Communication Skills Training

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Poor workplace communication skills is more than simply an irritant. Paul Golden writes on how it can have a direct impact on the efficiency of the organisation, employee productivity and revenue.

Communication in the workplace is the key to a successful business. Most businesses can do more to ensure their organisation has effective lines of communication. That’s according to Owen Hargie, University of Ulster professor and co-author of Key Issues in Organizational Communication. Hargie says the importance of communications for corporate life is now widely recognised. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that companies with effective communication strategies are successful. Onm the other hand, those with poor internal communications struggle. So what is behind poor workplace communication?

What causes poor communications?

Eimear Barry of Leadership Development Coaching reckons there are two main factors. “Firstly, ineffective relationships between employees and their managers leading to poor morale, lowered productivity and retention issues. Secondly, inadequate infrastructure to allow for effective information flows. This typically happen when organisations go through sudden growth spurts.”

Carr Communications’ Hilary Kenny refers to “unidentified gaps in the communications system and human failure to tell people things in a way that they understand their importance or relevance to them.”

However, Shiera O’Brien of Zenith Training and Development says the problems lie much deeper. “Our education system has never trained us to communicate effectively. Most people have spent much of their training on developing their knowledge of their profession and very little on refining their communication skills. It is only when they get out into the working environment and relationships don’t get off to a good start that they realise something is amiss.”

O’Brien also believes that employees need to recognise their shortcomings. “We are creatures of habit, so we think ‘I’ve always done it this way, it has worked with everybody else so why shouldn’t it work with this person?’ Few people stop to ask themselves ‘How does my colleague like to receive information? Would I be happy if I heard this in this tone, in this way, with this body language?’ The most flexible communicators always have more people on their side and tend to operate very successful within a system.”

Addressing shortcomings

The next step is to address these shortcomings. Eimear Barry reckons information technology plays a major role in this process.

“Finding the time, listening, clarifying and giving employees good and regular feedback has become increasingly important in the age of the email. Email is a speedy and effective method of passing on information but is not a suitable medium for emotions. The whole area of emotional intelligence has become increasing popular.”

Where the problem is around infrastructure, organisations need to revise their information systems.

“For instance, after a period of rapid growth they may end up with more than one location. The impact of different locations on communication can be immense and needs to be factored into developing information flows.”

Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission, says effective communication is key to managing any change in the workplace. Problems arise where workers do not understand why change is necessary or desirable.

“In my experience, companies who are sharing information and communicating it openly with their workers find it much easier to handle change. If people are responding in a way which, on the face of it, does not appear rational, it is probably because they have not been equipped either by way of information or understanding to recognise the real situation.”

Communication styles and contexts 

Showing people their style of communicating, how they communicate and this impacts is a useful process.

“We take away the personal aspect of what is being said and focus on style. We show how others operate and we then facilitate a process within a workshop where people can adapt to the different styles of communicating. This illustrates how to take on and use the other styles when required to drive home a more effective message,” says Shiera O’Brien.

There are no bad styles of communication, just styles inappropriate to the context. A directing style to a staff member who needs instruction and guidance is appropriate. A similar style to a peer manager will alienate and potentially undermine their position.

Consider the goal of communications training

Shiera O’Brien asks if organisations tease out the result they are looking for from workplace communications training.

“As a HR person, I would always ask ‘How do I want my people to behave differently after they have been on a programme? What real change do I want see in the person – for their own benefit and others? Does the programme I am sourcing offer that? Are the tools offered easy to implement?’ They need to talk about styles of communicating and their appropriateness in a given context.”

It is human nature for people to become defensive if they feel their communications skills are being questioned. The trick is to show people when it is time to improve and adapt their communication.

Continuous development is another aspect that requires attention, says Hilary Kenny.

“As with all training and learning, people must practice their skills or they will lose them. In any event, research shows that unless training is reinforced with regular refreshers, in-service and coaching, its efficacy decreases over time,” she says.

Communicating with non-native English speakers

Perhaps the most significant change in the Irish workplace over the last few decades has been the arrival of large numbers of foreign staff. Employees from eastern Europe, Asia and Africa do not have English as their first language. This development has obvious implications for communications training. It also highlights the danger of making assumptions.

Zenith Training and Development’s Shiera O’Brien says non-native English speakers presents some challenges. However, she focuses on the areas of common ground.

“Human beings are the same the world over – they have a certain style of communication and if you can train people to recognise what style of communication a person works from (personally and culturally), you can certainly improve workplace communications. It all lies in increased awareness.”

“As one of our Russian participants said in a training session last month, it is not language alone that is the problem, it is also culture,” said Hilary Kenny. “Our view is that you should communicate in as many different ways as possible, to try to ensure that everyone understands. But you should pay special attention to one-to-one, face-to-face communication – it is number one in the communications hierarchy.”

This influx of non-native English speakers presents opportunities as well as challenges, concludes Eimear Barry.

“A lot of Irish employees have been dealing for many years with non-native English speakers abroad, both clients and colleagues. Having non-native speakers in their office helps them to understand the differences and challenges their own language and culture brings with it. In reality two people can communicate very well together without sharing a language whilst two people who speak the same language can really struggle to understand and relate to each other.”

Anne Sexton

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