The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most vital skills for any professional to have. It’s how you’ll interview for your position, negotiate your salary, collaborate with coworkers, discuss things with clients, and eventually, how you’ll delegate to and instruct your team or employees. Without a strong foundation of communication effectiveness skills, you’ll never be able to achieve your full potential.
Does that sound foreboding? Don’t be intimidated. Communication effectiveness is like any other skill; with a bit of awareness and a bit of practice, anyone can become a master communicator.
In this guide, we’ll discuss some of the most important skills you can use to polish your communicative abilities, review some top quotes about communication effectiveness, and present a short quiz you can use to evaluate your own communicative abilities.
Communication Effectiveness in the Workplace
Let’s start with some of the fundamentals. Communication effectiveness in the workplace is a complex topic, and you’ll find many differing subjective opinions on what types of approaches work best. In this guide, we’ll try to be as universal as possible, presenting many different types of strategies and skills that will work for the majority of the population.
No matter what your communication philosophy is or what angle you want to take, there are three effective communication qualities that should underlie any strategy you adopt:
- Efficiency. Efficiency is all about how much time you and your coworkers are spending on communication. Ideally, you’ll keep this to a minimum without interfering with the quality of your communication. For example, if you can say something in 100 words or 1,000 words with no loss of meaning either way, it’s better to say it in 100 words; that way, you spend less time writing/speaking it, and your audience spends less time reading/listening to it.
- Clarity. Obviously, you also need to think about clarity. Is your message conveying everything you want it to convey? Is it conveying anything extra that you didn’t intend or know about? Unclear communications are responsible for most workplace errors, resulting in wasted time, lost money, and in some cases, physical danger.
- Reputation. Communication is also an important element in your reputation. For example, if you’re a supervisor, you may be able to give a clear, efficient description of a task to one of your employees—but can you give it in a way that’s positive, reassuring, and constructive? Your tone and presentation are keys in this area.
Effective Communication Skills
These 21 important effective communication skills will incorporate some or all of the 3 pillars listed in the preceding section. If you can master them all, you’ll become an indisputably effective communicator:
1. Appropriate medium selection
I’m a huge fan of email. It’s an incredibly efficient and universal medium, especially when managed properly. But it’s not the only communication medium that’s available, and it isn’t the best for every situation. Communication effectiveness requires choosing the right medium for the right message (and the right reasons). For example, email is best for relaying instructions, asking simple questions, providing confirmation or updates, and mass-messaging an audience. However, extended dialogues and training sessions might be better left to phone calls or video chats (see our guide on how to Gmail video call), and urgent matters should be handled with a text message or phone call. It takes some experience to learn which mediums are best for which situations, but if you’re paying attention to the strengths and weaknesses of each, it shouldn’t take long.
2. Active listening
As you’ll see in the quotes section below, most people who know about effective communication skills stress the importance of active listening. Active listening is all about paying total attention to the person you’re speaking with, understanding their motivations as well as their intended message. This will help you craft a better response, but more importantly, will make you more engaged in the conversation. Too many people try to jump into the conversation as much as possible, focusing on speaking rather than listening. You can adjust by making eye contact, using positive body language like head nodding, and repeating what the person is saying in other words. Your conversational partners will appreciate it.
If you want to master your communicative efficiency, you have to learn how to be concise. Conciseness is all about the density of information in your message; in other words, you have to find the shortest, most direct way to say what you want to say. Think about the difference between an email like, “I was wondering if maybe you had the chance to take a look at that form I sent you? And if you did, I was wondering if you knew when you might be able to fill that out for me?” and one like, “Did you examine the form I sent you? If so, when can you complete it?” You cut half the words, thereby saving yourself and your recipient half the time. As an added bonus, you spend time reviewing the core intent of your message, and can craft your words more effectively.
4. Body language
You won’t have to worry about body language when emailing, but in a meeting or video conference, body language is highly important. Maintaining good posture and leaning slightly forward makes you seem confident, and resisting the urge to fidget makes you seem more in control. Eye contact and facing the person speaking show that you’re interested and paying attention, and warm hand gestures while speaking can make your words more effective. And don’t forget to smile; a warm, sincere smile instantly makes you more likeable (and makes your words more persuasive). These little touches can make a massive difference in how you’re perceived.
