11 Essential Communication Skills for the Workplace
Emily Triplett Lentz
You probably believe you’re an effective communicator. You know how to fire off an email or a Slack message; you smile and nod when your colleague is talking; you have a firm handshake (remember those?).
Then again, mathematically speaking, only 50% of us can possibly be above-average communicators. And even if you're within a desirable percentile, the truth is, developing strong communication skills is a lifelong practice, and we all have room for improvement.
11 essential workplace communication skills
As a company that spends a good deal of time thinking about effective communication, we’re not here to waste your time with some listicle full of things you already know (“Listening is important!”).
These are practical, real-world takeaways for interacting in the workplace. Commit to practicing these key communication skills, and you'll be on the road to more self-aware, effective, and meaningful relationships with others.
1. Knowing when to be silent
Silence is golden … but it can also be awkward.
Research shows that pauses longer than four seconds make us uncomfortable, and conversely, flowing conversations devoid of pauses make us feel more connected and give us a sense of belonging, regardless of content.
Katie Donovan, who founded the company Equal Pay Negotiations, says “Silence is the hardest technique to learn. It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks.”
Pushing through that discomfort, however, is worth it. Knowing how and when to hold your tongue means you’re less likely to:
Sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about when you truly don’t.
Hurt anyone’s feelings or damage relationships.
Dominate air time in a meeting (or worse, speak over someone who takes longer to formulate and offer input).
Make someone else’s story or problem about you.
Look silly, or “put your foot in your mouth,” after saying the wrong thing.
Answer your own question and shut down the possibility of considering others’ (possibly better) ideas.
“Extroverted leaders have a particular challenge because they talk to think,” writes Roxi Hewertson for The Business Journals. “For them, talking is an important part of processing information and ideas. They risk grabbing too much airtime and shutting others down.”
The best way to cultivate silence is with awareness. Learning to practice mindfulness in everything you do, including work, is a great place to start — it’ll pay dividends elsewhere in your life, too.
Notice what’s about to come out of your mouth: Do you need to say it, or are you filling a void? If the latter, what happens when you decide to cede the floor instead?
2. Choosing the appropriate communication channel
A former colleague of mine told me this story, and I think about it all the time:
“I needed to make some big changes within my organization, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with senior leadership. I’d talked about the issue in my one-on-ones; I’d sent emails and made phone calls; I’d circulated documents. Nothing was sticking. Finally, I put a slide deck together. And the response was like: ‘Ooh, a deck.’ They finally listened and responded to what I had to say.”
When it comes to choosing the right medium for your message, considering your recipients’ preferred channel is only one piece of the puzzle. A few other factors to take into account:
How long/complex is your message?
Does it include sensitive information?
What kind of action do you need the recipient to take upon receiving it?
Which channels do both you and the recipient have access to?
Would your message benefit from the additional context that nonverbal cues (body language, tone of voice) help convey, or will text-only communication suffice?
… and so on. (It’s enough to give you a headache before you even start typing. Or dialing. Or recording.)
If you’re not sure you’re using the right channels to communicate with your team, the best thing to do is to ask them.
Too many workplaces default to synchronous communication, for example, simply because that’s what humans default to. Yet shifting to even 10-15% fewer meetings (in favor of sending emails or asynchronous video messages instead) could translate to everyone getting a whole lot more room to focus on the real work.
Knowing which communication channel to choose also includes knowing which channel to switch to when the situation calls for it — for example, pinpointing the moment a Slack conversation is going off the rails and it’s time to jump on Zoom.
3. Listening well
When we asked people to name an underrated communication skill, some variation of “listening” (especially "active listening") was, by far, the most popular response.
Other responses include:
This begs the question: Is listening actually underrated, or are most of us just not very good at it?
If you’ve been told more than once that you interrupt, or your partner has said some variation of yes, I did tell you about that; you just weren’t paying close attention, or you’ve gotten feedback that you take up too much airtime in meetings, you might want to invest in improving your listening skills.
Knowing how to send information is only half of being a good communicator. Receiving it well is the other part (and the trickier one, at that). Make a concerted effort to become a better, more active listener — it won’t just improve your work life; it’ll have a positive effect on all your relationships.
A few resources to get you started:
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships — Michael P. Nichols
How to Practice Active Listening — Verywell Mind
4. Asking good questions
One surefire way to ensure you’re listening more than you’re talking, and listening to understand, is to ask the right questions.
Here’s a simple list to keep in your back pocket:
What do you think?
