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Top Ten Best Practices for Improving Your Communication

(The following article first appeared in the ODLS newsletter, Successful Solutions. Learn more or subscribe.)

When it comes to improving our daily communication, it’s the little things that can make a big impact!

Here are our top 10 best practices for improving your own daily communication skills. Most of these tips will be familiar but bear repeating:

  1. Active listening: This is the most important communication skill. Most of us have been taught to maintain eye contact and nod our heads to indicate we are listening. However, active listening goes beyond those non-verbal signals to include paraphrasing to check for understanding and questioning to focus and move conversations forward.
  2. The importance of non-verbals: Research has pointed out that we receive less than 10% of the meaning of conversations from verbal messages (i.e., words actually said); in fact, most of the meaning is derived from the voice (e.g., tone, inflection) and non-verbals (e.g., eye contact, posture, body positioning).
  3. Creating a supportive communication climate: We often focus on what we need to communicate and even on how we communicate, but we often completely overlook whether the environment we have created supports open and candid communication-that is, whether the communication climate is Supportive or Defensive. Some descriptors associated with a supportive climate are: Values Others; Open-Minded; Equal; Descriptive; Cares about Others’ Needs and Feelings; Assertive and Cooperative; Direct and Tactful; Works with Others to Problem Solve for the Future; Two-Way; Shares Information; and Win-Win Climate. Conversely, defensive climates can be described in the following ways: Close-Minded; Superior; Judgmental; Not Concerned with Others’ Needs and Feelings; Passive or Aggressive; Indirect or Attacking; Blames Others for the Past; One Way; Withholds Information; and Creates a Win-Lose or Lose-Lose Climate.
  4. Communication channels: We often do not think about the most appropriate or effective communication channel to use for the type or importance level of a particular communication we are about to send out. Today’s business environment uses any number of communication channels including face-to-face, phone, video conferencing, text messaging, e-mail, and written forms of communication. Often the best practice is to use more than one communication channel to emphasize and reinforce the message. Almost always, the easiest but worst communication channel is e-mail; thus, if it is an important communication, do not use only e-mail to get the message out.
  5. Our communication style: Most of us have adequate-to-good communication skills. However, our personal communication style can totally change the meaning of the message received, even if we say exactly the same words. We encourage you and your managers to become familiar with your communication styles and their strengths and weaknesses. The goal is not to adopt different styles but to know how to use your own style effectively.
  6. Communication barriers: In today’s business environment, there are many barriers to effective communication. A simple way to identify and avoid these barriers is to look for them from the perspective of sender of the message (e.g., ambiguous words and technical jargon), the receiver of the message (e.g., past experiences, assumptions), and the environment between the two (e.g., distractions, noise).
  7. Storytelling: A very old way of communicating important messages has recently come back into vogue-storytelling. Why do we tell our children stories? Because stories are memorable! They have a beginning, an interesting journey, an end, and a moral or overarching lesson to be shared!
  8. Keeping others informed up, down, and across: Many of us need to communicate up, down, and across our organizations. Yet, all communications are not created equal; we have different audiences with whom we need to communicate and different reasons for doing so. The major purpose of communicating downward is typically to provide information or feedback, while the main reasons for communicating across are to facilitate and coordinate activities. Communicating up usually involves making decisions or keeping senior leaders informed about what is going on.
  9. Having presence: Many of the great communicators in history are remembered not only for what they said or how they said it, but for the presence they radiated to individuals, making people feel that the communicator was focusing on them personally. If you want to improve your presence, ask yourself: Am I open? Am I focused? And right now do I have energy?
  10. Communication planning: If the communications you need to send involve multiple audiences with different needs/concerns, multiple channels, and different people sending the communications, and the communications are going to happen over a protracted period of time, then you should develop a thorough communication plan. An effective communication plan considers the purpose of the communication(s); the audience; timing; the specific channel(s); barriers; and how you will measure whether your message was understood.

Improving personal communication skills is something we can do every day. Our clients have taken into account the above best practices in designing and implementing skill-building programs for their managers and employees.

Please share your own best practices so we can continue to learn collectively. E-mail dhenry@donahue.umassp.edu with your thoughts and ideas!

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