Most of us have, at one point or another, experienced a moment, a day, or even an extended period of time when we felt like we were flat-out terrible at communicating. Maybe someone didn’t understand your intentions. Or the conversations didn’t turn out how you desired. Or the results you requested didn’t come in as expected.
You can try and point the finger at something else, but if you’ve noticed a consistent pattern of communication failures with different people, odds are it’s something you’re doing. (And even if you are a pretty good at expressing yourself, you could always stand to be a little better.)
Here are five common errors and all the ways you can start fixing them today:
1. You Don’t Pay Attention
You know what you want to get across—and to be honest, that’s the only half of the conversation you’re really focused on. As a result, you’re only half-hearing what the people around you are saying and you aren’t engaging effectively in the conversation.
Paying attention to other people and truly listening to what they have to say is critical to achieving a mutual understanding and conversational flow. Now, there’s a lot of advice on how to look engaged, like making frequent eye contact or nodding your head in agreement. But my favorite tip is to worry less about seeming interested, and actually tune in. As Celeste Headlee said in a recent TED talk, “There is no reason to learn how to show you're paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.”
So, minimize distractions and put your phone away. Test yourself by trying to restate the other person’s point with a phrase like “If I understand what you’re saying…”
2. You Don’t Get to the Point
You’re either droning on and on about something irrelevant, or you’re otherwise sharing details that aren’t necessary. As a result, your meaning is skewed and the other person loses interest.
Try to communicate as briefly and concisely as possible. This is effective for a number of reasons. First, it forces you to understand what you’re really trying to get across: If you don’t allow yourself any room to ramble or veer off-topic, you’ll stick to the most important information. Second, it reduces the possibility for miscommunication. If you only write two sentences, it’s a lot harder to lose your meaning than if you wrote six paragraphs. Third, it shows respect for the other person’s time. Finally, it encourages reciprocity. By being more succinct, you’ll encourage others in your organization or group to be similarly concise. So, whether you’re writing an email or preparing to give a speech, ask yourself if you can cut any additional fluff.
3. You Don’t Encourage Two-Way Communication
If you’re a boss who only gives commands, or an employee who never asks questions, you’re closing the door on meaningful dialogue. Most work requires some form of an exchange, and you don’t want to be seen as unapproachable.
I’m not suggesting you respond to every single email, or that you have to mandate two questions be asked for every task you assign. Instead, focus on making people feel welcome to ask questions or provide more information. Hint: One way to encourage this behavior is to model it. If you take the first step, other people will feel more comfortable doing the same.
4. You Don’t Use the Right Platform
There are dozens of distinct mediums for getting a message across, and most of us use them all on a daily basis, whether that’s in conversation with our friends, loved ones, co-workers, or acquaintances. And most people have a preference (“I don’t get Twitter!” “I don’t call, I only text.” “I never check my personal email.”)
Instead of picking your personal favorite, you should always strive to choose the medium that’s most appropriate for the situation. For example, you may not need to call an in-person meeting to let your employees know of a new policy change when an email would suffice. You can skip instant messaging your colleagues late at night when you don’t need a response until business hours. Before you pick email, phone calls, in-person meetings, IMs, tweets, or texts, consider if your method of communication will impact the other person’s reaction.
5. You Don’t Ask for Feedback
Nobody’s perfect. You might follow all the “best practice” advice you can find on the internet, but there will always be small personal areas for improvement.
Go out of your way to ask your peers and superiors for feedback (this can be as formal or as informal as you’d like). For example, you could ask for pointers during an annual performance review, or you could casually engage your clients in conversation and ask them if there’s anything you can do to make the partnership stronger or the parameters more clear, or you can even ask your colleagues directly how they prefer to get information. You’ll never be perfect, but every step you take to get better is a step in the right direction.
When you start applying these strategies, don’t be disheartened if you don’t see an immediate turnaround. Like any other skill, communication requires practice to see improvement; and even when you do improve, the changes will be small and subtle to start out. After consistent, measured efforts you’ll find yourself making better first impressions and feeling like you’re able to get your point across. Not only that, but those around you will notice, too, and that’ll make all your hard work worth it.