‘How to improve communication’ is by far the topic that most of my clients struggle with. And believe me: not one of these people is what you would call a bad communicator!
These days, doing your job well doesn’t solely rely on how you handle the content of your work. Your ability to effectively communicate with your colleagues, relevant stakeholders and your team has a huge impact on how you are perceived. I even believe that if you are in a position of leadership, either formal or informal, approximately 80% of your work consist of being an effective communicator.
So no wonder that so many of us struggle with our communication: it makes all the difference!
Communicating effectively, the way I see it, has several layers:
1 being able to explain what is important to you,
2 understanding fully what is important to the other person,
3 finding a way forward that works for both (this can be anything, so also a way forward that only works temporarily, scheduling a moment to talk further or agreeing to not agree).
The 3 tips I want to share in this article are directly related to these 3 layers, but I am going to give them to you in reverse order. That is because being an amazing communicator actually starts with what you believe about the best end result.
3 tips to improve communication
1) Improve your perspective on the best result
It all starts with your perception of what the best end result will look like.
Do you believe the best result is when everyone accepts your point of view?
Or when you come to a definite win/win solution?
Or when you are able to show how the other person is wrong?
Or … (fill in whatever you believe)
What you feel to be the best result for a meeting will greatly influence how you show up for the conversation, how you will interact during the conversation and at what point you will consider the conversation completed.
I’ve often experienced how intensely occupied people are with their preferred end result and the problem is that this greatly limits their perspective on what is actually going on during the meeting.
If you are focused on a specific end result, you are putting on blindfolds. You limit your ability to recognize possible better outcomes and opportunities.
And even worse: focusing on a specific end result brings a limiting energy into the meeting. And as like attracts like or simpler said, as you ‘reap what you sow’, this will invoke a similar limited mindset in your partner in dialogue, driving both of you away from creative ways to move forward.
I always advice my clients to broaden their perspective of what success in conversations looks like.
I believe the best approach to success in communicating with others, is to focus on what wants to happen in this particular situation and then finding the best possible next step.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds: setting an intention before every meeting, to just reach the best possible outcome at this time or ‘the best way forward right now’, creates open-mindedness, allowing you to recognize opportunities and the best possible outcome when they come along.
2) Improve your listening
This may seem to be an open door, but what I mean goes way beyond the standard ‘hearing the other person out’.
The kind of listening I’m talking about is the one beautifully mentioned in this quote by Stephen R. Covey:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
‘Listening with the intent to reply’ stands in the way of really and fully understanding what is important to the other person. Because as long as you are being quiet to ‘hear the other person out’ while in the meantime considering what to say next to best make your point, you really, really cannot listen fully to what the other person says.
And thus, you cannot really and fully understand what the other person wants.
And if you don’t really understand what the other person wants, you can not find the most effective way forward.
So do yourself a favour and practise listening to understand, instead of preparing your own contribution. The best way to do that in my experience is to learn to trust that your contribution will take care of itself at the right moment.
By that I mean: you know what you think and feel about a topic. And how to phrase that exactly will come up when it is your time to speak. The sentences will actually form themselves most likely. So trust yourself, and clear your mind to process what the other person says, so you can fully understand what is important to him/her and adapt your contribution accordingly.
3) Improve your speaking
I often have conversations with my clients that basically go like this:
Client: ‘How can I best say to my team member that her work isn’t as good as it should be?’
Me: ‘What if you just say that?’
Client: ‘But no, then she will be hurt/angry/upset/… I’d better come up with a more strategic way of saying this.’
Folks, let me be honest here. If you want to improve communication and be highly effective in getting your messages across: muster the courage to actually say what you want to say.
The most important reason that people search for ‘strategic ways’ to say things that other people don’t like to hear, is to protect themselves from having to deal with emotions like anger, sadness and disappointment.
They are scared that if these emotions come up, they won’t know how handle them.
At this point, let’s take a short sidestep into emotions.
How to deal with emotions
The truth is that emotions can be handled easily by just accepting that they are there and letting them run their course.
Sometimes it’s helpful to name the emotion (‘I see you’re hurt’, ‘You’re very angry’)
This can lead to an extra outburst.
Just sit back and accept that it’s there.
It will stop.
That’s it. Really. That’s it.
So let’s return to how to improve your speaking.
‘Strategically saying’ things is ineffective and harmful
Using a ‘strategic way’ of saying things is just a short cut to politics in the work place. And take it from me who worked in actual politics for 8 years: you don’t want to go there! The political way of saying stuff is the biggest energy drain in the world. It’s unhelpful. It’s ineffective and it’s also a little insulting to all smart and well meaning people.
You basically signal to anyone who can ‘read between the lines’ that they are not capable of handling the truth.
And to people who can do more than that and are good communicators themselves, you show that you are not brave enough to deal with honest (read: emotional) responses to your message.
How to say what you want to say, without permanent damage
Of course, there’s different ways to say what you want to say. Being blunt, hard or unkind are very ineffective will most possibly lead to trouble in the relationship with the other person.
I believe the secret to saying what you want to say, without creating permanent damage, is to focus on yourself.
Unlike the previous step, this one is all about you.
What I mean is this: instead of focusing on things the other person does or does not do, focus on the effects their behaviour has on YOU. Read more about the (often unintended) way we attack others in this article.
The keyword in this is sincerity.
Sincerity is a beautiful state of being in which your words and your feelings are fully aligned. To get there, be ok with what is you are experiencing. Don’t fake anything. If you feel unsure on how to say something, there’s no shame in saying so.
If you feel strong and certain, say what you want to say in an honest and powerful way.
The combination between talking about how things are for you, preventing attacks on other people and being sincere makes you speak in a way that cannot lead to permanent damage.
Have faith, trust yourself & be real
Improving communication really comes down to 3 simple things:
Have Faith (that the best possible outcome at this moment will present itself)
Trust Yourself (that you will know what to say when you’ve heard and understood what the other person wants)
Be Real (and forget interpersonal strategy and office politics ~ leaving you energized and whole)
These three, as far as I’m concerned, do not only summarize how to improve communication, but also summarize the most essential life lessons I’ve learned so far.
Isn’t that awesome?
If want to read more on communication, definitely check out one of my all time favourite articles, 5 Pitfalls to avoid for highly effective communication.
ps: a little extra for the music lovers: enjoy Brave by Sara Bareilles, which basically brings the same message as I did under 3)