Communicating effectively

There are many benefits of improving your communication skills. Effective communication is essential for managing relationships with your staff, customers and stakeholders. Poor communication can ruin relationships, and potentially result in lost sales and a damaged reputation.

Read how to improve your business communication with staff, suppliers and customers.

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What is effective communication

Effective communication is the exchange of information, intention and emotion. It involves clearly transmitting a message and receiving acknowledgment that the message has been received and understood by your intended audience.

Effective communication also means providing acknowledgment to others that ensures they feel heard and understood.

Review these key communication and personal awareness skills that contribute to effective communication.

Useful communication skills for building positive interpersonal relationships include:

  • active listening
  • understanding non-verbal signals (e.g. facial expressions)
  • maintaining eye contact
  • being assertive without being confrontational
  • being mindful of people's individual space
  • using positive body language
  • understanding different cultures and backgrounds
  • dealing with different points of view
  • possessing skills and knowledge relating to the topic of your communications.

Personal awareness skills that help with communication include:

  • understanding the benefits of a positive attitude
  • being aware of how others perceive you
  • projecting self-confidence
  • presenting well (e.g. dressing appropriately for different occasions).

It also helps to consider the circumstances surrounding your communications, such as the environmental, situational and cultural context.

For example:

  • Are you in a noisy environment?
  • Are you outside in the heat?
  • Is the other person unhappy and displaying signs of dissatisfaction or anger?
  • Is the other person from a different culture where eye contact can be considered disrespectful?

Verbal communication

The words you, or your staff, use are important. Poor verbal communication can damage your business and leave customers or stakeholders unhappy or confused.

You are more likely to achieve positive outcomes when you use positive, rather than negative, language. This can be difficult in situations where the other party is unhappy or negative.

Positive language is helpful and encouraging; it suggests alternatives and offers solutions to problems.

Consider this example.

  • Negative language: "We're out of stock and we're not expecting new stock for 3 weeks."
  • Positive language: "This item is currently on order and we'll have it for you in 3 weeks. Would you like to reserve one?"

'I' statements, rather than 'you' statements, often yield better results in verbal exchanges.

Consider this example.

'I' statement: "I need more information to make a decision."

'You' statement: "You need to give me more information before I can make a decision."

The reason the 'I' statement sounds better is that you are saying what you need rather telling someone what they should do. 'You' statements are inclined to being misinterpreted by the other party.

Assertiveness (often through the use of 'I' statements) is stating what you plan to do. Instead of coming across as hostile, you are making a statement about something you feel or perceive.

Aggression, on the other hand, is received by the other party as hostile or unfriendly behaviour. It often uses the word 'you'. People can become unhappy and feel confronted when you tell them what to do. Even when talking to employees, it is wise to soften language when asking them to perform tasks, as they are likely to respond better to requests than orders.

Consistent assertiveness shows others that you're confident and open to suggestion, but won't be taken advantage of, leading to a mutually acceptable outcome.

Speaking style refers to the tone, pitch, accent, volume and pace of your voice.

The same sentence can be conveyed, and understood, in entirely different ways based on how you say it. People you speak to can be motivated by a positive speaking style, just as they can be put off by a negative style.

Speak with a positive voice—avoid monotone responses, or talking too quickly or slowly. Be as calm and as clear as possible, and try to engage the listener, as this is more likely to promote the response you are after than if they leave the conversation anxious, disengaged or deflated.

If you or the other party are from a different culture, the pace may naturally be faster and volume softer. This requires more genuine active listening to ensure the messages are being received in the most positive way.

Asking questions

The more you can find out about a person's needs, wants, interests and situation, the easier it is to reach win-win or mutually beneficial outcomes.

You learn more about people by asking good questions and by taking the time to genuinely listen to their answers. Their responses help you to come up with suitable solutions and also make the other party feel valued.

People also tend to respond well when they feel their opinion is being sought genuinely by another person, particularly in a business situation where conversations can have important consequences for both parties.

Types of questions

Open questions ask a person to elaborate or explain, helping to build rapport and encouraging them to speak freely.

Well-chosen open questions encourage responses you might not have thought to ask.

For example, "How has your business changed in the last few years?"

Closed questions ask for a short, specific answer, such as yes or no.

For example, "Are you happy with the proposal?"

These are good for finding out facts, limiting or guiding a discussion in a particular way and gathering specific information from which you can generate an open question.

An example of poor use of a 'closed' question is when a shop assistant behind the counter asks, "You're just happy browsing, aren't you?"

