Understanding Communication skills

Whether we like it or not communication is part of our lives, it’s the linchpin of our society, and yet despite its immense importance, it’s astounding how often people get it wrong, sometimes with terrifying consequences. Often ‘communications skills’ are thought of as the techniques we use to interact with others, and while this is an important element, successful interaction can’t be achieved without getting the basics right. So, it’s time to go back and look at the fundamentals of communication: it’s all about understanding.

Understand yourself

You can’t effectively communicate with others unless you understand your own communication styles and preferences, and importantly you can’t improve your skills unless you understand these elements of yourself. Do you prefer to express yourself vocally or via written word, are you better at addressing a group or individuals? These are just some of the things you need to consider when assessing your personal communication style.

It might also help to get feedback from others; they may be able to offer information you can’t get yourself. For example, perhaps you think you’re explaining yourself clearly but other people feel you use too much jargon, or perhaps you believe you have great presentation skills, but others feel the opposite.

Once you have the information you can start thinking about adapting your skills to improve your effectiveness. This may be especially important for major events such as job interviews, presentations or meetings with senior executives, but will also be essential in everyday interactions both professionally and personally.

Tip: if you’re struggling to understand your own communication style, psychometric tools, such as Lumina Spark can help reveal these. (If used in a team setting it can also help with the next step).

Understand your audience

Just as important as knowing yourself is having an appreciation of how your audience likes to interact. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-to-one meeting or a presentation to a large group, it is vital to consider how your audience may prefer to receive and share information. On a one-to-one level for example, perhaps you know that your manager prefers to communicate primarily via e-mail. This may or may not match up with your personal style, if it does that’s great, if not then find a way to work around it ideally using an approach that meets both styles to ensure better effectiveness. On a larger scale it’s going to be more difficult to assess every person’s preference and this shouldn’t be your aim. Instead the objective should be to consider the possible different preferences that may be present in your audience and try and cater to them. If delivering a presentation for example, it would be sensible to have visual, verbal and interactive content to help ensure everyone in the audience can feel engaged no matter what their personal preference may be.

However, while identifying an individual’s preferences and adapting your approach to meet that sounds easy in theory, it may not always be so easy to do in practice. It’s also important not to make assumptions as this is another direct route to miscommunication and misinterpretation, so use the information you have around you and be savvy when assessing your audience.

Understand your topic

Not understanding what is being discussed is one of the best ways to achieve major miscommunication. We’re probably all guilty of sometimes getting involved in conversations that we don’t fully understand due to a fear of looking inferior to colleagues, management or peers, instead of simply confessing and saying that we aren’t familiar with a topic. Unfortunately, this misguided attempt to look competent can lead to confusion and potential issues further down the line, and is particularly common in the work setting where we may feel under pressure to perform.

Of course no one wants to look foolish or ill-informed in front of their employer or co-workers, but being honest about your knowledge will actually pay dividends; not only does it mean you won’t face stress or embarrassment in the future, but most people actually love being able to share their knowledge. By admitting you don’t know something, you offer your colleague or boss the opportunity to share their expertise, making them feel good and giving you the chance to learn something new.

In most cases people will know if you’re trying to oversell your knowledge, so there’s little point trying. Speak confidently about topics you are knowledgeable about and feel proud to share your information, but be open to the learning opportunities that present themselves when discussing topics that you’re not familiar with.

Understand how to listen

When people hear the phrase ‘communication skills’ they often assume it refers to how they present information to others. But while this is hugely important, communication is a two-way street, and in order to communicate your point effectively you need to listen to the views of others. It’s pointless to have two parties simple presenting their opinions without listening to each other; that’s not communication, that’s a soliloquy.

To really communicate effectively you need to listen; listening to people often tells you much more about a situation than expressing your point does, and it gives you a much better opportunity to respond appropriately. If you actively listen to what someone else says you will have a more accurate understanding of their view of the situation, not just from the words they say, but from the tone of their voice, their body language and the words they choose. Once you have this information you can then reply appropriately; if they are upset about something, how can you remedy that? If they are excited about something, what would be the most appropriate response to encourage that? Listening is the most powerful tool you have in your communication arsenal but it’s often only those who use it that appreciates its value; to see the power for yourself, test it out and see what happens, you might be surprised.

All of the methods and techniques people advocate as being ‘great communication skills’ will fall entirely flat unless you get the fundamentals right. Communication is all about understanding. You can’t communicate with anyone effectively unless you understand yourself, your audience and the topic you’re discussing, and once you can achieve this and combine it with the power of listening, communication will suddenly seem stupidly simple. And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right every time, but do make an effort to learn from your mistakes and continue to develop your skills.

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