Improving your soft skills: five ways to be a better communicator

More and more employers say the skills most in demand aren’t necessarily technical qualifications but the personal qualities that enable teams to work together effectively – so-called “soft skills”.

In the last employer skills survey by the government, businesses said 66% of vacancies caused by skills shortages were due to a lack of soft skills. And communication is among the skills most sought after by employers. So how can you improve the way you connect with colleagues and customers? We gathered some expert advice.

Be clear and concise

If you’ve ever found yourself saying, “I shouldn’t have to tell you this”, or “this goes without saying” then you may have a problem with clarity of communication. Author and people skills expert Vanessa Van Edwards says we all have a bias towards thinking we’ve provided enough information to listeners, even when we haven’t.

Many of us “undersignal” our intentions accordingly and fail to be explicit enough. “Overcoming the bias requires initiating straightforward clear signalling,” she says. “If someone did a great job on a project, tell them. If someone is making you uncomfortable, tell them!”

Be prepared

Like any professional activity, your communication will likely benefit from prior planning. You’ll be able to anticipate potential misunderstandings, gather examples and evidence to support your points, and communicate more clearly if you’ve thought about what you want to say in advance.

“Before entering into any conversation, brainstorm potential questions, requests for additional information or clarification, and disagreements, so you are ready to address them calmly and clearly,” suggests Mary Sharp Emerson at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education.

Take care with your tone

If you want to understand the power that tone can hold in communication, you’ve only got to look at that profession where the bedside manner is critical: medicine. Experts have found that getting the tone right can lead to measurable improvements in patients’ health.

“It’s more than just being nice,” says Harvard Medical School’s Elizabeth Gaufberg. “Patients show better diabetes control, for example, if their doctors are more empathetic.” Gaufberg recommends reading the body language and tone of others and using your own tone to build empathy and trust to get better results.

Watch your body language

Authors Allan and Barbara Pease analysed thousands of sales interviews and negotiations. They found that 60 to 80% of the impact made around the negotiating table is due to body language and other non-verbal communication, not simply the words we speak. In telephone negotiations, they found the person with the stronger argument would usually win – but in person, the impression you can create with your presence and attitude can carry the day instead.

For instance, they suggest that nodding regularly in groups of three nods leads to people talking for three or four times longer than they would typically speak – a useful way to make people feel you’re interested in them. And try to avoid speaking faster than the other person, they suggest – it can make them feel pressured.

Be an active listener

Communication is a two-way street, and it’s just as important to be a good listener as a good talker. Or it may be even more important, according to Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who says he lives by the advice of his father: “Listen more than you talk.”

He says all the most successful entrepreneurs have excellent listening skills in common. “Whether it is an attendant on a train, an engineer beneath a spaceship, or a customer service rep at a computer, I am endlessly surprised by what new and useful information I can gather just by keeping my ears open,” Sir Richard says.