5 Steps To Improving Communication Skills
In the workplace, pretty much everything is a question of communication. When things are going great in the workplace, you will find GREAT communication. When things are breaking down in the workplace, what do you think you will find? You’ve got it: communication breakdowns! The fact that you are reading this article means you probably KNOW that effective communication is critical to our success in all areas of life. In the workplace, this is “super true!” What you may NOT KNOW, however, is exactly how and why communication breaks down, and full extent to which these breakdowns crush a company’s bottom line or your own opportunities for career advancement. Scary! Meanwhile, a very funny thing about communication is that it is like driving or parenting in that we tend to believe we ourselves do it well, but OTHERS do not! This clearly means that the first step to improving our own communication effectiveness is admitting we need improvement and knowing that it is possible.
OVERCOME THEN IMPROVE
There are five tendencies we must overcome to improve our communication skills. These tendencies serve as barriers to objectivity, critical thinking, listening and ultimately, to effective communication. We are MOST open to improving our communication skills when we are MOST aware of these five tendencies in our day-to-day behavior:
Stereotyping occurs when we observe a trait in a member of a population (ethic, gender, religious, political, etc.) and then project that trait onto the entirety of that population. This is usually done at someone’s expense and ALWAYS represents a certain mental laziness which becomes evident, embarrassing, counter-productive or plainly destructive during workplace communication.
This refers to the process of blocking out or ignoring anything that does not appeal to one’s CURRENT interests. Put simply, it is a failure to accommodate the creation of NEW interests. The consequence of this behavior rests in the lengths people go to in order to avoid things which aren’t of interest. This can include discrediting, distorting, deflecting, sabotaging, and attacking that which does not personally interest us. A sane person will easily agree that it is not professional or productive to sabotage, distort or otherwise attack a colleague’s ideas.
Some people call this being “stubborn”. However, just knowing that some people refuse to change their minds once they have made them up is not enough. As with self-interest, we must realize this refusal requires the effort and energy required to ignore, distort, dismiss, or otherwise resist REALITY! Some people ignore objective, factually true information purely to avoid reversing their own opinions or beliefs. To avoid the effort it takes to change, OR the “shame” of admitting we are “wrong”, we will actually work harder and “wronger!” Can you think of workplace decisions that are made and sustained based on imagined vs. actual reality? Think of a “seller” who lists their home for what THEY think it is worth, or what they want and need, vs. actual market value determined by the comps. Objective facts are blocked by a frozen “pride of ownership” factor. What are the workplace versions of this behavioral tendency?
Each of the first three tendencies (stereotyping, self-interest and frozen evaluations) is a “version” of this fourth tendency: Ego Defense. Ego is our overall sense of self. Defense is accomplished by “fight or flight” instinct. This means that we “flinch” at emotional/ego danger just as instinctually and aggressively as we do at physical danger. Any piece of information that contradicts our sense of self is “eligible” for a fight or flight response. We all engage in this behavior. A great difference in communication skills can be found in the difference between PRESERVING/PROTECTING/PROMOTING our overall sense of self vs. EXPANDING/GROWING/EVOLVING our sense of self. The latter approach makes us more vulnerable, but greatly enhances our effectiveness as communicators.
Ethno means culture or cultural, and centrism refers to placing something at a central position of importance. Ego-defense is a form of ego-centrism…we are ALL self-centered even in generosity. Ethno-centrism, then, is a very natural tendency to put one’s CULTURE (values, attitudes, beliefs, rituals, language, aesthetics, etc.) at a central position of importance. This tendency is the “popular” version of ego-defense. We focus on a population, not individuals, and “group think” around the merits of that culture. Said another way, this is the dangerous and mistaken belief that one’s culture is SUPERIOR to another’s. The extreme consequences of this tendency include hate crimes, ethnic cleansing or other forms of genocide. In the workplace the harmful effects are subtler but show up in “the dark side” of communication: anger, blame, “other-ing”, scapegoating, stereotyping, political conflict, etc. Effective workplace communication will suffer from the impact of “ethnocentrism” which impedes our ability to validate, appreciate or even understand the cultural diversity that is sure to exist in our workplaces and in this global economy.
With rare exception, where we find workplace drama, lethargy, politics, dirty competition, gossip/rumor, errors, delays, or even injuries and death, communication breakdowns are involved. It is highly likely that one or more of the five behavioral tendencies above are in play. The old saying about putting make-up on a pig is a good analogy for putting “communication skills training” on a person without the motivation, awareness and skills to overcome the behavioral tendencies which predict poor communication.