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4 Ways to Improve Communication in the Workplace

There is nothing more important to the success of your organization than communication. Each individual has his or her own specialized knowledge, approach to tasks and point of view. If this information isn’t shared, organizations lack the collaboration and group dynamics required to connect with customers and create value for all stakeholders.

Here are four tips to improve communication at your workplace.

Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience can mean the difference between using jargon-filled, industry talk versus explicit, no-nonsense language in your communications. To help determine your audience, consider the three main routes of communication in the workplace.

The first is communication between people in the same business function, such as in accounting, IT or marketing. In this scenario, people share a common language and understand all the processes involved. If two accountants are talking, one accountant doesn’t need to stop talking to explain to the other accountant what net present value or the weighted average cost of capital is. Because of this, communication can be quite informal.

The second route of communication to consider is that between members of different business functions. In these cases, being too casual can cause misunderstandings. If a marketing professional is talking about the social media strategy, he or she might need to slow down and explain to people from other departments what that kind of program is and what value it brings to the organization.

This second type of communication is especially important because, more than ever before, people from different parts of the organization are coming together to create cross-functional teams. In these cases, everyone must learn to understand each other before any progress can be made.

The third kind of communication happens when your organization is working with outside parties, such as a supplier, retailer or peer in an industry association. When this happens, communication needs to be explicit because no one can assume that the other organization has a similar corporate culture or shared vocabulary.

When It’s Appropriate, Talk in Person

There will always be a need for formal communication in a business setting. Status reports, weekly updates, messages from leadership — these will be required to keep everyone on the same page. But open, simple, impromptu communication between individuals and groups is also important, as it allows people to respond quickly, address challenges and build social connections.

The best informal communication is conducted face-to-face. “Voice inflection, body language and the rapport you can build by having a conversation versus an email exchange are important to communicating effectively and building productive work relationships,” said Dr. Heidi Hatfield Edwards, associate head of the School of Arts & Communication at Florida Tech.

Face-to-face communication between an employee and a manager might need to be more formal than that between two peers. “When it comes to talking to supervisors, often it depends on the organizational culture,” Edwards said. “However, employees may want to approach their boss in person when they need to talk about a sensitive subject.”

Use Technology but Know its Limitations

Increasingly, technology is easing the barriers to communication between employees and groups that do not work near each other. A cross-functional team might include a programmer in California, an engineer in Texas and a marketing professional in Florida. Any communication must span great distances and multiple time zones.

Video conferencing and collaboration tools like Skype, Zoom, Slack and Yammer can bring people in different locations closer together. But Edwards warns that these applications, while being incredibly helpful, present some challenges to communication: “These tools can also lead to miscommunication or misinterpretation. And distractions can abound off-screen that limit participants’ focus,” she says.

Just like with online tools and email, text messages pose a challenge because they do not allow the sender or receiver to monitor facial cues, body language and voice inflection. Text messages are also prone to misunderstanding “because we tend to use text code shortcuts that can be and often are misinterpreted,” Edwards said.

Edwards isn’t implying that people should avoid existing technology communication tools or resist the introduction of new ones. However, she said participants must recognize that people may not be paying full attention during conversations: “If people are distracted in face-to-face meetings by their computers, smartphones or tablets, they are certainly prone to distraction when interfacing on a computer that may be sending them alerts during the meetings.”

Engage in Active Listening

Active listening is a communication technique that is commonly associated with counseling and conflict resolution, but it’s also very helpful in workplace settings. There are many components of active listening, including the use of body language and non-verbal cues, but one of most important is that the listener pays close attention and then demonstrates that he or she comprehends the topic that is being discussed. The best way to show this understanding is to ask clarifying questions or make statements that show understanding.

For example, in active listening, a speaker might explain a complex concept. The listener may then ask a question about one aspect of the comment, seeking more information. And the listener may explain back the concept to the speaker to make sure the information was encoded and decoded correctly.

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