Better communication at work is the answer. Ok, maybe not THE answer… but it’s close. Fact is, it’s almost always step number one when addressing persistent issues that hold you back, as well as what helps you move from good to great. Better communication increases understanding, fosters trust, and stands out as the essential ingredient for getting things done.
It’s not a silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot.
But how do you improve communication at work? What steps can you take right now? Read on to find out about technology’s role, what practices to start (or recommit to), and how certain approaches for communicating in meetings and in person make all the difference when helping people understand you, your ideas, and your message.
1. Understand your communication channels
If we’re talking communication (and we are) we’ve gotta talk about all the ways we can communicate today. Chat, email, in-person, video… the list is long. The cool thing is, each channel has its benefits. But there’s a not-so-cool thing, too: not everyone understands how to use each channel to the best of its (and their) abilities. Chat, for example, is a boon to working together as a team. It’s a powerful, effective, and immediate communication channel. But there are times when chat isn’t the best way to communicate, like when written text is wonky and gets misunderstood, or getting pinged at a bad (and often off-hours) time.
And sometimes, it’s just better to just talk to someone. Imagine that: one of the best tactical devices for better communication in the workplace is the oldest there is: talking to someone face-to-face. (If that’s not possible, based on geographies, jump on a video chat.
Different channels should be used for different situations. Get together with your team and talk about the various methods you use. Here’s a great place to start: we’ve got a list of how to choose the right channel and use it to its full advantage. The better you and your team understand your channels, the better your overall communication.
2. How do you work with me?
This is a particular favorite of ours, and it comes highly recommended to you. It’s a play from the Atlassian Playbook called My User Manual. Essentially, it’s an operating manual for… YOU. It’s a fun and informative exercise to do, especially as a group, and can serve as an ice-breaking and bonding team experience to boot.
The My User Manual play helps you connect better with teammates by letting them know how to work best with you. It’s quite eye-opening and informative. Didn’t realize that when your coworker puts her headphones on she’s not grumpy, she’s settling in for deep work? Maybe one of your teammates is an extreme night owl or early bird? Maybe someone kinda loves a good rambling chat thread, and someone else gets driven up the wall by it?
This tip links directly to “seek first to understand.” That is, it’s about learning more before making assumptions. Because better communication comes through transparency. With a willingness to share more about yourself and accept what others share about themselves, you’ll understand more (like about diverse communication styles), and you’ll work better together.
3. Keep communication Open
Many of these tactical ideas pivot on a broader philosophical base: Open. Open is an approach to teamwork emphasizing a free – but thoughtful – flow of information. We believe all teams can do amazing things when they approach teamwork emphasizing empathetic transparency, and embrace open tools and practices. Working Open enables continuous improvement and increases an organization’s ability to adapt, innovate, and grow while at the same time deepening employee engagement.
Working Open requires effort, though. And not just effort, courage and vulnerability to boot. This is especially true when communication isn’t going well, when there’s tension and indecision. But when communication is the hardest, better communication practices and philosophies shine through. Rather than retreat to separate corners, step into the difficulty and attempt to work things through with the help of these tactical ideas.
Even if these concepts resonate with you, you still might be thinking: I’m not sure how to start. I want to improve communication, but how do I practice openness and champion open thinking, working, being? It’s not a simple matter, but we got you. There are many things to try and think about, and one place to start is this resource with examples of ways to practice open communication.
4. Seek first to understand
Here’s something that blocks better communication: assumptions. If you’ve already decided what someone meant by something they said, especially in a confusing or tense exchange, you’re already coming to the interaction with a POV – your point of view. We’re proud of our values at Atlassian, and that includes an “unofficial” sixth to our core five: seek first to understand. This is something that’s easy to say, but hard to practice. Try to:
- Ask open-ended questions. They will help you understand where someone’s coming from, or what they really meant.
- Make sure you have all the information. This is essential before giving feedback, offering opinions, or making recommendations.
- Assume positive intent. This saves you from the negative feelings that can come from being on the defensive.
Again, it’s a practice. But it’s a fundamental mindset for better communication.
5. Listen. Really listen
Here’s the thing: we’re all in need of this advice. In our professional, and personal, lives. The sad reality is people just don’t place enough emphasis on the power of listening. Like, really listening to each other. We spend a lot of time working on being better communicators – which usually means (to most people) being better talkers. Since we’re talking practical and tactical here, let’s say it straight: work on your listening. Really observe the times when you’re not listening, because I hate to say it, it’ll be a lot. The next time someone’s talking to you, did you look away in distraction? Look down at your laptop or suddenly pull out your phone? Why?
Better communication in the workplace starts with better listening – in all your interactions. This is a practice guaranteed to work. And if you’re on a distributed team and interacting with a remote teammate, double-down on conveying your listening by staying focused (on video, people can see when you’re multitasking).
Think of it like this: if better communication is the key to most everything that you’re working on, better active listening is the first solid step to get there. The benefits of this simple, yet all too challenging, aspect of improved communication can’t be overstated. It’s fundamental. Best of all: it’s immediately available to practice. Did you get that, or were you just thinking about something else?
6. Focus on feedback
A conversation about improving communication in the workplace would be incomplete – sorely incomplete – without mentioning feedback. In fact, feedback could top this list. (A pattern is emerging here.)
But just how important is feedback? In a word: very. Like listening is fundamental to improving straight-up understanding and interpersonal communication, feedback is fundamental to better communication while working together with teammates on projects. You must pay attention to how you offer critiques, especially those that can be perceived negatively or possibly as attacks.
