Being an Effective Communicator

Much has been written on the importance of effective communication for success in our jobs and our personal relationships. Communication touches every aspect of what we do in a given day. We communicate verbally, in written format and non-verbally in our body language throughout the day. If we do so much of it, how is it that we make so many mistakes at it?

The problem starts with our approach. We are so focused on delivering a message that we do not always think of the personality, gender or culture of the receiver of the message when we compose our thoughts and transmit. We approach others and choose words based on our personal life experience and communication style and expect the receiver to understand exactly what we’re ‘trying’ to say leaving us extremely frustrated when ‘they don’t get it’. Secondly, we filter and ‘listen’ to their response based on our personal interpretation of what they say, often not actually hearing the message being passed as we’re too tuned in to the internal dialogue in our own heads – “I don’t agree with him there, I know he’s wrong”.

We’re left wondering why a person is being so difficult and perceive that they are deliberately not listening to us. We think we’re making perfect sense and are clear in our words and delivery. Belief and perception become reality and we now have a full blown conflict between both parties based on our inability to communicate. Sound familiar?

If all of that wasn’t complex enough, add to our challenge the complexity of the world we now live in. With globalization and the ease and availability of multiple levels of communication channels for us to speak to one another, many of us have an even greater communication challenge. Today’s organization expects us to be able to communicate well regardless of gender, culture or age and is judging our capabilities and performance based on our success in communicating effectively.

The whole point of communication is to express ideas in a clear, concise and easily understood manner to a variety of audiences. If half of our problem is our approach, let’s look at some solutions to improve our communication capabilities:

1. Become Self-Aware. Be open to feedback. Are you getting your message across or only being understood by people like yourself? What is your tone? How do you think you are being perceived? What is your body language saying? Get feedback from your friends or peers and learn about their perception of your abilities.

2. Gender. Men use more “report talk” and are more direct in their style. Women often adapt this approach in business in order to be able to be understood but naturally are more inclined to use communication to build relationships and familiarity. Before you speak, look at the person you’re speaking with to gauge their natural style.

3. Non-verbal language. Watch their body language – do they look interested? Are their arms crossed or body pointing away from you? Stop, Look, Listen to their body language and alter the tone and content of your message so they start “hearing” you.

4. Cultural. Remember, the language you’re communicating in may not be their mother tongue or yours. Are you using too many words? Words with multiple meanings? Is your tone appropriate? The more we learn about each other’s culture, the more effective we will communicate. Ask questions about their experiences and culture. Get to know each other. People love to talk about themselves and will be happy to educate you.

5. Age. The key here is respect. We all want to be respected for our opinion no matter if we are young or old. None of us has the perfect answer and not one of us is always right. If you’re young, don’t assume someone older hasn’t considered your solution before. If you’re older, listen to hear a new approach.

6. Selective Listening: Have you ever had someone completely ignore a whole block of your communication? Perhaps it was your parent, spouse or co-worker. Think about yourself. Have you ever done this to one of your friends or colleagues? Selective listening is a common communication breakdown that happens when we select and screen out information that we are receiving. We may be doing it because we’ve already formulated our response in our head and have therefore stopped listening to the other person. It may also be due to the fact that we completely disagree with the other person’s viewpoint or perhaps they have challenged a decision that we have made which threatens our experience, beliefs and values. When you encounter a communication breakdown with someone, stop speaking and ask yourself this - are they really listening? Are you?

7. Tailor to the Individual. We all need to become more aware of our communication style and tailor our approach to the individual to be effective. Think of the individual’s culture, age, personality, communication style, gender, format and timing of your message. Learn to be more adaptable to match their needs and ‘switch styles’ to each person to communicate effectively.

Contributed by Nancy Fortner, the managing director of Fortner Consulting and spoke on the topic of communication at the SIM Professional Development’s Women Leadership Forum 2010 last month.

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