When it comes to communication, many people think they good at it. But apparently we aren’t nearly as good as we think we are, and the exaggeration of our perceived skills is magnified when interacting with people we know well.
Beware of communication bias
In a study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, researchers paired subjects with people they knew well and then again with people they’d never met. What they discovered is people who knew each other well understood each other no better than people who’d just met. Even worse, participants frequently overestimated their ability to communicate, and this was more pronounced with people they knew well.
“Some [people] may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person.” – Kenneth Savitsky
When communicating with people we know well, we make presumptions about what they understand. These presumptions are ones we don’t dare make with strangers. Psychologists have a name for it, closeness-communication bias. Assuming you’re on the same wavelength can lead to poor listening and missed cues of how another person thinks or feels. If left unchecked, it can develop into a larger divide.
Communication in practice
So, it seems from many studies, how good we “think” we are at communicating doesn’t always line up with how effective our communication is in practice. Communication is a skillset that can always be improved. Whether it’s framing conversations, or how we use words and tone, there are a range of areas that can help to refine and improve how we are understood.
Know how to ask for what you want
One of key skills for all good leaders is the ability to clearly ask for what you want. Asking for what you want is the underlying foundation of delegation. This skill is not about being dictatorial and demanding. Neither is it about giving general instructions with no clear indication of the outcome required. It requires you to be able to express the required outcome or measurable, along with the meaning or context. This is the “What” and “Why”. At times you will also need to explain the “How”, depending on the experience of the person you are communicating with.
If you are managing a team or an organisation and you aren’t actively managing the people issues, you are almost destined to fall short on other measures of success. People who fear difficult conversations, but do it anyway, have learnt they can use courage to shift from having a difficult conversation to a courageous conversation.
Talk so people will listen
Talking so people will listen means targeting your message to the person/people you are talking to. Good communicators can appear like they can speak off the cuff – but a little preparation can go a long way toward ensuring your conversation achieves its intended outcome. And remember, unclear messages can lead to confusion and disconnection.
Listen so people will talk
When people work on their communication skills, they often focus on what they will say – it needs to be equally balanced with processing the incoming information (via listening and reading). But listening isn’t just about the words you hear. It also requires you to be active in the listening process, paying attention to the tone, speed, and volume. What is being said? Anything not being said? When you are listening to someone, stop everything else and listen fully until the other person has finished speaking.
In order to innovate, it’s not enough to just come up with big ideas, you also need to work hard to communicate them clearly. – Walter Isaacson “The Innovators”
Written skills are key in a digital world
Strong communications skills aren’t just verbal or in real-time. In an ever evolving digital world written communications skills are more important than ever. If you are leading a distributed team, in-person communication may not always be possible. You may need to rely on asynchronous to share ideas, get your message across and receive feedback. Strong written communication skills are vital to productive asynchronous communications.
Communication builds your brand
As an individual, your communication style and skills help create your personal brand. How you communicate speaks volumes about your skills, experience and approach. It provides the first impression that others have of you. As a leader of others, your team will react to you based on their experience of how, when and what you communicate.
People want to work for organisations that practice open, clear and transparent communication. As a manager or leader, the quality of your real-world communication skills will help attract and retain the quality of staff you want as part of your team.
Communication is a skill for every area of life and a constant work in progress. Pick one area at a time and break it down to further develop your skills in that area. Commit to a regular practice and if need be engage with formal training, mentor, colleague or coach to help with some self-reflection.