Communication Skills: Why They’re Important
How much of your daily time is spent communicating with someone, in some form or another? While the landscapes of our lives have changed since the 1960s, psychological studies conducted during that period indicate that most people spend between 50-80% of their waking hours communicating with others. No wonder good communication skills are important!
With the advent of increasingly complex technology, we now have constant access to a multitude of communication methods, ranging from a typical phone call with some other person to illustrative memes passed from colleague to colleague through Slack. And, since there are smartphones in the hands of 3.5 billion people around the world – nearly half the world’s population – we are rarely ever “out of pocket” or unreachable.
Given the immense role that social connection plays in our daily lives, developing the ability to communicate effectively is an extremely worthwhile endeavor, and one that can help you realize goals in your personal and professional life.
Why are good communication skills so important?
Communication is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the transmission or exchange of information, knowledge, or ideas by means of speech, writing, mechanical or electrical media.” Put simply, communication is how we interact with, and relate to, other people, and this include nonverbal communication.
To uncover communication’s importance, we need to look at its evolution – how and why it developed in humans, rather than in other animal species.
Michael Tomasello, a prolific and widely lauded developmental and comparative psychologist, attributes the evolution of advanced communication in humans to the unique nature of our species:
“…the most fundamental aspects of human communication are seen as biological adaptations for cooperation and social interaction in general…The ability to create common conceptual ground – joint attention, shared experience, common cultural knowledge — is an absolutely critical dimension of all human communication.” (Thomasello 2008)
In short, our tendency to create social groups within which individuals rely upon one another generated a need for strong communication skills – a way of passing around information. Tomasello specifically posits that human communication began with simple gestures like pointing, developed further by incorporating sounds and visual representations (think cave paintings), and finally blossomed into speech and complex language.
Although an entire field of study called Evolutionary Anthropology is devoted to these and similar topics, the takeaway here is that communication skills, initially developed because they increased the human species’ odds of survival, are still critically important in our day-to-day lives. While we may not be signaling the presence of a predator to others in our social circle, we rely on communication to deepen relationships with family and friends, and to find success in our professional lives.
What exactly are communication skills?
It’s likely you’ve sat through a meeting where the presenter’s monotonous voice or their convoluted explanations nearly sent you to sleep. That speaker’s poor communication skills affected you, their audience; speaking clearly, concisely, and with an engaging manner are all skills that can be learned.
As the above example demonstrates, communication skills are not simply about speaking a language fluently or writing well – they’re abilities that enable you to be an effective communicator by ensuring that your audience understands the information you’re trying to convey.
While there’s an immense diversity of communication forms around the world – nearly 7,000 languages were documented globally in 2009 (Ethnologue) – methods of communication are typically sorted into three main types: verbal, non-verbal, and written. We’ll use these categories to discuss specific communication skills and how to improve them below.
Typically when you hear “communication,” your first thought is speech. Verbal communication is just that – spoken language used to convey information and meaning during interactions.
As noted above, there are thousands of distinct languages distributed across the globe, with many people learning and using more than one during their lifetimes, or even daily.
For much of our species’ history, verbal communication was limited to face-to-face interactions within a tightly-knit social group. As electricity and subsequent technologies dependent upon it were invented, verbal communication expanded widely beyond direct physical interaction.
Today, verbal communication can refer to the following:
- Face-to-face communication: when you’re able to see your conversational partner. Face-to-face communication can occur either in close physical proximity to others or, as is increasingly common, via video conferencing software like Zoom or FaceTime.
- Vocal communication: information transferred verbally through a medium. While video conferencing has become more ubiquitous, we still frequently rely on solely vocal methods of communication like phone calls or recorded voice messages.
When we speak with someone, we’re not simply listening to words in a vacuum – we’re also picking up on non-verbal cues from one another that provide context, giving the words themselves intention and depth.
Types of non-verbal communication include:
Any movement or gesture exhibited by an individual’s body in the midst of communication. Your posture, demeanor, and hand gestures send signals about your level of confidence, your interest in the discussion, or your feelings about your conversational partners. Confident body language is important!
For instance, as an audience member at a conference, movements like slouching, crossing your arms, or resting your head in your hand can indicate that you’re not invested in the presentation. In contrast, sitting up straight, nodding at appropriate moments, and taking notes demonstrates a willingness to engage with the subject matter.
How an individual’s face moves and what social or cultural cues the resulting expressions signal to others. As a species, our faces are uniquely expressive, and are an essential component of face-to-face communication. We demonstrate internal emotions very clearly through facial gestures like eyebrow raises or frowns, allowing others to sense how we’re feeling without requiring vocalization.
Looking your conversational partner in the eyes while you communicate. Meeting the gaze of someone during conversation does not mean a visual stand-off; rather, when you gently maintain eye contact, it demonstrates an interest in the discussion and shows respect* for your conversational partner.
