7 Ways to Fine-tune Your Communication Skills

Though some miscommunications might make for a good knee-slap (nearly every premise of Arrested Development), it’s not so funny in the workplace. There’s a reason why employers tend to sprinkle the phrase “strong communication skills” somewhere in the job requirement — a lack thereof creates a cargo ship full of potential mishaps and burdens.

Who wants to hire that?

Someone who can communicate effectively and — most importantly — actively listen to others is more likely to zap problems in the bloom.  But this can especially be a challenge for foreign-born professionals in the U.S. who aren’t used to the same communication etiquette.

Have no fear — some of the best communication experts in the business let us in on the most effective strategies for native and non-native English speakers alike. If you want to become a master communicator, read on.

1. It’s Not All About You

Nearly every communication expert we spoke with couldn’t stress enough how important it is for you to think from the position of your receiver. It sounds a tad counterintuitive — after all, it is your message. But if you focus on listening and framing your question in their interest, your listener will be more responsive.

Denise Altman, certified professional behavior analyst and behavior consultant of the Altman Initiative Group, offers some questions to consider as forethought of successful communication: “How much do they know about the subject matter? What’s their communication style? What else is competing for their attention?”

2. Don’t Be Monotone

One word: boring — at least to Americans.

Lauren Supraner works with foreign-born professionals on their communication skills in the workplace at CAL Learning, making all sorts of interesting cross-cultural observations.  She notes that while some cultures consider monotone a sign of maturity, American workplaces value professionals who showcase their interest in the conversation through varied tones.

“It’s important to “use vocal variety to express meaning, intent and emotion,” she says. But let it come naturally to you.

3. Have Assertive Posture

Here’s something that will really grab their attention: “Stand erect, open your chest, lift your chin and square your hips. Take up space,” Supraner says.

4. Learn to Say ‘No’ Directly

In addition to tone, Supraner also notices “many cultures are uncomfortable with saying no directly—but Americans would rather hear no directly than have to guess what ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ really means.”

Karen Friedman, head of Karen Friedman Enterprises, a communication coaching firm, and author of a best-selling book Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners would support the importance of being direct—even in uncomfortable situations like saying “no.”

Another common example is when you’re too busy to talk: “If you are too busy to talk at the moment, simply tell the person,” she says. “Say, ‘this is not a great time because I have a conference call or meeting in five minutes, but can you stop back [later] or can you email me with your availability tomorrow?’”

5. Be Concise, Even Online

It’s time for some tough love: No one wants to hear your long-winded story. Experts emphasize the importance of concision — aka, Keep it simple!

“In today’s Twitter, time-challenged world, attention spans are shorter than ever,” Friedman says. “So if your email is long, your main point might be buried.”

Instead, make sure the subject line is clear and the top paragraph is direct as well: e.g. “I need this on my desk by 5:00 p.m. today.” Then limit yourself to 2-3 points, if there’s more to discuss then pick up a phone.

6. Your Body Language Counts

If you have a situation or dilemma, get up and find the person in question, says Frances Cole Jones, author of “How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your (Brilliant) Self in any Situation and President of a communication skills firm Cole Media Management.

She cites a study done at UCLA: “38 percent of your impact comes from your tonal quality and 55 percent from what your body is doing while you’re speaking — so if you’re counting on making your point via email, you have a 7 percent chance of that working out.”

7. Check Yourself

Jim Branden, MBA, PMP with over 35 years of business communication says it’s important to follow-up and consider three litmus tests:

  • Did the recipient physically receive the message?
  • Did the recipient intellectually understand the message?
  • Did the message produce the desired behavior?

If the answer is no to any of the above, take a deep breath and try again.

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