Developing effective communication skills is vital to succeeding as both a leader and a teammate. One constant across all of my professional experiences, whether during my military service, time at the White House, working in patient advocacy, or as a professional speaker, is that communication matters. It’s the foundation upon which actions, decisions, and cultural behaviors become outcomes. Learning to communicate effectively is not easy and takes practice. As the composer John Powell said, “Communication works for those who work at it.” We all evolve, develop and refine our communication style over time and across experiences.
I’ve had many opportunities across my career to work towards fine-tuning my communications skills. Am I a perfect communicator? No, absolutely not. I do, however, have decades of experience in various roles where communication was vital, including in combat situations where effective communication was paramount. As you work towards bolstering your own skills, here are a few of my thoughts on the characteristics of effective communication:
Authenticity: Be relaxed and be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you are not, or deliver communication in ways that don’t come naturally to you. A lack of authenticity makes recipients uneasy, uncomfortable, and unwilling to connect with you. Authenticity, and not putting on airs, creates a feeling of trust. Authenticity ensures recipients are more open to listening to what you have to say.
Transparency: Be forthright. Be up front about exactly why the communication is happening, with both good and bad news. This boils down to the old adage, “don’t sugarcoat” the situation. When we try and tap-dance around uncomfortable subjects, people can start to shut down. You want to ensure there is no room for folks to wonder if you have ulterior motives. Transparency enables a deeper level of trust in the main point you are about to communicate.
Clarity: Get to the point. This means delivering your message directly, fully, and with total integrity. Folks appreciate it when leaders are straightforward with their communication. The second we start to obscure our main point in trivial additions, superfluous descriptions, or redundant information, people begin to tune out. Time is valuable, don’t make people dig through extraneous information to figure out your main point. Clarity demonstrates both trust and respect for the recipient.
Curiosity: Ask for questions. Be interested not only in if your message was clearly received, but also in how it was received. Instead of asking if there are any questions, I prefer to ask, “what questions do you have for me?” This subtle change of language invites people to indicate their understanding of what I just said. This is good for both parties. I embrace the notion that there will always be questions and my statement demonstrates that I am prepared to answer them. Curiosity establishes the interaction as a two-way street.
Critique: Actively invite feedback. This is different than asking the initial question above. Provide your teammates with a venue for constructive criticism. It may be as simple as asking, “would you do anything differently?” It may be something like, “Let’s chew on this for a few days, and we’ll get together at our Friday check-in to see what changes you suggest and determine if we’re on the right track.” Inviting critique ensures you have buy-in from those impacted.
Listen: Actively tune-in to what others are saying. By definition, communication is about the exchanging of information amongst two or more people. Understanding others’ perspectives, positions, and needs is vital to impactful leadership. Listen to understand, not to respond. Without listening to the other person, the very act of effective communication does not exist. I believe listening is where the deepest value lies.
I hope these ideas have given you a few things to think about as you continue to develop your own effective communication skills. What additional traits would you add?