When communication breaks down at work, teams are less effective. Projects may fall apart altogether. In fact, the estimated annual financial costs of failed communication average about $624 per employee for some companies.
The good news is that everyone can learn workplace communication skills. You just have to identify them first — and a discipline called Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) can help with that goal. Conversational Intelligence, pioneered by organizational anthropologist Judith Glaser, is a neuroscience-focused framework for building and employing communication skills in the workplace.
“With Conversational Intelligence, we start to understand how the neuroscience of the brain plays into our day-to-day lives,” says Jen Thornton, founder of 304 Coaching, who studied C-IQ under Glaser. The trouble is, brain responses that kept our early ancestors alive among the mammoths can quickly short-circuit communication efforts in the modern office.
“Our primitive brains and fears take over if we feel like we’re being judged — and when fear takes over, the prefrontal cortex closes down,” Thornton says. “We need to use the prefrontal cortex at work because that’s where all the good stuff happens, like creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration.”
So how do we keep our heads in the modern workplace when our brains were built for dodging predators? Here are five workplace communication skills we can all work on — managers and rank and file alike — to keep our goals aligned, our teammates informed, and our projects more successful:
- Use language that builds trust. The way you phrase a sentence can change the connotation of your message without altering the information at its core. At work, we should avoid constructions that assign blame or create fear. “You could ask, ‘What went wrong with this project?’ ” says Thornton. “Or you could say, ‘This project went wrong. That happens, but let’s learn from it.’ You convey very different information with two statements, even though they say the same thing.”
- Recognize organic team dynamics. For communication to flow freely in the organization, both management and staff must be committed to team success — not the individual’s advancement. “When there’s a lack of trust in a team, people focus on saving themselves,” Thornton says. “That’s just how our brain works. But when we have high trust, we move toward protecting the group or the whole ‘tribe.’”
So how do you achieve a communal state of trust? Start by letting people determine their own placement within the group. “Everyone has a role,” Thornton says. “Someone will step up and be the cheerleader, the naysayer, the person who stays quiet but knows all the answers.” Allowing these roles to develop — and recognizing them as hints about communication preferences — can help create the group trust necessary for great information sharing.
- Be OK with being wrong. Being right is an addiction, Thornton says, and we’re all hooked. But there are benefits to breaking the habit. “If you have a high addiction to being right, you’re never going to get to that place of trust with your team because you won’t be able to open your mind and hear their point of view,” she says.
It helps to think of wrongness as a skill, something you can do well or poorly. And if you’re not great at being wrong, you’ll run into problems when you try to collaborate. Teammates may hesitate to approach you if they’re afraid you’ll just end up replacing their ideas with your own — and that doesn’t lead to great communication.
- Emphasize receptivity. We all have conversations with ourselves in preparation for the conversations we’re about to have with others. Build your workplace communication skills by using those self-talks to prepare for receptivity, not a spot at the lectern. Get ready to listen and be open to new ideas.
“When you’re preparing for a meeting, do you spend most of your time planning to tell everyone what they should think?” asks Thornton. “Or do you ask, ‘What do I need to gain from this meeting? What do I need to learn?’ ” The latter mindset leads to more productive dialogue.
- Read the room. Gauging the response to your words is one of the most important communication skills in the workplace, and it’s easy to do: Just watch what happens when you say something. “Especially with high-level executives, I ask people to be students of themselves in the meeting room,” Thornton says. “If they ask a question and everyone stays silent, then they give an answer and everyone agrees, clearly everyone’s waiting to be told what to think. And when that happens, your business is on its way down.”
The key takeaway from any study of workplace communication skills is that language matters. What you say is going to have an effect. You can’t not communicate in the workplace setting; even silence is a message. You need to be intentional about what you say and how you say it.
“Language either depletes or nourishes our conversations,” says Thornton. When you study workplace communications skills like those listed above, you can start using language that leads to better-informed teammates and stronger organizations.