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Avoiding A "Failure to Communicate"

It's in every classified ad and most job descriptions: must have excellent communication skills. Worse yet, once hired, it reappears annually at review time: Improve communication skills. What's a worker to do? Communication skills don't require a graduate degree, just some common sense, a bit of homework and a better understanding of the role communication plays in everything:

Listen. Don't assume that better communication skills mean you have to speak like John F. Kennedy or orate like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Listening skills are the most ignored aspect of good communication skills. More misunderstandings occur due to poor listening than to misstatements.

To be a good listener, suspend that urge to speak while others are speaking. Don't begin to prepare what you'll say next. Listen intently, with ears, eyes, mind and body. Are you following what's being said? If so, nod in agreement. If not, a furrowed brow indicates you're confused. Your speaker needs these cues. If you truly heard and understood, repeat it back in your own words. This lets both parties know they're on the same wavelength.

Mind Your ABCs. Some people turn complex topics into simple explanations. Sadly, others' talents lie in the opposite direction: making simple topics complex. I strive to mind my ABCs: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur once remarked that even more important than giving orders that could be understood was issuing orders that couldn't be misunderstood. Whether or not lives are at stake, your reputation as a communicator may be. People appreciate short sentences; they are often confused by long, convoluted ones. Keep it succinct.

Don't get labeled missing in action. Some excellent communicators are deemed less so for not contributing in meetings. A coaching client of mine from overseas was culturally uncomfortable speaking up, so others monopolized the meetings, often rudely interrupting to make a point. Her timidity, coupled with self-consciousness surrounding her command of English, resulted in her wallflower demeanor.

Now the night before meetings she reviews the agenda, composes her thoughts and rehearses making powerful yet concise statements about items of the day. To others her remarks appear off-handed. She's thus perceived as a more powerful and effective communicator. She's also developed a nice yet firm statement when she's interrupted, which reminds people she hasn't yielded the floor yet. After a few invocations of this phrase, others respect her opinions better. Her boss has noticed and applauded her new assertiveness.

It takes two. I knew a worker who was fired for her boss's inadequacies as a communicator. Don't pay the price for another's communication shortcomings. It may require some work on your part, but it's worth the effort.

I once had a boss who listened, but never asked questions. After a while I anticipated the questions that needed to be asked and posed them myself, or simply provided responses as if he'd asked them. I would go prepared to each meeting with a list of project-related questions, which showed my foresight and attention to detail. It benefited us both.

Write speech. It sounds like a Buddhist precept, yet remember, writing is a big part of communication. Let e-mails, weekly reports and other writings reinforce your clear thinking, organizational skills, attention to detail and ability to express important ideas.

Make your writing easy to read. Spelling matters, even in e-mail. Use white space, numbered lists and bulleted items to communicate more effectively. Titles, subtitles and lists similarly add cogency. Write your piece, set it aside for a spell, then review it and strike out 25 percent to say it more succinctly.

Speak up. Consider taking a public speaking class, joining a local Toastmasters club ( to improve your oral communication skills. The new skills, offline practice and confidence gleaned will help you in meetings, in giving reports and in making presentations.

Excellent communication skills help in many ways. With practice you can confidently give a speech, make a cold call, train others; conduct a meeting, make a sales presentation, interview someone or be interviewed.

Improved communication skills can open many doors, both within and beyond the workplace. It's time you sharpen your CQ Your Communication Quotient!

About the Author: As a self-employed speaker, trainer and consultant on communication and customer service topics, Craig Harrison is simultaneously a decision maker, gatekeeper and caller on a daily basis. Craig is standing by to take your calls and e-mails: (510) 547-0664, or via Visit his website at

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