Principles of Effective Communications in the Workplace

Effective communication in the workplace is arguably the most important of all skills and can have a substantial effect on a business’ success[1]. To me, effective communication falls into three main categories: general communication skills, interpersonal communication skills and written communication skills. Effective communication provides clarity, reduces the risk of mistakes or misinterpretation and ensures that employees are provided with a clear understanding of what is expected.


General communication skills

General communication skills are the skills one uses regardless of the communication tool being used. These skills include respect, understanding of cultural differences, sticking to facts (unless an opinion is being demonstrated) and engagement/delivery.

Respect in communication is vital as it helps build trust and working relationships and earning respect is arguably one of the more complicated and difficult skills a manager needs to acquire. One acronym we can follow as managers is R-E-S-P-E-C-T[2], which provides the important basic aspects of demonstrating and behaving respectfully. That is:

  • Recognize how what we are saying is coming across
  • Eliminate negative words and phrases from our vocabulary
  • Speak with people, not at them, or about them. Engage in a conversation, not a debate or a lecture
  • Practise appreciation – show appreciation
  • Earn respect from others by modelling respectful behaviours
  • Consider others’ feelings before speaking and acting. Is what we are saying kind? Is it necessary?
  • Take time to listen and don’t interrupt.

My personal belief is that a manager can gain an abundance of respect by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, being responsible and by proving that they can perform rather than expecting a job title to do the work for them. Only through this can managers expect to truly earn respect.

“Consider whether your influence comes from your position in the hierarchy (or access to privileged information), or whether it truly comes from respect that you have earned.If it is the former, start working on the latter.”[3]– Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO of Red Hat

Understanding of cultural differences has never been more vital than in today’s modern world. Increasing global markets and the ability to communicate easily via electronic systems have resulted in much easier communications across cultural and ethnic barriers. However, communicating across cultural barriers requires the ability to understand the difference in cultures and the ability to adapt to them.

I was recently speaking with a professional who was responsible for setting up one of the very first call-centres in India a large company. He is Indian born and explained that the biggest hurdle for this team was to teach the Indian call centre staff to speak in what he described as a “less monotone voice”. Because of this method of speaking (and after some research into hundreds of complaints from customers), he discovered that callers from the UK felt as though the Indian call centre staff were being sarcastic or even patronizing. However, through training and coaching, his team were able to change the way in which the staff spoke. That particular call centre would eventually become the most respected call centre in India and now has an entire team dedicated to dealing with the technical aspects of insurance claims. He admits that the company still has some way to go, but there is no doubt the understanding in place, and overcoming this cultural difference in communication has made his company more successful.

Communicating over cultural barriers is much more than how we speak. Cultures provide people with ways of thinking – ways of seeing, hearing, and interpreting the world. The same words can mean different things to people from different cultures, even when they talk the “same” language. When the languages are different, and translation has to be used to communicate, the potential for misunderstandings increases.[4]

“Some cultures get very emotional when they are debating an issue.  They yell, they cry, they exhibit their anger, fear, frustration, and other feelings openly. Other cultures try to keep their emotions hidden, exhibiting or sharing only the “rational” or factual aspects of the situation.” – Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey, Professor of Human Communication Studies at California State University

If we fail to understand cultural differences, we will fail in our communication, and we will fail to grow our business. This is especially true in such a diverse country as the United Kingdom.

Sticking to facts is important in communication within a management role and must never be confused with opinion. Factual information ensures that we are making decisions based on proven information, not what we prefer (or hope) to be true. It also ensures that we are not later discovered to have based our instructions on a mistruth, which could result in us being discredited and ultimately untrusted.

Good engagement and delivery mean that we keep our audience interested and communicate messages in a clear and concise manner.

We can use a number of different communication tools to engage and deliver effectively. These might be as basic as speaking with a clear, audible voice. It may also mean using presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint, using music to deliver a message, reading a story, producing an instructional video, or providing clear and concise written material.

Interpersonal communication skills

Interpersonal skills are the method in which communications are delivered. In a face-to-face environment, these skills include the tone of voice used, body language, facial expressions, clear speech and gestures (hand movements) [5][6].

The skill set used will vary depending on the situation at the time. For example, when speaking on the telephone, interpersonal communication skills become more limited, often only allowing for enunciation and tone of voice to be used to successfully communicate the mood of the information being shared.

According to, the seven key interpersonal communication skills[7] are:

  • Verbal communication
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Listening skills
  • Negotiation
  • Problem-solving
  • Decision-making
  • Assertiveness

Effective verbal communication relies on a number of aspects including good syntactic pronunciation (using words in the correct order), using semantics (to ensure the words we are using accurately describe our intentions and cannot be misinterpreted) and using contextual rules (to ensure we use the correct word choices according to the context and social custom they are being used in).

Non-verbal communication includes the use of visual cues such as body language (kinesics), distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics). It can also include chronemics (the use of time) and oculesics (eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate)[8].

Effective non-verbal communication is vital in many aspects of a business environment.
For example, it would be important in a face to face meeting for my body language to be positive; failing to do so could result in other members of the meeting feeling that I was disinterested, failing to concentrate or unhappy with the information being provided.

Listening skills consist of five elements: hearing, attending, understanding, responding, and remembering[9].