Like different communication channels, there are different avenues for feedback. If you’re offering a comment for all to see on a page, be tactful. The same goes with a piece of feedback in an open Slack channel or reply-all email. If you’re aware of many eyes seeing the feedback, make sure whatever you say isn’t potentially embarrassing for someone. Always err on the side of caution. This doesn’t mean to be less explicit or candid, necessarily, it means to be mindful of the where and when. Quality feedback makes the work better, and feedback sincerely given should be sincerely received. But to that end, make sure the feedback focuses on the work (not the person) and offers suggestions and alternatives. This last bit is key, and often overlooked. Why overlooked? It’s harder. It’s very easy to say, “I don’t like that.” (Not very helpful feedback, either.) It’s another thing to say, “I don’t think this part is striking the right tone, and here’s why. Maybe try this instead?” (And offer suggestions.)
Feedback like that is gold.
There are also feedback situations that you’re probably uncertain about because it involves offering criticism up the chain, so to speak. If you’re curious about ways to give a manager feedback, we’ve got you covered there too. In short, feedback is major currency in working life, and improving how you get and give feedback, and how you engage in things like feedback loops, will undoubtedly improve your overall communication.
7. Take a good, hard look at your meetings
Ever had a meeting to discuss another meeting? Or a meeting to go through everything on a page, step by painful step, as if you couldn’t just read the page yourself? Of course you have. And many other boring, pointless meetings, too. There are many, many different types of meetings. Sure, some are very important.
But many aren’t.
If you want to improve communication, and quick-like, look at your calendar and do some serious meeting pruning. Call it Spring Meeting Cleaning – it’s perfect timing. Get rid of meetings that are merely status updates. Decline meetings that aren’t actually relevant to you. Stop the habit of scheduling meetings as a mere show of working, when more important work could get done.
Meeting time is precious. When you find yourself in a meeting disengaged, bored, or thinking of all the ways you could be spending your time better… this is a bad meeting. More, this is a bad communications practice. It reinforces the notion that when you get together as a team, not everyone’s time is valuable, and not everything talked about is important. Pay attention to when meetings boost alignment and motivation and creativity, and to when they become proxies for soul-sucking alien lifeforms. The healthier the organization, the fewer unnecessary meetings.
Start right now with better habits.
- Always have a meeting agenda, and share it before the meeting.
- Let people decide whether they need to attend.
- Carefully decide how long the meeting should be, and stick to it.
- Avoid time-wasting practices like ’round-the-room introductions – unless essential.
- Ask that attendees focus and close laptops and avoid phones. (We all know the difference between checking something urgent, and distracted behavior.)
Remember this: meetings are essential to better communication. In fact, aside from conversations around the office (or via a communication tool – remember, this applies to remote work too) meetings are the main way we actually communicate. In other words, meetings are a constant and consistent opportunity to practice better communication.
8. Use 1-on-1 meetings
If step one is to look at your overall meetings, and the habits and practices you’ve developed around them, step two is to establish a healthy practice of at least one specific type of meeting: the 1-on-1 meeting.
You want tactical? This is it.
1-on-1 meetings are especially important for managers and leaders. They help keep the lines of communication open and consistent with each member of your team. They help people feel heard and understood as individuals, and allow for opportunities to touch on topics that might not have any other outlet. These meetings are a practice that establishes trust, which naturally encourages more overall (and open) communication. Virtuous cycle FTW.
Set up your 1-on-1 meetings with care. Find a cadence that works (weekly, biweekly), decide on a length of time that works for both schedules (30 minutes to an hour) and continue to check-in about how everything is working and make adjustments as needed. Don’t be afraid to reschedule or cancel if it works better for both parties. These meetings, ideally, are not meant to be mere status updates. But don’t be too rigid about it. If project status issues are top of mind and you need to use some time to discuss them, do it. At the same time, don’t let things that can be communicated at other times rob you of what can often be the only time you have with this colleague. Connect and learn together how to communicate – and work – together better.
9. Ask me anything
Related to feedback, there’s the idea of having the ability to offer feedback, thoughts, ideas, or critiques to the company at large. Organizations that provide ways – anonymously, when needed – for employees to voice concerns, fears, and burning questions create more trusting and invested company cultures. Consider having all-hands meetings or what we at Atlassian call “town hall” with a time dedicated for Q&A and AMAs (ask-me-anythings). Consider an open Slack channel, or other place for submitting questions. And again, make them anonymous if needed so people don’t feel reluctant to be honest, or fear reprisal.
Providing more and different opportunities for candor, clarification, and camaraderie is not only an essential element of working Open, it opens the door for people to feel more comfortable with bringing their whole selves to work. And you want this. You want your teammates to be themselves, because they’ll bring so much more of their talent and passion to everything they do. Which includes communicating with more openness, and less hesitation or worry about something like office politics.
There’s a bit of a paradox here. It’s simpler than it sounds, but the onus is on you. If you want to improve communication, you have to communicate. When there are breakdowns in the system, it often means that people aren’t communicating. They’re opting for silence. More opportunities for open communication – to express and question and relate – in a variety of forums, increases the chances of issues being aired and not bottled up.
As leaders and managers, you want this. The opposite means you’re not in the know, and we know you don’t want that.
A last thing: in the context of the practical, opportunities must be used. It’s one thing to offer, it’s another to take up the offer. Encourage the use of opportunities to engage with the community. That is, improve communication by actively communicating. If your team or organization is mired in a bout of poor or infrequent communication, there’s really only one solution: start doing it. When done well, the “rules” around it will begin to become more evident.
If you really want to improve communication in the workplace, there must be a willingness to do the things to improve. It won’t just “happen.” Better communication requires effort, it involves buy-in and action on the part of everyone. But if done in earnest, and with the right mindset, the results will come. Lead by example, walk the talk, and reward courage. Practice these methods, inspire others to try them, and reward the effort. Because these tactical suggestions work.
You’ll be delighted by the results.