26 January 2022

2.4 Effective communication skills

Author/Compiled by
Elysa Vaillancourt (ISW)

Executive Summary

Communication is unavoidable. We learn to communicate at a very young age and use communication daily to express our needs, to socialize, to persuade, to play and to discover. That said, communicating effectively is not an easy task. 

Learning to communicate effectively in a professional setting will allow you to stand out in the water and climate sector. Good communication skills will enable you to easily explain your innovative ideas, establish long-lasting relationships with colleagues and minimize misunderstandings. Good communication skills can also allow you to transmit your passion for the water and climate sector to others.

In this factsheet you will learn to:

  • Determine your most dominant communication style
  • Establish the principles of effective communication including active listening
  • Avoid potential triggers for miscommunication
  • Optimize your written communication

Self assessment

Factsheet Block Body

How much do you know about communications? (DEVITO, 1993)

Determine if each of the following statement is True or False.

  • Good communicators are extroverts.
  • Good communicators are born that way, you can’t become a good communicator.
  • Communication is all about learning to speak clearly and effectively.
  • Unlike speaking, active listening cannot really be taught.

Answer: All the above statements are false! Don’t worry if you’ve answered incorrectly, the above statements are some of the most common misconceptions regarding communications. In this Factsheet, we will debunk these statements.

Are you an active listener? (DEVITO, 1993)

Use the following scale to answer each question.

1 = Always

2 = Often

3 = Sometimes

4 = Rarely

5 = Never

  • When I am in a conversation, I concentrate so much on what I am saying that I miss some elements of what the other person is telling me.
  • I allow myself to think about something else than what the person in front of me is saying.
  • I try to simplify the messages I hear by leaving out the details.
  • I focus on a particular detail of what the speaker is saying rather than the general meaning of the message they wish to communicate.
  • I let my own perceptions or feelings towards the speaker or the subject at hand influence how I receive the message.
  • I listen passively, leaving the speaker do all the work while I think about what I am going to say next.

Count your final score. If you have a score much higher than 18, you probably have above average active listening skills. If you score much lower than 18, this might indicate that active listening is one of your weak spots. As we will see in this factsheet, active listening is a very important element of effective communication. This factsheet will give you some tips and tricks to improve your active listening skills!

Factsheet Block Body

Communication

Communication is a continuous process which allows living organisms to establish psychological and social links between themselves. It happens whenever an organism affects another organism by modifying its actions through the transmission of information. Information can be exchanged “through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior” (MERRIAM-WEBSTER, N.D.).  

In 1948, the American sociologist Lasswell used five basic questions to examine the communication process: Who? Says what? How? To whom? With what impact?

Even though we sometimes assume that people who are more extroverted are better communicators, this is not always the case. We each have our own way of communicating, our own communication style which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

To help you reflect on your own communication style, Gill Hasson (2019) detailed the four main styles which are present on the introvert/extrovert continuum (see Figure 1.1). By knowing where you are on this continuum and being aware of the communication style of the person you are communicating with, you will be better equipped to adapt and find ways to get your message across while also avoiding miscommunication.

 

  • Active communicators

Active communicators are at the extrovert end of the continuum. They are lively, spontaneous, opportunistic, direct, and straightforward. They get to the point quickly and are prone to exaggerate and use large gestures. They like to participate in conversations, discussions, and debates. Active communicators are not patient listeners. Whether they’re experts in what’s being discussed or not, they are confident and persuasive.  

 

  • Purposeful communicators

If we move up the continuum, we will find purposeful communicators. They like to discuss in a logical order and don’t like interruptions. They’re not keen on small talk. They prefer communicating in a way that will get things done. They may sometimes come across as impatient and controlling.

 

  • Connectors

Connectors are more towards the introverted end of the continuum. They tend to listen more than they talk. They can read between the lines and are able to work out the feelings and intentions behind what another person is saying. They are tactful and considerate and dislike conversations that lead to conflict. They like to take time to relate and connect with others. They are good listeners, and they speak from the heart.

 

  • Theorists

At the introvert end of the continuum, we have theorists. Theorists tend to be in their own heads during a conversation. They like to review what they’ve just heard and respond carefully in a way that most accurately expresses their thoughts on the matter. They rather say nothing than say something wrong. They usually avoid emotional bonding and go straight for the facts.

As this model is a continuum, you might find yourself in between two of these categories or might relate more to some aspects of one category and some aspects of another. Although our natural tendencies will position us somewhere on this spectrum, it is important to know that communication is a skill that can be learned, developed, and improved (HASSON, 2019).

 

Principles of effective communication

To help you improve your communication skills, we will explore the principles of effective communication.

