Effective Communication Skills

Effective Communication Skills is a frequently searched phrase on Google. But why? What’s the big deal? Shouldn’t this be simple to address?

I frequently reference a study done by Salesforce.com that showed “86% of the executives they surveyed cited lack of collaboration and ineffective communication as the primary reason for workplace failure.” That seems like a big deal to me! I read another study done by SIS International Research showing that “the cumulative cost of annual productivity losses due to communication issues alone were more than $26,000 per employee.”

If this were indeed something simple to address, would these numbers really be so high? At the risk of confirming any suspicion you may have about how dense I actually am, I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting that it’s extremely simple - and that’s why so many individuals and organizations struggle mightily with it!

I began learning carpentry when I was around 12 years old. I remember helping my dad and his best friend for $1.50 an hour in their side business placing shingled roofs and installing vinyl siding. Truth be told, I was mainly picking up trash and running after tools but from time to time they’d actually let me measure something or attempt to drive a nail. For the next ten years or so, the skills I learned working with them helped me pay the bills. Although I don’t do much carpentry work today, I still have a fully equipped nail apron in the closet just outside my office; you never know when you’re gonna need a hammer when you’re dealing with computers!

Speaking of hammers, I have a plain old 20 ounce straight claw hammer that I’ve used for any carpentry-related task I’ve done since I was 18 years old. Sure there are hammers that are better for trim work, hammers that are better for framing, and hammers that are better for drywall… And now you can even get a nail gun for just about any application you can imagine! (One of those would have saved me a bloody thumb on more than one occasion…) But for all around practicality, I’m convinced it’s hard to beat my hammer.

One of my favorite people in the entire world sells construction materials and tools for a living. And quite honestly, he’s a true master of his craft! He knows the industry, as well as the products he offers, better than anyone I’ve ever known. He also provides his clients with a level of service that I’ve just not seen from anyone else. From time to time, Mark will do demonstrations for his clients, showing off the newest technology on the market. Mark’s goal is to provide them with options for completing a task more efficiently. Any tool he suggests is based on his belief that the cost of purchasing the tool will be covered many times over by the improved performance they achieve in using it. That’s definitely not the approach everyone in that industry takes, but that’s a story for another time…

Something I’ve never seen Mark do is try to convince someone that the fancy new cordless circular saw, complete with dust collection and auto-stop features, will drive a nail better than my plain old hammer. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens all too often when it comes to addressing effective communication skills. Fancy new buzz words are thrown at executives, along with significant fees, with a false hope of solving their conundrum. In many cases, we just need to understand the importance of using the right tool for the job - even if it’s a tool that’s been around forever and not all that flashy...

Simple to Understand, Simple to Apply!

Over the last decade or so, I’ve heard dozens of pitches on how the latest, greatest thing will change my life! Watch any info-mmercial and you’re likely to feel like you’re losing money if you don’t buy in the next 10 minutes - even if that fancy contraption has no place at all in your life… Along the lines of the example of how my plain old hammer drives nails far better than the most amazing cordless circular saw on the market, great features don’t matter much when they have nothing to do with the task we need to accomplish!

When it comes to effective communication skills, there are just about as many magic pills being pitched to solve that issue as there are info-mmercials! An internet search of the term effective communication skills yields all kinds of solutions - at a cost of course… You’ll see things like “Top 10 Skills to Learn...” or “5 Hacks to Develop…” and so on. 

Interestingly enough, nearly every article I clicked on as I was researching for this referenced the importance of becoming a good listener. We’ll circle back to that shortly. For now though, let’s stick with the other thing I saw promoted in almost every article; some sort of new and improved tool or methodology for solving all your problems! All you need to do is pay this fee, answer their questions, then receive a pretty report with graphs, charts, diagrams, and keywords telling you all about you! 

The most immediate concern that came to my mind after seeing all those was that person represented in those reports only represents half of the effective communication equation, best case scenario, and that’s assuming the tools being promoted was actually designed to help with communication AND it provides scientifically verifiable results. I realize I sound cynical here, but several of the most popular tools being promoted today as being just what the doctor ordered for addressing workplace communication issues were developed specifically for helping individuals understand themselves and their own strengths better. While it MAY be possible to wiggle the results those tools provide into something resembling support for effective communication, doing that tends to look a lot like driving a nail with that new cordless circular saw. I suppose it could work, but it sure wasn’t what the designer had in mind!