I touched on the topic of confidence in the “body language” section, but it’s also important to convey confidence in the words you choose. Too many people (especially young professionals) make word choices that undermine their thoughts and opinions. Starting a sentence with “I think” or using words and phrases like “maybe” or “I’m no expert” conveys uncertainty; sometimes this is appropriate, but if you’re using weak words like this regularly, it makes you seem unconfident. Accordingly, people won’t take you seriously. The higher your position is in an organization, the more important it is that you speak and write confidently.
There are times when you’ll need to soften your message, or beat around the bush to persuade your audience; however, these should be the exception to the rule. It’s almost always better to be more direct with your messages. Instead of asking an employee who seems off task, “how’s it going?”, ask them “do you have enough to work on?” This approach cuts a lot of the B.S. associated with typical professional communication, and gets you closer to your desired results. You’ll also find people treat you with more respect and similar frankness when you open the door this way.
Ambiguity is one of the worst offenders in weakening the clarity of your message. Ambiguity usually provides enough information that people feel they’ve gotten an effective message, but is vague enough that it forces them to work out your intentions. For example, if an employee asks you, “is Monday delivery okay for this?”, a response like “Do your best” is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether you want them to shoot for earlier delivery, or whether you’re implying they should take more time to do the job correctly. At best, you’ll make them spend more time analyzing your message. At worst, they’ll misinterpret it entirely.
People sometimes imagine that they can have more effective communication skills if they increase the size of their vocabulary and use bigger, more specific words. However, this is often counterproductive. Shoehorning big words into your conversation can weaken your meaning, and possibly confuse your audience. Instead, try to use smaller, simpler words. They’re much harder to misinterpret.
9. Topical introduction
Context matters in all forms of communication, which means it’s in your best interest to learn how to give a proper topical introduction. In the world of email, this means selecting a subject line that’s concise, direct, and meaningful; it’s also good email etiquette. In meetings, it may mean providing an agenda for the meeting in advance, and clarifying your meeting objectives before you begin the discussion.
10. Visual organization
In written communication, it’s vital to have some kind of visual organization for your messages. If your message is clumped together in disorganized paragraphs, even the best wording isn’t going to redeem it. You need to leave plenty of space between paragraphs, with paragraphs and/or sentences separated based on meaning. It’s also good to use strategic bold or italic fonts to call attention to the most important parts of your message. If you have many items to introduce in a category, use a bulleted or numbered list. It’s an effective communication skill that can make your emails much easier to read.
11. Audience customization
You should intuitively understand that you need to employ different effective communication strategies for different audiences. You wouldn’t write an email to a close coworker you consider a friend in the same way you’d write an email to a cold prospect you’re meeting for the first time. This is a nuanced communication skill to learn, but it’s incredibly handy when you get the hang of it. Consider your level of formality, the vocabulary you utilize, your message structure, and even how you open and close your message.
In some cases, employing mirroring can help you improve your communicative effectiveness—or at least make you more likable. Mirroring is essentially mimicking or replicating the communication strategies you see your audience using. In a physical meeting, that means using similar body language and gestures. Over email, it means using some of the same types of sentence structures or turns of phrase. It’s also a good excuse to pay closer attention to what your conversational partners are saying.
Positivity isn’t necessarily an effective communication skill, but it’s something you can work to incorporate into your messages. Positivity is contagious, and can help your messages be received warmly. Try to add a positive twist to everything you have to say; even if you’re reporting bad news, you can point out a silver lining, or focus on the solution you’ve arrived at, rather than the problem itself.
14. Managing interruptions
Interruptions are bad for everyone involved. If you’re the one interrupting, you’ll look annoying and unprofessional, and your conversational partner will believe you aren’t listening. If you’re getting interrupted, you won’t be effectively heard. Limit your interruptions by waiting for a conversational pause before adding your contributions, and limit interruptions by others by asking for more time to finish your point—a simple “excuse me, but I’d like to finish this point first,” usually works wonders.
