How to Be an Effective Communicator at Work

“Effective communication” might have become a watered-down buzz phrase, but healthy and productive workplace communication really is one of the necessities for sustainable high performance. In a fast-paced world dominated by digital devices, being a good communicator isn’t always high on our list of priorities, but it should be.

That’s because communicating well and on a consistent basis pays off big: MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory found that “with remarkable consistency…communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams” and that patterns of communication are the most important predictor of a team’s success. So good communication isn’t just about being nice; it’s about creating a team dynamic that fosters high performance.

5 Steps to Higher Productivity

5 Steps to Being a Good Communicator & Mastering Communication Skills

To me, that means creating an environment where every member of a team feels engaged, valued and safe enough to speak up and contribute. It means each person is listened to, valued and supported. And it means that no one person dominates, interrupts or dismisses anyone else’s contributions (whether subtly through body language or overtly through words). It’s about being inclusive of diverse perspectives and creating a culture of respect and open-mindedness.

Even those of us who consider ourselves excellent communicators can use a tune-up every once in a while. Here are five best practices to ensure your communication habits are contributing to a positive team culture.

Communicate Effectively: You listen actively, ask clarifying questions, and provide relevant information within your team.

Speaking up at work comes naturally to extroverts, while listening comes easily to introverts. But a team with a poor balance of these personality types may find that a few individuals dominate, keeping quieter members even less likely to contribute.

According to the MIT research, teams with unbalanced energy and participation levels don’t perform as well as teams where all members have high levels of energy and engagement. Striking a balance between talking and listening is key, but it takes self-awareness to break out of your usual patterns.

Take action: Think carefully about how you tend to interact in the workplace and try to pay attention to your behaviors for one week. Do you feel the need to talk a lot in meetings? If so, is it possible you’re keeping others from chiming in? Or do you rarely speak up during team conversations? If you’re not sure, solicit feedback from colleagues. If you’re a manager, you can help balance this dynamic on your team. To do so, encourage quieter employees to speak up and let dominant speakers know that you’re seeking everyone’s input.

Respond appropriately: You leave judgments and biases at home and listen to other people’s ideas.

Creating a sense of psychological safety is crucial for a healthy workplace; this means in a group setting, every member feels comfortable speaking up, sharing constructive criticism, contributing out-of-the-box ideas and making mistakes. If your colleagues feel judged or criticized and therefore don’t feel a sense of psychological safety, they will likely disengage and hold back.

To ensure they feel fully welcomed to engage, it’s important they don’t feel judged when you communicate with them. When we’re busy or in a hurry, it’s easy to quickly react, especially if our personal biases color our judgments about someone. But if you often come off as judgmental or negative to colleagues, you may not realize the effect it could have on your team’s performance and morale.

Take action: Pause and think about how you react differently to different coworkers or out-of-the-box ideas. Do you often shut down suggestions you don’t personally like? Do you tend to be pessimistic about certain employees’ work because they’re young or inexperienced? Are you less likely to accept input from someone who you know has different political or religious beliefs from you? Notice where you may be inserting personal judgments and biases, and aim to keep them out of the workplace. By setting these aside and encouraging your team to share openly, you’ll help promote a sense of optimism and psychological safety. These in turn help foster more productive communication.

You communicate face-to-face as much as possible. Communication skills sometimes use as few words as needed, and a key component is showing the other party you can listen actively and process what is being said. Making eye contact is also helpful in conversation. 

The MIT team found that face-to-face communication is the most valued form of communication, followed by phone or video call. (Though the more people are on a call, the less effective it is.) Unsurprisingly, the least effective forms of communication are emails and texts, which are impersonal and hard to read tone-wise.

Communicating face-to-face makes it far easier to truly connect and engage – and engagement is another important dimension of team communication, according to MIT’s research. Plus, it’s much easier to read someone’s tone and intention when you can see their face and read their body language.

Take action: How much of your communication is done via email or internal messenger? This is tough if you or your team work remotely, but aim to increase your face-to-face interactions. If you have a question for a colleague who sits near you, get up and go talk to them instead of firing off an email or slack message. When you need input from your team, have a quick, impromptu team huddle rather than an endless email chain.

If you’re remote, ask to have face-to-face video meetings to catch up or discuss work. This fosters closeness and engagement, which improves performance. The MIT study also found that workplace communication is best when colleagues connect with one another directly, not just with the team leader. So why not ask a teammate to a one-on-one lunch every once in a while?

team performance visual cta

You practice empathy at all times in a workplace setting. Effective communicators have open and honest communication, active listening skills, and a friendly tone in conversation to avoid misunderstandings. Deliver good or bad news with empathy, and listen and hear what the other person is saying.

Studies show that technology is dumbing down our social skills and reducing our capacity for empathy. But empathy helps us connect with our colleagues on a deeper level, be better listeners, and communicate more effectively. Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for others or sympathizing. It’s about trying to understand where someone is coming from and supporting them in a nonjudgmental way. Practicing more empathy in the workplace will help your colleagues feel heard and understood.

Take action: Brush up on your empathy skills and practice it mindfully. According to author and former FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent LaRae Quy, some ways to improve your empathy skills include:

  • Examining your attitude with dealing with others; try to let go of being concerned about getting your way or being right. It’s about setting aside your viewpoint and trying to see things from another’s perspective.
  • Validating others’ perspectives even if they have differing opinions from you.
  • Paying attention and noticing body language when someone is talking to you; don’t be distracted by your phone or anything else.
  • Asking, “Is everything OK?” when someone seems off instead of ignoring it.
  • Listening without judgment and communicating that you understand what they’re experiencing.

You are mindful of body language. Facial expression, eye contact, and body language are all part of your communication style.

Nonverbal communication gives us just as much information, if not more, than verbal communication. When there’s a conflict between the two, the nonverbal cues are the most accurate, Quy says. It’s important to notice what your own body language is communicating, as well as to accurately read that of others. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy found that the way we hold ourselves can drastically affect how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. For example, you may be projecting a stand-offish appearance or seeming as though you lack confidence without even realizing it.

Being a Great Communicator Isn’t Easy, but It’s Worth It

Take action: Watch Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language to learn how it impacts our perceptions, feelings and hormones. By being mindful of your own body language, you can be more in control of how your communication to others is perceived. And being mindful of others’ body language – especially if it conflicts with their words – can clue you in to what’s really going on.

If you can master these five good communication strategies in the workplace, you’ll find that you’re more engaged and connected with your team, a better and more empathetic listener, and most likely, a higher performer.