Compounding that initial issue is the fact that most of those tools being promoted as the best thing since sliced bread are extremely complicated and offer minimal framework to apply them in a practical situation. In twenty years of studying human behavior in real world scenarios and digging into everything I could find to help me learn to communicate more effectively, the one tool I’ve found that most resembles my plain old hammer has been the science most commonly referred to as the DISC Model of Human Behavior. The work William Marston did putting that together nearly a century ago provides a remarkably simple framework for quickly recognizing and understanding different communication styles in another person AND adapting our own to be more effective with the message we’re communicating to that person. Since then, 60 or so companies have developed their own “DISC assessment” that they can sell; some being extremely reliable and some being complete crap. There have just as many companies that have placed their own spin on Marston’s work, then call it something completely different. Heck, one even got a copyright on a typo and claims to be the only game in town. (Although that company’s statement is grammatically accurate, it’s also intentionally deceiving…)

All that aside, and I won’t even go into to the ones that were designed for something else but still pay big bucks in advertising to tell how they’re the best thing for developing effective communication skills, I’ve never seen any type of assessment tool that can solve a single problem until we have a foundational understanding of how to use the information it provides. Cindy and I have spoken with hundreds of folks who sell assessments who still can’t hold a five minute conversation on what to do with the assessment results. When someone develops a firm understanding of how they can use the framework Marston developed as the DISC Model of Human Behavior, they’re able to begin building more effective communication skills whether they’ve ever completed an assessment or not! And learning how to recognize communication styles in the people we interact with helps us listen more effectively too…

Listening, Not Just Hearing... 

Now back to that one thing I mentioned seeing referenced in every article I dug into as being essential to developing effective communication skills; listening. There was certainly a point in time where I would have argued that idea but I’d like to think my head isn’t as firmly inserted into that part of my body very often anymore… In fact, Cindy and I stress how important listening actually is for building influence as a leader in multiple spots of our Emerging Leader Development course.

First, consider just how much effective listening can impact the influence someone in a leadership role earns with us… Here’s where we draw the line between a person who has authority over us and a person we’re willing to follow! The person who’s simply in charge can probably get away with barking demands without paying any attention whatsoever to what’s on our minds - at least for a little while. Sooner or later, most of us will have had a belly full of that. The one who invests the time into listening to the people around them before making decisions or giving direction earns a far different level of influence. The people I’ve had the most respect for throughout my career, who are also the people I was willing to do the most to support, were the people who were willing to listen. They were the leaders!

Now consider how effective listening can be just as important for when we’re interacting with another person in any other part of our lives… Who do we respond best to, someone who’s intentional about listening to what we share with them or someone who spews whatever they have to say all over us and goes on about their business?

Clearly, listening is a crucial effective listening skill! But let’s be honest, listening is rarely as simple as just hearing what someone says. Becoming an active listener often requires developing a clear understanding of how we’re wired internally AND being able to recognize the lens each person we’re communicating with sees the world through.

Earlier, I mentioned the science behind what many of us know today as the DISC Model of Human Behavior. William Marston didn’t do his research to sell assessments, although the vast majority of folks who tout DISC offer nothing more than an assessment, his goal was to develop a framework that showed simple patterns for how individuals communicate. That said, he built on that work to create something widely used today which reads changes in systolic blood pressure to tell whether or not we’re being honest. the FBI tried to discredit his work for nearly two decades but now they use the lie detector on a regular basis... 

When we understand those simple patterns that Marston outlined, within ourselves and with each person we communicate with, we have more perspective for why one person interprets a situation one way while the person right beside him sees a completely different picture. What’s that have to do with listening? And how could that possibly tie back to effective communication skills? Those simple but very important differences in how we’re wired plays out in how we communicate. When we can recognize these differences, through the framework of the DISC Model of Human Behavior, we can use that understanding to adapt our listening and key directly in on the point of view the other person is speaking from. We’re not just hearing what they’re saying; we’re listening for understanding - and that makes any further communication far more effective!

If you believe your organization could benefit from building effective communication skills into the culture, let’s talk. If you’ve paid a ton of money and used fancy tools to do this but haven’t seen tangible results, let’s talk. If you’ve completed various kinds of assessments but have never been given a practical framework for applying it on a daily basis, we really need to talk!

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