What’s your ideal outcome, and what’s hard for you in getting there?
As I understand it, you’re saying [XYZ] — do I have that right?
How can I support you here?
What are our next steps?
Making a habit of asking these questions before offering your own point of view will ensure you always have a solid understanding of the big picture — and everyone’s feelings about it.
Further reading: How to Ask Good Questions — The Loom Blog
5. Providing context
According to ARC Leadership Dynamics, people have one of two possible communication styles: We either give and receive information as context communicators (people who want the full story, and all the details that make up the big picture) or content communicators (just the facts, ma’am).
Factor in feelings and non-quantifiable experiences or concepts.
Focus on the tone of voice in communication and can identify subtle nuances in addition to verbal and written communication.
Can bridge the gap in communication between the practical and emotional meanings.
Can become frustrated by an exchange which is only focused on data or tactics without a critical analysis of other factors.
Value measurable action and results.
Are direct, non-emotional communicators with a strong focus on action and outcome.
Are looking for tangible results.
Can become confused or frustrated by abstract and overly emotional communication or seemingly irrelevant or unreliable data.
It’s helpful to know which type of communicator you are, as well as which one your recipient is. Does your boss, for example, want to know every little detail? Or do they become annoyed by too much “extra” information?
Especially when you’re disseminating information to a group of people, an effective “TL;DR” at the top of your message will complement the detail and cover your bases when it comes to considering the content and context communicators on your team.
6. Delivering and receiving critical feedback
Feedback is a gift. Knowing how to deliver it effectively and receive it graciously, however, doesn’t come naturally to us. We shy away from offering constructive criticism because we don’t want to rock the boat, and upon receiving it, we get defensive “to protect our character and our sense of competence.”
“Successful people only have two problems dealing with negative feedback. However, they are big problems: (a) they don’t want to hear it from us and (b) we don’t want to give it to them.” — Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
Radical Candor is often cited as a useful resource for challenging this dynamic among coworkers, although I’m an even bigger fan of what Claire Lew and the folks at Know Your Team have to say about giving negative feedback that inspires change (read the full article here):
Figure out preferences, then calibrate.
Optimize for the future state.
Place feedback into the context of what’s going on.
Avoid the “shit sandwich.”
Come from a place of care.
Make it a conversation.
When it comes to receiving critique, the best possible response is to keep an open mind, say “thank you,” and leave it at that. Anything else we tack on, “however softly we couch it, our opinion will sound defensive,” writes Marshall Goldsmith.
“It will resemble a rationalization, a denial, a negation, or an objection. Stop doing that. Treat every piece of advice as a gift or a compliment and simply say, ‘Thank you.’”
Related reading: The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback — HBR
In the same way that learning to play the piano sets you up to learn every other instrument, writing skills translate into many other communication skills: video production, tailoring your message to your audience, brevity, word choice … the list goes on. (Also like learning the piano, becoming a skilled writer won’t happen overnight. But hone your writing chops over time, and many other communication skills will follow.)
All kinds of tools and resources promise to help you become a better writer (Grammarly comes to mind). For my money, though, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White, remains a classic for a reason. It’s full of still-relevant insights, and it can be read cover to cover in less than an hour. I revisit my copy every year or two. A few choice excerpts:
“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
"Avoid the use of qualifiers — rather, very, little, pretty. These are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."
Other than studying the greats, the fastest way to become a better writer is to write. ✍️
Related reading: How to Improve Your Written Communication Skills
Conciseness is a foundational principle of effective communication.
The ability to synthesize a complex subject, break it down, and clearly summarize it in simple terms using as few words as possible — that is golden, my friends. (It also takes some practice.)
The now-retired business writing coach Lynn Gaertner-Johnston used to ask her workshop participants what they hoped to get out of her course. Many of them, she said, would make comments like these:
I would like to get my ideas across in a lot fewer words.
I want my message to be more concise, to communicate my meaning in as few words as possible.
I would like to communicate succinctly, without any extra words.
I want to be more concise and to the point, with less redundancy.
I would like to keep things concise and brief.
I want to write in a concise manner.
I want to have more concise communications and not include so much long-windedness.
Gaertner-Johnston uses the examples above as a starting point to show the reader how to reduce 13 words to 5: “I am continually amazed by how easy it is to use fewer words,” she writes.
I would like to get my ideas across in a lot fewer words.
I would like to get my ideas across in fewer words.
I would like to get my ideas across more concisely.
