7 Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills
In the age of AI and automation, individuals who can demonstrate soft skills on their resumes and online profiles and during interviews are more likely to continue to move into the roles they seek. Although soft skills are hard to quantify, if you can show your ability to use them to solve problems creatively, you will be a highly sought-after candidate. While the soft skills necessary to succeed can vary depending on the role—an administrative assistant may need to be adaptable but may not need to demonstrate leadership skills—communication is one skill that employers are seeking in every employee.
If communication isn’t your strong suit, you’ll want to get started right away working to improve this all-important skill. Even if you think you’re a good communicator, you’ll be competing against candidates and peers who have taken this skill to the next level.
What is communication?
Communication is the foundation of all relationships. It’s important in personal connections and for business correspondence but also for online relations in the digital world we now live in. People who are effective communicators gain reputations as successful leaders and tend to enjoy healthier relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.
When I coach clients who are nervous to communicate or feel like it doesn’t come naturally, I immediately ask: What would make you feel comfortable while in a conversation? Most of the answers teeter around the fact that they would want to feel equally heard and respected. In fact, they have touched on the core of communication: Understanding people and then speaking directly to their needs while clearly articulating your own thoughts and feelings.
While this may sound obvious, the challenge is to accomplish the goal of communication regularly. Like everything else, learning a new skill take practice.
Here are seven common traits of great communicators. Try practicing adopting these characteristics into your own communications to move your soft skills to the next level.
#1 Appear warm, upbeat and approachable
Being perceived as friendly helps build positive relationships with everyone around you. Think about people you dislike – they probably appear bored or uncaring – you want to be the opposite of that! Remember simple things like your body language, leaving your office door open so it comes off as you are open for chatting and ensuring you make small talk. Simply asking about a coworker’s day or how their presentation went will help you come off as compassionate and empathetic.
Try to diminish stress. A stressed person does not come off as approachable but instead looks disinterested and intimidating. Stressful situations can make people lash out; they can become draining on the people they’re with; or it can appear like they’re submissive and detached from what’s going on around them. It’s good to manage your stress and understand it.
There are two types of stress:
#1 Emotional Stress
- Thinking about the past
- Thinking about the future
- Physical Stress
#2 Physical labor
- Intense exercise
- Lack of sleep
To combat stress, try breathing exercises or mediation, talking to a trusted friend, stepping outside to get some fresh air and adhering to the adage -- “laughter is the best medicine”.
#2 Practice active listening and be observant
To “listen” is not the same thing as to “hear”. You need to fully focus on the speaker and approach the situation as a learning moment. You are learning about them.
When you are quiet and observant, you’ll understand the details better; leading to you be present and return rapport by asking focused questions out of natural curiosity rather than just planning what to say next out of courtesy. Once you start this type of dialog, you begin to feel what the speaker is feeling and develop empathy for others. Learning how to be more empathetic is critical as empathy is the foundation of active listening.
Along with being the receiver of active listening – practice communicating in a way that helps others to hear you. For instance, are you a fast-talker or do you speak slowly and articulately? Communication will immediately improve if you speak clearly and with intention and avoid some typical mistakes:
- Be aware of saying "Um"—instead take a pause to gather your thoughts.
- Try not to ramble off topic—rambling is a sign that you are distracted or self-absorbed.
- Eliminate any nervous habits--awkward laughter or playing with your hair or jewelry can be incredibly distracting.
- Understand your own intonation and pitch--lifting your voice at the end of a sentence can make a statement sound like a question or make you seem unsure of yourself.
#3 Understand non-verbal communication
You can collect a great deal of information from people without saying a word! Body language, tone of voice and vocal expression are all non-verbal cues that can help you learn almost as much about someone as speaking with them. Being able to tie your facial expression and body language to your message is an effective communication tool. Face-to-face non-verbal communication also includes:
Posture – Good posture gives the impression of an active and confident individual. Be mindful of your posture while standing and sitting. Be sure your shoulders are down and your back is straight. Bad posture can make you look tired or nervous.