Effective listening can only take place if a number of factors are adhered to. Firstly, it is important to remove any distractions as practicably as possible. In a meeting situation, this might be to ask all present to switch off and put away mobile phones or computers (unless they are required for taking notes or presenting information). It also helps to avoid any noisy environments and making the environment comfortable for all involved. Anyone who is uncomfortable is likely to be distracted from a conversation due to their discomfort thus less likely to record the information being communicated to them. In an office environment, this may be achieved by providing an office ‘breakout’ area to separate the usual working area from the distractions of talking and telephones[10].

Another important listening skill is to listen to and consider all the facts before making a snap decision, which often prevents conflict.

Part of effective listening is to ask questions, and management should be open to them. Asking questions allows a person to gain clarification and also helps the person speaking express their opinions or instructions in more detail. I have always believed that it is important to encourage employees to ask constructive questions on any points they are unsure which, in the long term, can avoid mistakes caused by a lack of understanding and may also provide a more sensible and efficient method for the task at hand, whether that may be in a technical environment or customer service role.

“[Employees] are better in touch with customers and stakeholders and they understand problems and possibilities, what works and what doesn’t better than you.”[11] – Professor James Detert, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, New York

When taking on a new member of staff, especially one who may be completely new to the industry, I actively encourage them to ask questions with the view that no question is a stupid question. This reassurance generally results in a positive response and helps the new employee understand the processes and what is expected of them.

Negotiation is critical to a business’ success[12] and although it may not be obvious, negotiation will usually take place daily. Structured negotiation is vital to ensure that the end goal is reached for all parties and that any differences are settled.

Good negotiation skills require more than simply pushing for what you (or your company) desires. Negotiation requires the principles of fairness, seeking mutual benefit and maintaining a relationship, which used correctly, will result in a successful outcome[13].

Problem solving is a skill in business which is required on an almost daily basis. According to the University of Kent, there are four fundamentals required for successful problem solving[14]: evaluation of information or situations; breaking the information or situations down into their key components; consideration of various ways of approaching and resolving them and then making a decision on the most appropriate of these ways.

Problem solving involves both analytical and creative skills, in particular. These include:

  • Analytical Ability – the ability to visualize, articulate, conceptualize or solve both complex and uncomplicated problems by making decisions that are sensible given the available information[15]
  • Lateral Thinking – the solving of problems by an indirect and creative approach, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light[16]
  • Initiative – such as challenging ideas, looking for new ideas, actively seeking opportunities to try out new ideas and looking beyond obvious solutions[17]
  • Logical Reasoning which it is generally accepted there are two types of – Deductive reasoning (the process of reasoning from one or more statements to reach a logically certain conclusion[18]) and Inductive reasoning (in which the statements are viewed as supplying strong evidence for the truth of the conclusion[19])
  • Persistence – not giving up at the first dead end

“If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try, try again.” – W. E. Hickson

“If at first you don’t succeed, sleep on it.
Things always seem a bit clearer the next day.” – Ritchie Hicks

During my training with the Scout Association, we have been encouraged to look at problem solving using the IDEAL problem-solving method which I have also found useful in business. The IDEAL method has five important processes to follow:

I – Identify problems and opportunities
D – Define alternative goals
E – Explore possible strategies
A – Anticipate and act
L – Look and learn

Using the IDEAL method can help forge effective working relationships within a team when followed in the correct order. It defines a process which can ensure all points of problem solving are covered in the correct order to ensure no areas are overlooked, thus reducing unnecessary pressure on the team or disagreements over the options available to complete the task.

Still, the most overlooked point in my experience is the last – to look and learn. It is vital to review the project and learn where areas could have been improved for the next time. It is too easy to complete a goal and move on to the next without looking back at what could have been improved. Reviewing the project helps us identify mistakes to help ensure that they don’t reoccur in another project. It also helps us to learn areas that could be improved upon next time as well as helping the team understand whether or not the path chosen to complete the project was the right one.

Written communication skills

Written communication skills comprise of a number of requirements. Grammar and spelling are very important. Using correct grammar and spelling ensures that there is no confusion over the point being made or the instruction being provided. Correct grammar and spelling also ensure that all communications reflect a level of professional competency[20].

Accuracy is vital within written communication as it ensures that the correct information is provided and reduces the likelihood of mistakes being made, which can be time consuming, result in unnecessary expense, give the appearance of unprofessionalism and even result in the safety of a person being put at risk.

We also need to consider whether written communication is necessary. At some point or another we are likely to encounter someone who feels the need to send emails or messages at the slightest event. This may not always be the best way to communicate complications to colleagues, especially those who receive many message’s a day, as points may be lost, may be confusing for the recipient and may also result in avoidable increases in levels of stress. Instead, it is sometimes best to keep notes and then send a summary email at the end of the day or once more tangible information is obtained.

Finally, I feel that an important leadership skill often overlooked by managers is empathy. Unlike almost all other leadership skills, empathy is an emotional skill and adds a more human element to management. Those people who have strong empathy skills are usually able to see the world though someone else’s eyes and understand their individual perspectives. This can be an extremely powerful tool when trying to break down barriers to communicate messages, especially cultural barriers.

Communicating with empathy can also be an important skill in building trust and respect within working relationships; leading to stronger bonds being formed between colleagues.

“Empathetic understanding is also indispensable in increasingly diverse markets, like those of the U.S., Germany, and even Japan, and in other cultures around the world. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.”[21]