(*Eye-contact can be complex if you’re neuro-divergent and experience ADHD or autism; in these cases, a lack of eye-contact does not indicate a lack of respect. If you have one of these conditions and are interested in increasing your ability to make eye contact, try working with a behavioral therapist.)
Written communication is self-explanatory: it’s any exchange of information written by hand, typed or transcribed. While today we’re used to instantaneous digital communication, this form of conversing has only existed for a comparatively short period of human history: our species evolved 200,000 years ago, whereas electronic communication was only introduced in the mid-1800s with the telegram.
This highlights how rapidly human communication can evolve, and today some linguistic studies center around specific conventions that set things like tweets apart from other types of writing.
This is to say that regardless of how a written message is delivered, writing itself is complex, and it can require a significant amount of knowledge and skill to be used effectively. As such, in our improvement section, we’ll cover broad approaches to improving your writing skills in your professional life.
How to become an effective communicator
Do you want to develop truly excellent communication skills? We’ll address actionable steps for improvement shortly, but first, let’s revisit the subject we addressed in the introduction – if your communication skills have seemed just fine, thanks up until now, what’s the point of examining yourself under a microscope?
Here are some benefits of putting in the hard work to become a good communicator:
Communication is the thread that ties society together. Being able to convey your ideas and opinions effectively allows you to express and be recognized for other innate skills, like compassion, tenacity or humor.
Effective communication skills also enhance your ability to advocate for your wants and needs, which can help you move towards self-actualization.
Deepen and strengthen relationships:
Communicating isn’t just about talking to or at people – it involves developing listening skills and emotional intelligence. Improving your ability to listen and fully comprehend gives you the opportunity to relate to others more closely, and to better understand differing perspectives.
While small talk can be tiresome, deeper, honest discussions strengthen bonds, and require some of the soft skills you’ll see in truly great communicators. You can often learn much about yourself when speaking to someone else – just clarify boundaries ahead of time!
Enhance leadership skills:
A good leader must be an effective communicator, otherwise their team’s morale and productivity will suffer. Someone who can explain the how and why of a project, then break down and communicate tasks directly will be much more successful than someone who cannot. A good leader should also be able to relate to their colleagues – don’t underestimate the value of team relationships based on mutual respect and trust.
This may be the most obvious reason to improve your communication skills: if you have big dreams or even small milestones you’d like to reach, being an articulate, effective communicator will keep you on track from start to finish.
Becoming a good self-advocate and a confident speaker will help you network, and by strengthening relationships you’ll gain a better support system to rely on when the going gets tough.
Improving verbal communication skills
Practice “active listening”:
The first and most important step for better verbal communication is becoming a more effective listener. Yes, really! This means making an effort to ensure you truly comprehend the material by being an active listener.
Try strategies like taking notes, paraphrasing information immediately afterwards, and ensuring that you’re not listening simply to reply – let others talk at their own pace and become comfortable with natural silences (every second doesn’t need to be filled with chatter!). The more you listen to others, the better you’ll become at analyzing communication styles, and at identifying techniques you want to adopt.
Yes, actually practice in person, or via phone or video chat with someone you trust, like family, friends, or a mentor. Use recording apps to practice by yourself. Pay attention to your flow of ideas, your typical speaking tone, and evaluate whether your audience (if practicing with others) understands the material.
Ask for feedback:
Again, feedback is crucial, particularly in the workplace. Being open to constructive criticism develops skills in previously weak areas. Colleagues, mentors, and even supervisors may be open to sharing nuances they’ve noticed when you speak (e.g. the dreaded “…uhm”), and can give you pointers.
Improving non-verbal communication skills
Improve posture and breathing:
Although analyzing your own body language can be awkward,many communication skills depend on these nonverbal cues. Pay attention to how you stand, sit, breathe and gesture during the communication process. Avoiding slouching and learning to regulate the speed of your speech and breathing can go a long way to improving confidence. The importance of communication skills can go a long way, whether in the form of business communication, presentation skills, or within personal relationships.
The importance of practice can’t be understated. Practice with friends or family, or by yourself in a mirror. Take note of how you move when you speak, where you hold tension in your body, and any facial expressions or eye-contact you make.
Because emotions can slip through our mind-body filter, it’s important to understand how communicative your face can be, and whether or not your expressions are conveying what you intend.
Ask for feedback:
If you’re comfortable doing so, asking for body language feedback can be invaluable. We don’t always notice when our expression or posture slips or when we fidget, and having a colleague or a mentor gently remind you can be invaluable, especially when practicing for a presentation.
Improving written communication skills
Although writing varies depending upon subject and audience, always be as clear as possible. When writing poetry or crafting a novel there’s room for interpretation, but typical writing shouldn’t require a search for hidden meaning. This is especially true when relaying instructions, communicating at work, or teaching.
