maintain professional credibility.

Method and Environment: Messages are conveyed through channels. These channels are affected by the method and environment with which you choose to communicate. Potential channels include verbal communication, face to face, telephone, video conference, written communication, meetings, etc.

It is wise to consider the method of communication prior to communicating your message. For example, an e-mail, letter or memo may not be the best way to communicate critical information. All written communication is one-way communication, meaning that there is little to no opportunity for people to ask questions, express concern or gain clarification in a timely manner.

If the message that you are sending is informational in nature, sending it in written form, such as e-mail, is a very efficient way to communicate quickly with many people based in a wide geographic area.

However, if the message conveys critical information – such as changes in policies, processes, procedures or organizational changes – the best method of communication is face to face. You will have to give some thought as to the right environment for the face-to-face communication, e.g., one-on-one individual communication or communicating the information to a group in a meeting.

Receiver: Messages are delivered to your audience, the receivers of the message. Your audience enters into the communication process with ideas and feelings that influence their understanding of your message and dictate their response.

Often, the receivers have pre-conceived ideas or opinions about the topic of your communication. For example, you may be communicating a new initiative, but the audience is already tuning you out because this idea was tried two years ago and did not work.

As the sender, you must also consider the barriers that may interfere with the receivers’ ability to understand the message. These barriers include language, ethnic cultural beliefs, level of education and/or level of experience, to name a few.

While creating your plan for effective communication, consider not only the communication process outlined above but also the following four strategies:

Meet Individual Needs

Know your employees as individuals so you can understand the receivers’ personality traits, gender, generation, education and ethnicity/culture/language.

Utilize resources relevant to employee needs to select the right method. These resources may include meetings (monthly, weekly, daily), one-on-one meetings with employees (face-to-face, telephone), newsletters, bulletin boards, voicemails, e-mails, pagers and video conferencing.

Regularly assess the effectiveness of communication methods and evaluate the environmental factors and internal receiver factors, such as possible distractions, time and comfort of the room.

Be Timely

Avoid premature communication, but communicate change as soon as possible. Determine the appropriate method for the situation.

Be Inclusive

Consider the variables of the workforce. Ensure that communication flows intra-departmentally and inter-departmentally.

Understand the Impact of Non-Verbal and Written Communication

Be aware of how non-verbal communication (body language) affects the message. Also, make sure that written communication sends a concise and professional message. Double-check spelling, grammar and punctuation. Choose a readable font and use humor sparingly or avoid it altogether. If you insist on injecting humor into your written communication, be sure that it is appropriate for all audiences and cannot be misconstrued in any way.

Follow this example format so your written communication is clear, precise and actionable:

What is the key point or message?

Why is this important/ how is it relevant to goals?

Action: What you need them to do.

Contact: For questions or concerns, provide contact information.

In a recent survey of recruiters from companies with more than 50,000 employees, communication skills were cited as the single most important factor in choosing managers. The survey, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Business School, points out that communication skills, including written and oral presentations, as well as an ability to work with others, are the main factors contributing to job success.

In reality, no matter the size of your business, by successfully getting your message across, you convey your thoughts and ideas effectively. When not successful, the thoughts and ideas that you actually send do not necessarily reflect what you think, causing a communications breakdown and creating roadblocks that stand in the way of your goals – both personally and professionally.

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...