How my understanding of communication skills evolved

When you think of self-improvement, communication skills are often on the list. It is said that good communication skills are vital to success in life. Flourishing workshops, articles and self-help books stress the importance of good body language, pacing, volume, enunciation, elevator speeches, storytelling, presentations, networking and so on. Just like most people, I too have been working on these aspects since my early days and continue to do so. Over time, I have learnt that these are critical yet only partial facets of communication.

Growing up, I attended an “English-medium” school and undergraduate college in India. Good communication skills in that environment meant the ability to speak fluent English and to do well in oratory. Sometimes, the concept extended to languages beyond English. But overall, it was about diction and the ability to speak up in a group. I feel it was biased towards extroversion and spoken communication.

Communication skills are often misunderstood as a medium to cultivate a certain perception of oneself in the eyes of the world; a way to look polished, knowledgeable and to ultimately influence others. They often focus on the appearance of the content than the content itself. But experiences over the last few years made me rethink the whole idea of communication skills as I had known it to be.

Moving to US for my masters’ education, it was not surprising that most people around have a great command over English as it is their primary language. I truly admire the way people here present themselves and articulate their thoughts. That would imply good communication skills in the classic sense. However, during several college and work projects, I noticed a disconnect between what one is trying to say and what the other is interpreting. There is distortion even with perfect language, crisp presentations and beautiful visuals. Getting others to reach the same understanding is the gist of communication. People can talk endlessly but if there is no clarity and everyone is on a different page, then it is totally ineffective communication in my opinion. On the other hand, I have seen email threads in incorrect grammar and broken language that were able to successfully drive across a point. Not advocating for poor language here but instead stressing on the fact that there was clarity in the goals and action items in those emails.

Communication skills transcend language. Another eye-opener for me was having a Chinese roommate during my college days in US. We had more differences and less in common. She learnt English quite late in her life and she wasn’t comfortable with it. But there was no other common language for us. Despite that, we shared a great friendship. We would chat endlessly about our home countries, our experiences and life in the US. Despite the language barrier, we were able to relay our thoughts and feelings to each other perfectly. What connected us was empathy.

To me, clarity and empathy are essentials of good communication that are often overlooked. As a speaker/writer, simplicity is better than fancy words. Being to the point and clear is better than beating around the bush. Also, content is much more important than the style in which it is delivered. As audience/receivers of communication, focusing on the thoughts behind the words is important. Working in a global company, sometimes I get distracted by differing accents/phrasing. I have to make a conscious effort to cut through the noise in my head and focus on the content. As a listener, it is important to have empathy and patience for the speaker.

There are few other gaps in the way communication skills are popularly marketed. One, they over-pivot on making an immediate impression. I was in a long distance relationship for six long years and everything was dependent on communication. It wasn’t something that he or I said on our first date that made us stick together, but what we communicated over the years. Communication is in fact more persuasive over time as trust and credibility develop. Two, delivering the communication is one step. It needs to be backed by substance and followed by appropriate action. Communication will end up being shallow otherwise. Three, if there is a difference in what you believe in and what you communicate, it is hard to make others believe in what you express. Simply stated, authentic communication is the most influential.

Lastly, the biggest learning for me has been that one does not need to be an extrovert to be a good communicator because of everything that I have written above. Attributes of clarity and empathy are no more naturally occurring to an extrovert than to an introvert. Good communication is much more than speaking and it is a lifelong learning exercise!

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