15. Managing emotions
No matter what kind of email you’re sending or what kind of dialogue you’re entering, you’ll need to manage your emotions carefully. Your emotions can take over when speaking, causing you to say words you don’t really mean, or taking other impulsive actions in the conversation. It might feel cathartic to draft a curt, passive aggressive email to your boss who’s asking too much of you, but if you send it, you’ll probably regret it. Learning to manage those emotions is a skill; you have to recognize when your emotions are getting out of hand, and take some time away to cool off.
16. Asking open questions
If you’re trying to better engage with someone, one of the best effective communication skills you can learn is asking open questions. This is best learned through examples; a closed question is something like, “is the job going well?” Recipients must practically answer “yes” or “no.” But an open question is something like, “how do you feel about your job?” It’s asking mostly the same thing, but it’s worded in a way that invites more conversation and engagement. This is a great way to get more information, and be more likable at the same time.
17. Solution-oriented confrontation
Occasionally, you’ll find situations in your career where you’re all but forced to confront someone. You might need to discipline an employee, call out a manager’s toxic behavior, or point out a client’s problematic actions. When you do, the best way to communicate is to orient the conversation around a solution. For example, instead of saying, “your emails are too long and unfocused,” say, “we could collaborate more productively if you used discrete paragraphs in your emails.” This puts the conversation in a positive light, and makes the other person much more receptive to what you’re saying.
Improving your focus is imperative if you’re trying to actively listen to the people around you. It’s also important for keeping meetings and email threads on task. Focus requires you to understand the main point of a conversation and keep it in mind. It also forces you to abandon distractions, such as your mobile device, other projects, and opportunities to multitask. Focus is like a muscle; the more you train it, the stronger it becomes.
People often think of improving communication as a path to improving how you speak, but it’s also about improving your silences. Pauses in conversation can work in your favor if you use them correctly; they give you time to gather your words and speak more intelligently, they give other people time to think about and respond to your main points, and if timed correctly, they can even serve a dramatic purpose. Effective pauses are hard to master, but if you can improve your usage even slightly, you’ll stand to benefit enormously.
We’ve all sent embarrassing emails in the past, but most of them could have been prevented with an extra round of proofreading. Proofreading isn’t a difficult effective communication skill to learn, but it can be challenging to implement; it requires the self-discipline to hold off on hitting “send” after drafting an email. It also requires you to look at your message with a fresh set of eyes. Developing a decent proofreading process is essential if you want to catch your communication errors before your messages go out.
One of the most important communication skills you’ll learn is adaptability. While there are some fundamental rules for effective communication, those rules aren’t written in stone; different situations call for different approaches, and you need to be willing to change your approach on the fly. It’s also important for you to commit to ongoing improvement. At no point should you feel like you’re an expert communicator that no longer needs to progress; all of us have more to learn, and all of us can stand to be more effective. On top of that, there’s a constant rollout of new mediums and new forms of communication that all of us need to incorporate into our understanding. The best communicators in the professional world are the ones who are always evolving.
Effective Communication Quotes
To reinforce some of these skills, lessons, and ideas, let’s take a look at what some successful and famous people have had to say about communication with these effective communication quotes:
“Communication sometimes is not what you first hear, listen not just to the words, but listen for the reason.” (Catherine Pulsifer).
Sometimes, you have to read between the lines to figure out what someone is truly saying.
“When people talk listen completely. Most people never listen.” (Ernest Hemingway).
Active listening is an essential ingredient in an effective conversation.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw).
Miscommunication is most dangerous when people aren’t yet aware that it has occurred. Be sure to double check everything, and scrutinize your messages closely.
“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” (Charlie Kaufman).
It’s not the number of words you exchange; it’s the meaning of those words.
“Communicate in a respectful manner – don’t just tell your team members what you want, but explain to them why.” (Jeffrey Morales).
