Learn to communicate at all levels or perish

Open channels of communication and make sure you understand your audience well. Photo: istockphoto

Open channels of communication and make sure you understand your audience well. Photo: istockphoto

For too long, communication has been looked at as a “soft skill” that relies on flourish and flair. It’s time we punctured that connotation. Communicating well is hard.

Sure, logical thinking and multiple perspectives lead to tangible action for ideas to move and solutions to be implemented. But any chance of success for a solution begins with getting colleagues, managers and clients to buy into and align with your solution. This is tough and only possible if you engage people in a constructive and inspiring way.

This is why communication plays a crucial, indispensable role because the best thinking is no good if it can’t be absorbed by others.

Proficiency in a language doesn’t always determine how good a communicator you are. Effective communication—especially in the workplace—is about being able to convey your thoughts lucidly so that the people being addressed immediately get what is being said. In fact, some of the best communicators we know don’t speak good English.

The recipe for great communication is similar to what we said in the context of problem solving. To solve a problem, you need to logically structure issues. It’s the same with words and thoughts.

We are poor communicators because we don’t reason, debate and question enough. To communicate and reason better, you need to read. Then, you need to reason and think through better. Inculcating reading, writing, and, through this, reasoning as a habit is the only way to get at this.

Take a unit of work, whether it is problem solving or execution. You begin by reading, hearing or watching something or someone. This helps you comprehend the situation. You apply your analysis and judgement to this understanding, and reason through to a certain decision or outcome. To get this communicated or implemented, you now need to write, speak or present, and the reading-writing-reasoning (the 3 Rs) communication loop begins again.

Along with structuring the content, understanding your audience is the biggest aspect of communication that people miss out on. Connecting with different groups, and different kinds of people, is very important. This goes beyond just communicating. It’s the difference between how you would talk to your grandmother, and how you would talk to a college friend.

Taking the time out to understand the key motivation, or set the objective, for a conversation helps establish a connect, as does recognizing which modes of communication people prefer, what response times they expect and how formal/informal they are in their communication styles.

Finally, as with reading, learn to listen. People think taking up airtime is the core of communication. They must speak and be heard. But the best communicators are great listeners. Listening is actually a form of reading. Spend time not just hearing, but actively listening.

An important impact of communication is its ability to inspire and motivate. It’s only through communication that you show your leadership, or experience somebody’s leadership. The way people perceive you is built conversation by conversation, LinkedIn post by LinkedIn post and email by email. Or, speech by speech, when it comes to political leaders and opinion makers.

At our workplaces, we experience people’s leadership in the way they conduct a meeting, persuade people in a debate, carry out an awkward conversation, resolve a conflict or address their teams. Often, it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it. The words they stress, the tone, or even how often they communicate become data points we gather subconsciously. It influences how we look at them. Others are watching you the same way.

Take charge of your communications imprint. Begin by auditing yourself. Get help from a friend, peer or family member whose communication abilities you admire. Use it to lay down a road map for improvement.

It could be the most important investment you make for your career.

This is the third in the eight-part Art Of Work series on building a fulfilling career. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is a business author who now works in higher education. Read the first two columns in the series at Livemint.com/ArtofWork.