Improving Your Communication Skills

Oct 15, 2010

We have all come to the aftermarket community from a variety of areas-”but chances are it’s not from the world of grammar, communications or a writing classroom.

Our industry has been built on hard work, enthusiasm and relationships with both customers and vendors. And in this landscape, getting your thoughts across clearly and concisely is critical to success.

The following are some tools and tips that will aid in improving your communication skills as we enter the trade show season and thereafter. As a gearhead university professor, I have noted on many occasions that poor sentence structure and grammar are hurdles for all generations. With the advent of new media, texting, Facebook and Linked-In, as well as common unstructured emails, we frequently take shortcuts in articulating a vital message that can ultimately lead to confusion or misunderstandings.

We talk to people face to face, and we listen when people talk to us. We write emails and reports, and we read the documents that are sent to us. Communication, therefore, is a process that involves at least two people-”a sender and a receiver. For it to be successful, the receiver must understand the message in the way that the sender intended.

This sounds simple. But have you ever been in a situation where it hasn’t happened? Misunderstanding and confusion often occur, and they can cause enormous problems.

If you want to be an expert communicator, you need to be effective at all points in the communication process-”and you must be comfortable with the different channels of communication. When you communicate well, you can be very successful. On the other hand, poor communicators struggle to develop business relationships beyond a certain point.

So, are you communicating effectively? The following is a think, react and implement process that serves as a self-quiz. Where does the quiz place you as a communicator?

The Communication Quiz 

Note: For each statement, write your answer on a sheet of paper. Grade yourself 1-5 with 1 being Not At All; 2, Rarely; 3, Sometimes; 4, Often; 5, Very Often. Add up your score and check your result using the scoring table provided under score interpretation below.

1. I try to anticipate and predict possible causes of confusion, and I deal with them up front.

2. When I write a memo, email, or other document, I give all of the background information and detail I can to make sure that my message is understood.

3. If I don’t understand something, I tend to keep this to myself and figure it out later.

4. I’m sometimes surprised to find that people haven’t understood what I’ve said.

5. I tend to say what I think, without worrying about how the other person perceives it. I assume that we’ll be able to work it out later.

6. When people talk to me, I try to see their perspective.

7. I use email to communicate complex issues with people. It’s quick and efficient.

8. When I finish writing a report, memo or email, I scan it quickly for typos and so forth, and then send it off right away.

9. When talking to people, I pay attention to their body language.

10. I use diagrams and charts to help express my ideas.

11. Before I communicate, I think about what the person needs to know, and how best to convey it.

12. When someone’s talking to me, I think about what I’m going to say next to make sure I get my point across correctly.

13. Before I send a message, I think about the best way to communicate it (in person, over the pone, in a newsletter, via memo, and so on).

14. I try to help people understand the underlying concepts behind the point I’m discussing. This reduces misconceptions and increases understanding.

15. I consider cultural barriers when planning my communications.

And you total score is? Write it down.

Score Interpretation

Now that you have your total numeric score total, note the comments for each score range.

Score 56-75: Excellent! You understand your role as a communicator, both when you send messages and when you receive them. You anticipate problems, and you choose the right ways of communicating. People respect you for your ability to communicate clearly, and they appreciate your listening skills.

Score 36-55: You’re a capable communicator, but you sometimes experience communication problems. Take the time to think about your approach to communication, and focus on receiving messages effectively, as much as sending them. This will help you improve.

Score 15-35: You need to keep working on your communication skills. You are not expressing yourself clearly, and you may not be receiving messages correctly either. The good news is that, by paying attention to communication, you can be much more effective at work, and enjoy much better working relationships! The rest of this article will direct you to some great tools for improving your communication skills.

Detailed Interpretation

By understanding the steps in any communication process, you can become more aware of your role in it, recognize what you need to do to communicate effectively, anticipate problems before they happen, and improve your overall ability to communicate effectively.

The sections below are from the personal quiz and are designed to help you develop into the communicator you can be, and help you improve the way you communicate at each stage of the process. Note the questions’ answer interpretation with each of the following sections. You’ll access a basic knowledge exchange with yourself as you clearly see where improvements can be incorporated into your mission of being an improved communicator.

The Source-”Planning Your Message (Questions 1, 2, 11)

Before you start communicating, take a moment to figure out what you want to say and why. Don’t waste your time conveying information that isn’t necessary-”and don’t waste the listener’s or reader’s time, either.

Too often, people just keep talking or keep writing because they think that by saying more, they’ll surely cover all the points. Often, however, all they do is confuse the people they’re talking to.

To better plan your communication plan, think of the following:

• Understand your audience. With whom are you communicating? What do they need to know?

• Plan what you want to say, and how you’ll send the message.

• Seek feedback on how well your message was received.

When you do this, you’ll be able to craft a message that will be received positively by your audience, whether it’s one or many. Good communicators use the KISS (Keep It Simple and Straightforward) principle. They know that less is often more, and that good communication should be efficient as well as effective.