Context is important, and vital to preserving your reputation; it can also lend clarity to an otherwise ambiguous or confusing request.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” (Plato).
The same idea is illustrated here. Don’t go out of your way to speak or write unless you have something valuable to share.
“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” (Brian Tracy).
While it may seem like some people are naturally gifted communicators, most of them had to work for it at some point in their lives.
“A lot of problems in the world would be solved if we talked to each other instead of about each other.” (Nickey Gumbel).
We didn’t touch on gossip in this guide, but this is good advice; be direct and honest with the people you work with, even if the subject is uncomfortable. It’s much better than talking behind their backs.
“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” (Larry King).
Saying less gives you more opportunities to learn.
“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” (Jeff Daly).
Two people talking isn’t necessarily a conversation.
“Communication works for those who work at it.” (John Powell).
Here’s another quote acknowledging the practice and effort it takes to become an effective communicator.
“Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” (Andy Stanley).
This advice can help you write and speak more concisely. What’s the big takeaway in your message? Everything else is secondary.
“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” (Mark Twain).
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” (Tony Robbins).
Know your audience, and be willing to adapt your conversational style to appeal to their unique perspectives.
“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” (Sydney J. Harris).
Stating facts and bluntly giving instructions may be efficient, but it isn’t always clear or appealing.
Effective Communication Questions: Your Effective Communication Quiz
If you’ve been working on your effective communication skills, you may be wondering if you’re making any progress. This short quiz will prompt you with some guiding questions you can use to introspectively analyze your results:
- Are you listening or just waiting to talk? It’s a classic question, and one that’s incredibly illuminating if you don’t often consider it. In the course of your conversations, do you find yourself listening to the other party, or mentally rehearsing the next line you’d like to contribute? This is a good wake-up call if you’re not actively listening.
- Which mediums do you use, and when? Be self-critical when it comes to your usage of various mediums. Do you find yourself avoiding phone calls, no matter what? Or do you ever find yourself considering a meeting instead of taking the time to draft an email? Be mindful of your motivations here; if you blindly follow your gut, you’ll end up making inefficient decisions.
- How much white space do you allow in your written communication? In written communication, white space is a sign that you’re organizing your email properly. If there’s plenty of space between sections and you have neatly organized lists, you can be confident you’re doing something right.
- Can you say this in a shorter or more direct way? In the middle of a message draft or ongoing conversation, think about what you’re saying and brainstorm whether you can say this in a more concise or direct way. Are there any sentences in your message that you can outright eliminate? Can you get rid of the unnecessary filler words?
- Is there any possible way to misinterpret what you’re saying? This is crucial if your goal is better employee understanding (and less stress on your part). Whenever you’re writing or speaking, think of every conceivable way your message could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The better you understand these possibilities, the better you’ll be able to negate them or compensate for them.
- How can you better adjust to your environment? Chances are, there’s something more you can do to better adjust your message to your audience and the context of this exchange. Could you choose more formal words? Could you speak more plainly?
- How confrontational are you being? Your emotions can get the better of you, even if you’re trying to keep things under control. In spoken dialogue, all you can do is give yourself more space and more time to figure things out. In written communications, you can imagine receiving an email like this and evaluate its level of confrontation. Think carefully before hitting send.
- How are people responding to your communication? Overall, pay attention to how people respond to your messages and dialogue. Do people frequently seem confused, asking lots of follow-up questions? Do they seem eager to engage with you? Do they ignore what you’re saying? These contextual clues are vital to continuing your self-improvement; they tell you what you need to work on. Feel free to ask your coworkers for feedback if you need further direction.
Mastering your effective communication skills isn’t going to happen overnight. Instead, you’ll need to carefully monitor your habits, review your strategies, and adapt so you can continue to grow.
One of the best tools to use in this endeavor is EmailAnalytics, an analytics app for Gmail that lets you track who you’re emailing, when you’re emailing, and how you’re emailing, so you can master your communication and organizational effectiveness. Sign up for a free trial today, and learn more about how your email habits are helping—or hindering—your career progress.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.