If you are communicating effectively, you will communicate in a way that makes it easy for the person you are communicating with to listen and understand your message. You will also be actively listening to what the other person has to say to properly understand the message and its meaning.

“Effective communication occurs when the message received is the same as the one intended.” (GUO in BURKOWSKI, 2011). 

  • Adapt your content

It is important to adapt what you say and how you say it when you deliver your message to the person you are communicating with (HASSON, 2019). Consider the other person’s own communication style, their level of understanding of the subject at hand, as well as their background (values, culture, etc). Speak clearly and get to the point quickly! Use pauses frequently and replace filler words such as ‘um’, ‘you know’ or ‘like’ with pauses (HASSON, 2019). If you need some inspiration, listen to an Obama speech! Notice how effectively he uses the pauses.

  • Select the appropriate communication channel

Select the appropriate communication channel according to the amount of information you wish to share and the nature of the information. If you have to communicate a significant amount of important information you might want to organize a face-to-face meeting or a video conference. If you want to share quick facts or updates, you can choose newsletters or numeric reports. Figure 1.2, DAFT (1984), presents you with the different communication channels that you can use depending on the type of information you wish to get across.

  • Check in with the listener and allow opportunities for feedback

Instead of performing a long monologue, stop frequently to make sure the other person is listening to what you are saying and correctly understands your message. You can ask questions such as “What do you think?” or “Do you agree?” (HASSON, 2019).  Try to ask these questions genuinely and not force these questions in the conversation as you don’t want to sound too mechanical or measured.

  • Practice active listening

As an important part of effective communication is the proper reception and understanding of the message, the person listening has a very important role to play to ensure effective communication is happening. By actively listening you will improve your ability to influence, develop empathy, persuade and negotiate, and feel more in control in difficult situations (HASSON, 2019).

 

 

Figure 1.1. Communication Channels 

 

comms channels

Factsheet Block Body

Reflective listening

Reflective listening can be put into practice by following these three important elements (HASSON, 2019):

  • Repeat what you have heard
  • Summarize the main points that have been said
  • Paraphrase what has been said (say it in your own words). You can start your sentence by: “Let me see if I understand so far...”.

A good way to make sure you are actively listening is to imagine that after your conversation you will have to repeat what you learned to someone else . This will make you more alert and more engaged in the conversation, since you have to make sure that you have understood it.

Finally, refrain from answering with examples of your own personal experiences such as “I lived through the same thing when my own colleague left our team” or “I know how you feel, your experience is like when I tried to apply for X job.” Instead, try to ask plenty of questions to better understand what the other person is trying to tell you. Also, try to put aside your own personal judgments, assumptions, and beliefs. Be open-minded!

Miscommunication

Miscommunication happens when “the meaning has not been understood as the speaker intended it to be” (HASSON, 2019).

There are several different elements that can lead to miscommunication. Cultural differences is definitely an important one that you will face working in a very international field. In fact, each culture has its own communication rules and practices. For example, some cultures might be more direct in their speech, stating the facts directly without filtering any information, whereas others might rely more on empathy by being aware of the feelings and emotions of the listener when communicating. By being aware of the cultural differences regarding communication, you will most certainly reduce the potential for tensions and misunderstandings.

 

                           “Active listening starts with reflective listening” (HASSON, 2019). 

Written communication

In today’s workspace, written communication, including mostly emails or text messages, are widely used to communicate with colleagues, with your boss, with partners or with clients.

To help maximize the effectiveness of your written communication and ensure the person receiving your message clearly understands it, here are some tips to consider (HASSON, 2019):

  • Get straight to the point

Be clear and concise. To ensure your email will be read amongst the hundreds of emails we all receive daily, make it easy and quick for the reader to understand your main message.

  • Drafting makes perfect

Don’t aim for perfection on your first draft. Write a first draft to get your ideas on paper and then rewrite it checking for spelling, grammar and ensuring your message is clear. Ensuring you have no spelling mistakes is very important. In today’s instant messaging tendencies, it can be tempting to use abbreviate and misspelled words but this can give off the wrong impression!

  • Simple and short

Use simple words that anyone can understand to minimize confusion and use short sentences.

Even though email is a very useful professional tool, it is important to know how to use it properly. For example, sending emotional responses to messages when dealing with a difficult situation is not the most effective response. It is best to deal with these situations face-to-face or wait for emotions to have cooled off before sending out an email you might regret (see Factsheet 2.3 Conflict-management skills). You could also reflect whether you would feel comfortable saying face-to-face what you’ve written in your email. If the answer is no, you might want to restrain yourself from pressing send!

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