I would like to get my ideas across concisely.
I would like to communicate concisely.
I want to write concisely.
I want to be concise.
Pick a sentence from this very guide you’re reading — can you cut it by 20% (or more) and retain its meaning? (I’m sure you can.) Now do the same thing with the last email or Slack message you sent. Rinse and repeat.
If you’ve been known to ramble, repeat yourself, or otherwise stumble on the way to making your point, here are a few other resources worth consulting:
How to Be A Concise Communicator — The Loom Blog
How and Why to Become More Concise When Speaking — Cool Communicator
Brevity: 3 tips for speaking less and saying more — TechRepublic
3 Smart Ways to Keep Yourself From Rambling — The Muse
9. Nonverbal communication
Now that so many of our in-person, face-to-face interactions have been supplanted with video meetings and messages, it’s important to be mindful of what we’re communicating nonverbally and what others are communicating nonverbally to us.
We may not be able to read body language as well in a virtual environment as we do in a physical office, such as when arms are crossed or legs are fidgeting. But as anyone who has been in a Zoom meeting can attest, it’s not hard to tell when someone is disengaged — maybe their eyes are scanning back and forth like they’re reading something or shifting to the phone on their desk.
A good deal of body language is still communicable via video — hand gestures, facial expressions, and posture. Even “eye contact” can be simulated by looking directly into your camera.
Nodding, smiling, and other nonverbal signals such as raising your eyebrows or shrugging your shoulders when someone is speaking in a video meeting are massively supportive gestures — it’s difficult to say something you feel is significant, only to see every muted participant merely blinking in response.
10. Investing in preparation
When you have something important to communicate — something you feel strongly about or wish to get a certain result from — are you better off winging it or putting some thought into what you’d like to say ahead of time?
A few of us are blessed with off-the-cuff verbal communication skills, but the vast majority of us benefit from taking the time to do some research, jot down a few notes, and maybe practice saying it out loud once or twice. Especially when stakes are high — for example, in a job interview or a public speaking event — having a script in mind will keep you from fumbling through (and potentially undermining) your message. Real estate entrepreneur and “Shark Tank” host Barbara Corcoran says:
“Confidence is nothing more than the result of overpreparation. … People don’t know you prepared; they don’t care if you prepared. But here’s what you get as a result of overpreparation: You get great confidence. You come across differently. You can’t fake it unless you’re prepared. … The confidence that you convey is about overpreparation.”
We may not always see it when others prepare for the time they’ll be spending with us, but we appreciate it when they do. Wouldn’t you rather attend a meeting that has a clear agenda than one that doesn’t? Wouldn’t you rather show up to a one-on-one where your boss has better questions for you than, “So, what do you want to talk about today?”
Some ways to practice preparedness and make the most of your and others’ synchronous time are to:
Include a note in Google calendar’s meeting description information.
Send a video message to outline project details before a synchronous meeting.
Assign time limits to agenda items to make sure all topics are covered, and ask ahead of time if those estimates look appropriate.
Proactively point to specific areas to focus on when asking for feedback on a document, process, or project.
Coming prepared demonstrates to others that you value their time as well as your own, and it helps everyone stay focused on the topics and tasks at hand. 🕰
11. Emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence, according to a piece from Harvard Extension School, is “a set of skills that help us recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions as well as recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.”
If it sounds like a "soft skill" or a vague concept composed of other vague concepts (like self-awareness, empathy, and social skills), it may be tempting to write the whole thing off as “you either have it or you don’t.”
But that isn’t the case — emotional intelligence can be learned and improved upon like any other skill.
Some materials to consult:
How to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence ― Psychology Today
The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence — The Atlantic
While raising your EQ might seem like a daunting enterprise, the fact is, it’s practically impossible to communicate effectively without some depth of emotional intelligence. Consider, for example, speaking up in a meeting about a topic you feel passionately about, in a way that’s compelling enough to convince the majority of your audience. You’d have a hard time doing so without understanding what makes people tick.
Effective communication is a lifelong journey
Communicating successfully requires open-mindedness, respect, friendliness, empathy, inclusivity, and the ability to admit when you’re wrong and apologize ... all qualities that demonstrate a genuine desire to understand and be understood by others, not just to get ahead in the world.
Developing good communication skills is a lifelong practice, but it’s a worthwhile one. Clear communication will positively impact your work relationships, your business opportunities, and your personal life.
If you found one or two insights that you want to commit to improving upon, tell us about it on Twitter.