Body Language – Avoid body positions like folded arms, excessive hand gestures and distractions like leg jiggling. Stand with your legs hip width apart and your hands at your side; small and not too frequent hand gestures are fine. When sitting do not cross your legs - instead sit up straight, both legs in front of you with your hands at your sides.
Handshake – A firm handshake while looking the other person directly in the eye is an important first impression and non-verbal interaction. A flimsy or bone-crushing grip can give off an incorrect judgement whereas a firm handshake can produce better trust within just a few seconds.
#4 Find a way to connect
Starting a conversation – online or in-person - is probably the toughest part of the communication process, especially when you trying to engage in a conversation with a stranger. What starts off as small talk can easily be broadened into a meaningful two-way discussion. To make this more comfortable so there’s a good balance between talking and listening, try these strategies establishing a common ground or asking the other person something about themselves.
Examples of conversation starters include:
- “I see you went to America University, so did I …” (make a connection if there is one) and ask a question related to this commonality.
- “Have you ever been to this event before? How did you like it?”
- “What was your favorite part of the presentation?”
- “I’m reaching out because I need advice. I’m in the midst of _______ and have some questions about ______. I greatly appreciate your time and expertise.”
Complimenting someone is a great way to break the ice because people love to talk about themselves!
Once you master small talk, you can move onto ensuring you use open questions that invite more information. This includes active listening and then following up with a question that doesn’t request just a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ answer but invites more detailed information.
After a conversation is in full swing, have some fun. You’ll feel more comfortable once you’ve made an emotional connection and you both are sharing appropriate and interesting information.
#5 Learn to speak in public
While public speaking is a high anxiety situation for many, it’s an important skill that can also help you to improve your daily communication skills.
Speaking in public will help you communicate in smaller groups or in one-on-one situations. The concepts are the same, but practicing public speaking will advance your professionalism and articulation. Preparation is key. Speak clearly and with intention and don’t let fear discourage you. Whether you’re speaking at a large conference or giving a presentation to a small room of colleagues, your goal is the same—develop and connect with the audience.
This practice tip is also helpful for understanding how communication styles and expectations can be different among audiences. Speaking to different groups of people will help you demonstrate the ability to communicate with people in all walks of life.
There are some great and free/low cost resources for practicing public speaking.
- Join Toastmasters International
- Watch tutorials and actual conferences focusing on public speaking on YouTube
- Take a free video-based course from Udemy
- Check out various Ted Talks
Start small and then practice to build your confidence.
#6 Give positive feedback and be aware of negative feedback
Appropriately timed feedback is a perfect way to motivate and inspire others. Instead of saying the first thing that pops into your mind, focus on the meaning behind what you’re trying to say and how it will be received.
While giving positive feedback is welcomed, one must refrain from providing uninvited responses that can be viewed as negative. Being an active listener and well-received communicator means holding back from judgment and interruptions even if you do not agree with them, as the speaker can easily get frazzled and frustrated. Instead, reflect on the rapport and ask questions to help clarify points as this will invite the speaker to provide more information and both participants are practicing encouragement and respect.
#7 Written communication matters
Proper communication skills don’t stop when you message people online. Digital etiquette is just as important as in-person etiquette.
- Start every message with a respectful greeting and a crystal clear subject line to let the receiver know what the email is about.
- Be succinct – long emails or messages are a faux pas – keep it short and sweet and to the point.
- Do not write in ALL CAPS – it looks like you are yelling or don’t understand technology communication.
- Do not use abbreviations in business emails. Write out the entire word, it looks better, it is perceived better, and it makes the message more professional.
- Understand that tone does not transfer well through email. Reread what you write to ensure it can’t be perceived as snarky or rude.
- Ensure you attach the correct file – so many times we see incompatible formats or wrong attachments. Word and PDF are your best bets.
- Include a signature – it’s professional and expected.
Whether you’re working on your communication skills to be more self-confident, become a better leader, or gain more trusting personal relationships – it’s all about preparing, listening, and being observant.