While verbal communication provides context clues like tone of voice, writing can easily be misinterpreted. For example, texting follows a different set of punctuation rules depending on your generation – a period which is commonplace in a novel may seem harsh in a casual text.
Things like humor, particularly sarcasm, don’t always translate well. Be very clear about what tone and message your writing may be conveying, depending upon your subject and audience.
Find your “voice”:
The more you write, the more likely you are to develop a style and pattern known as your “writing voice.” While this is particularly true in creative writing and journalism, it also applies to typical writing between friends or colleagues. Not everyone is going to communicate with the skill of Bob Dylan or Tupac Shakur, but everyone’s got room to grow to be great in their own way!
Do you crack jokes often, or sign off with emojis rather than punctuation? When appropriate, use those traits to ensure your writing sounds like you.
Ask for help and feedback:
Assistance and feedback go hand-in-hand with writing. If grammar or specific writing structures aren’t your strong suits, ask someone to proofread drafts. And if you weren’t able to ask for copyediting help, ask for feedback on finished writing, and take notes for next time.
Read more, more often:
Yes, read to improve your writing. The more often you read, the more likely you are to recognize styles, language conventions, and vocabulary. If you’re entering a specific field of work, immerse yourself in the literature (from blogs to professional journals) that goes along with it.
Communication skills for career success
So, how do you demonstrate effective communication in your professional life? Even if you already feel confident in your skills, there’s almost always room for improvement.
Essential communication skills for your resume
In the current job market, the application process is quite competitive. Stand out by making a positive first impression with your resume; it’s an opportunity to highlight your top communication skills, and provides a foundation that can be expanded upon in cover letters or interviews.
Here are a few key skills you can include, and remember to express them in engaging ways that relate to your past work. Try to avoid a static list, as action words are more evocative.
- Active listener
- Clear and concise communicator
- Responsive and timely team member
- Exemplifies respect and empathy
- Consistently diplomatic
- Well-versed in mediation and negotiation
- Skilled at [your business field] communications *Always tailor skills to your field, e.g. “skilled at delivering financial reports to stakeholders.”
Here’s how to be an excellent communicator as an employee:
Ask for clarification: This ensures that expectations for your performance are clear, and paves the way for you to meet or exceed them.
Paraphrase to demonstrate understanding: If a supervisor has explained something, particularly a complex topic or multiple tasks, taking a moment to think it through and then repeating a (simplified) version shows that you’ve internalized the information and can act on it.
Convey information concisely: Some people love to talk! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in certain professions (like teaching) this is a desirable quality. However, tangents and convoluted descriptions make it hard for others to understand and absorb information. So, keep it short, sweet, and salient – ensure everything you share is relevant and actionable.
Request feedback: The ability to receive constructive criticism without becoming defensive is truly useful, as it allows you to recognize and remedy areas of improvement, which helps you grow not only as an employee, but as a person. If you ask for feedback from colleagues and supervisors, they know you’re open to improvement from the get-go, and can tailor suggestions to areas you specify. (However, coworkers and managers should not be tearing you down – constructive criticism must be actionable, and shouldn’t be mean-spirited or directed at who you are as a person.)
Provide feedback: While not all employers will give you this opportunity, healthier environments are fostered when feedback is encouraged both ways. Keep the above points in mind – feedback should be actionable, and unless there have been serious issues with a mean-spirited or woefully ineffective manager, you should not be trying to needlessly criticize them.
Here’s how to be an excellent communicator as a supervisor or employer:
Demonstrate respect and empathy: Ensuring your team members feel seen and respected is key to a positive work environment. When subordinates feel like exactly that, “subordinate,” they’re less inclined to go above and beyond, and rightfully so. When contributions are respected, and when you demonstrate empathy for your colleagues and their personal situations, it shows you value them as humans and not simply as workers.
Provide constructive feedback: As mentioned above, viewing your employees as the complex individuals they are is essential to positive workplace morale. Providing constructive, actionable suggestions can improve their productivity and the quality of their work, but also increases their confidence and helps them grow as individuals.
Invite feedback: While employees are typically the ones receiving performance notes, inviting feedback on the supervisory level can boost your organization’s morale and productivity. Respecting employee input demonstrates that you’re all “in this together” and that you’re continually looking to improve the working environment.
Provide clear instructions: Although this seems like a no-brainer, it’s sometimes difficult to know how your instructions are interpreted. Check with employees to ensure that tasks are clear and concise, and that there’s little room for misunderstanding. This small checkpoint can work wonders on employee confidence and productivity.
Although the process of communication skill-improvement can be daunting, this work will reward you ten-fold. Numerous studies indicate that better communication can brighten your outlook on your career and help you find fulfillment in your life out of the workplace.
If you struggle with specific skills, remember that communication is all about connecting to others, and that asking for help is just part of the growth process. While growth may be uncomfortable, it’s often necessary to reach our goals and to truly realize our potential.