Friday, 22 June 2012

So what are “communication skills” anyway?

Almost every job description I’ve ever received as a recruiter, and almost every CV that is sent in by people wanting to register, include the words “good communication skills”.

If every job calls for them, and every candidate is offering them, why am I writing a blog post about communication skills?  In recent blog posts and twitter discussions about leadership and leadership skills, communication skills came up several times as a key attribute, and one that is hard to learn.  However the communication skills you might expect from a potential leader would probably be very different from those you’d be looking for in a new professional – and yet the same term is used throughout.

To help people when they’re hoping to be recognised as on track for promotion, are writing their CV to start applying for a new job, or when preparing for interview, I thought I’d put together some thoughts on the shades of grey in between ‘inarticulate’ and ‘excellent communication skills’.

‘Communication’ is actually a broad skill set comprising of a range of different types, each of which has lots of sub-categories:

  • Conversation
  • Influencing
  • Negotiation
  • Telephone
  • Meetings
  • Presentations
  • Problem solving & decision making
  • Facilitating

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Expression
  • Gesture

  • Tweets
  • Emails
  • Blogs
  • Reports
  • Articles
  • Business Cases

A potential leader would probably be expected to show some degree of competency, if not expertise, in most of these aspects of communication.  A new professional on the other hand may be expected to have mastered conversation, telephone, email and perhaps meeting and report communication but not necessarily presentation, negotiation or business case skills!

Building strong communication skills isn’t just a case of learning ‘what to do’, it also depends on other personal characteristics, such as levels of confidence, assertiveness, and a positive/negative outlook or attitude.  Confident, assertive, positive people might find it easier to develop good communication skills while insecure, unassertive and negative people may have to pay more attention to the basic principles of good communicating and put in more practice to reach the same level.

Mindtools has some great advice and articles on improving your communication skills, covering everything from the 7 C’s of Communication (clear, concise, etc) to the Communication Cycle, Influencing, Body language, NLP, Active listening, Feedback and more.

As this article from Edinburgh University makes clear, communication is a two way process and you need listening skills as well as speaking skills.
One key communication technique that you can use when giving a verbal report of activities, during meetings or in job interviews is the STAR technique.  This stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result, and is a great way to make sure your message is concise, clear and focused.

First you (briefly) describe the situation and the task to be accomplished, then you detail the actions taken to achieve the desired outcome, and finally you describe the result(s) of those actions.  These results could be positive or negative – if the latter it is useful to add in a reflective sentence to show what you learned and say how you would do things differently next time.

Doing some research for this post, I was surprised at how hard it was to find examples of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ communication.   There is lots of advice, such as ‘be concise’, but few examples of what ‘concise’ looks like!  I’ve therefore made up my own, purely fictitious, conversation that might go on at any sort of workplace:

This illustrates that good communication skills are needed on both sides of a business conversation for it to work effectively. Even if a manager has good communication skills and uses open questions, if the worker doesn’t respond appropriately it can be very difficult to keep the conversation on track.

Being aware of the different types of communication skills and how to get your message across effectively, through reading or watching communication skills videos on YouTube for example, is a good start. With this increased awareness you can then put some of the ideas into practice – and see whether you get better results!

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