Encoding-”Creating a Clear, Well-Crafted Message (Questions 1, 5, 8, 10, 15)

When you know what you want to say, decide exactly how you’ll say it. You’re responsible for sending a message that’s clear and concise.

To achieve this, you need to consider not only what you’ll say, but also how you think the recipient will perceive it.

We often focus on the message that we want to send and the way in which we’ll send it. But if our message is delivered without considering the other person’s perspective, it’s likely that part of that message will be lost.

To communicate more effectively:

• Understand what you truly need and want to say.

• Anticipate the other person’s reaction to your message.

• Choose words and, if appropriate, use body language that helps the other person really hear what you’re saying.

With written communication, make sure that what you write will be perceived the way you intend. Words on a page generally have no emotion-”they don’t “smile” or “frown” at you while you’re reading them (unless you’re a very talented writer or communicator, of course!)

When writing, take time to do the following:

• Review your style.

• Avoid jargon or slang.

• Check your grammar and punctuation.

• Check also for tone, attitude, nuance and other subtleties. If you think the message may be misunderstood, it probably will. Take the time to clarify it!

Another important consideration is to use pictures, charts and diagrams wherever possible. As the saying goes, “a picture speaks a thousand words.”

Also, whether you speak or write your message, consider the cultural context. If there’s potential for miscommunication or misunderstanding due to cultural or language barriers, address these issues in advance. Consult with people who are familiar with these, and do your research so that you’re aware of problems you may face.

Choosing the Right Channel (Questions 7, 11, 13)

When communicating the message, you need to choose the best channel-”whether it should be spoken, written or emailed. You want to be efficient, and yet make the most of your communication opportunity.

One of the most common and efficient methods utilized is email. Email works well to send simple directions, reference a conversation, introduce yourself, etc. However, if you want to delegate a complex task, an email will probably lead to more questions, so it may be best to arrange a time to speak in person.

And if your communication has any negative emotional content, stay well away from email! Make sure that you communicate face-to-face or by phone, so that you can judge the impact of your words and respond appropriately.

When you determine the best way to send a message, consider the following:

• The sensitivity and emotional content of the subject.

• How easy it is to communicate detail.

• The receiver’s preferences.

• Time constraints.

• The need to ask and answer questions.

Receiving and Interpreting a Message (Questions 3, 6, 12, 14)

It can be easy to focus on speaking; we want to get our points out there, because we usually have lots to say. However, to be a great communicator, you also need to step back, let the other person talk and just listen.

This doesn’t mean that you should be passive. Listening is hard work, which is why effective listening is called active listening. To listen actively, give your undivided attention to the speaker:

• Look at the person.

• Pay attention to his or her body language.

• Avoid distractions.

• Nod and smile to acknowledge points.

• Occasionally think back about what the person has said.

• Allow the person to speak, without thinking about what you’ll say next.

• Don’t interrupt.

Empathic listening also helps you decode a message accurately. To understand a message fully, you have to understand the emotions and underlying feelings the speaker is expressing. This is where an understanding of body language can be useful.

Feedback (Questions 3, 4, 9)

You need feedback, because without it, you can’t be sure that people have understood your message. Sometimes feedback is verbal, and sometimes it’s not.

We’ve looked at the importance of asking questions and listening carefully. However, feedback through body language is perhaps the most important source of clues to the effectiveness of your communication. By watching the facial expressions, gestures, and posture of the person you’re communicating with, you can spot:

• Confidence levels.

• Defensiveness.

• Agreement.

• Comprehension (or lack of understanding).

• Level of interest.

• Level of engagement with the message.

• Truthfulness (or lying/dishonesty).

As a speaker, understanding your listener’s body language can give you an opportunity to adjust your message and make it more understandable, appealing or interesting. As a listener, body language can show you more about what the other person is saying. You can then ask questions to ensure that you have, indeed, understood each other. In both situations, you can better avoid miscommunication if it happens.

Feedback can also be formal. If you’re communicating something really important, it can often be worth asking questions of the person you’re talking to, to make sure that they’ve understood fully. And if you’re receiving this sort of communication, repeat it in your own words to check your understanding.

Key Points

It can take a lot of effort to communicate effectively. However, you need to be able to communicate well if you’re going to make the most of the opportunities that life has to offer.

By improving communication skills, you can learn how to convey your ideas clearly and effectively, and understand much more of the information that’s conveyed to you.

As either a speaker or a listener, or as a writer or a reader, you’re responsible for making sure that the message is communicated accurately. Pay attention to words and actions, ask questions and watch body language. These will all help ensure that you say what you mean, and hear what is intended.

Hopefully you’re the type of student who will listen to yourself and be encouraged to improve, no matter what communication level you feel you’re at. Put yourself in the listener’s position and allow yourself to improve.

Now take on that trade show, telephone conversation, car show enthusiast, or manufacturers rep with the ability to better communicate your way to becoming an enhanced communications aftermarket businessperson.