This question can make the customer feel the shop assistant isn't interested in providing a service or selling products.

Probing questions are more targeted and designed to develop a specific understanding of the other party's view on a matter.

For example: "How could I change my offer so this proposal is a win-win for both of us?"

Use confirmation questions when you need to be sure the other party understands your message.

For example: "What benefits do you think this proposal could bring to your organisation in the next year?"

Use summary confirmation questions to clarify your understanding of the other party's needs.

For example: "Could I summarise what you've just told me so I can check I've understood you? You said you want a computer system allowing you and your staff to complete their tasks in half the time, and training for all your staff on using this new system?"

Using questions in conversation

Generally, you will have the most success when using a range of question types in a conversation. Using open and closed questions together, can help you guide a conversation and encourage the other party to contribute.

Using only open questions can result in digression—a conversation straying off course.

Using only closed questions can make it too easy for the answering party to say just yes or no. Because they only encourage a basic response, closed questions are not good rapport builders or conversation starters. Use both types of questions for maximum success and engagement.

Question styles to avoid

Some types of question do not lend themselves to working towards positive outcomes.

These include:

  • destructive questions—"So you're saying it's my fault?"
  • leading or manipulative questions—"You'll have that done by tomorrow, right?"
  • multiple questions at once—"When will you want it? Or don't you want it? You can't get it anywhere else, can you?"

These kinds of question can hamper your ability to negotiate efficiently and effectively.

Listening effectively

It's one thing to ask good questions—it's another to take on board the answers.

You can often be distracted by your own thoughts, your next move or what you should say next, or trying to second guess where the other party might be leading you.

To listen effectively you need to suspend these internal thoughts and give your full attention to the speaker. Only then can you really hear what they're saying.

Consider these suggestions.

Active listening means paying attention to the speaker—both to verbal and non‑verbal cues.

To do this effectively, block out the other noise, distractions, and conversations around you and simply tune in to the person communicating with you.

For example, if you see them look down or appear uncomfortable in some way while saying, "That's all I can tell you at the moment" you might deduce that they are withholding information.

This type of active listening alerts you to the opportunity for a well-constructed open or probing question, to gather the missing information. If you're not listening actively, it can be easy to miss signs like these.

Ensure you focus on what is being said and resist letting your attention wander.

Important pieces of information can be missed if you are not alert and engaged. This can lead to misunderstandings later on, or possibly embarrassing situations where you appear to have forgotten something you have been told.

One way to concentrate during a business conversation is to ask the speaker questions.

Not only will this help guide the conversation at a pace you want, it can also ensure your mind is focused on the subject at hand.

Active listening should ultimately lead to a complete understanding of what another person has said. You can do this by feeding back to them, in your own words, your understanding of what they've said.

An easy way to do this is to clarify, paraphrase or summarise.

Examples of summary question in these cases include:

  • "So what you're saying is...?"
  • "So what you need from me is...?"
  • "So in summary what we've agreed is...?"

It is usually a good idea to check your understanding regularly during a conversation.

You can paraphrase or summarise:

  • when the other party has provided a large amount of information
  • whenever something is unclear to you
  • when moving to a new topic or area for discussion
  • at the end of the discussion.

Clarification is also a useful tool when the other party seems to be asking for a lot of information. If their questions are poorly structured, too broad or ambiguous, you might give away too much information by answering them straight away.

It's often a good idea to clarify a question before you answer it.

Non-verbal communication

Much of the way we communicate in a visual situation—face to face, in person or via video—occurs through non-verbal cues.

This includes your body language, the way you look at others during conversations and the facial expressions you use.

Body language can support the words you use and how you say those words, but can also reveal your true feelings if you are uncomfortable.

There are 2 main aspects of body language to consider:

  • posture—how you sit or stand during a conversation. To indicate interest, your posture should be open, with your body turned to face the other person. Leaning forward slightly can also convey apparent interest in what it being said, and that you are actively listening. Sitting or standing with your arms folded, can be interpreted as closed body language and that you are not interested.
  • gestures—simple acts such as nodding your head and opening your palms can have a positive effect on a conversation. You can move your hands during conversation to convey a sense of animation about a subject, though be careful not to overdo it. Maintaining eye contact is also helpful. However, be mindful that in some cultures, maintaining eye contact can be considered disrespectful.

Negative body language creates a negative impression and tends to impede progress. Someone glancing at their watch or fiddling with something during negotiations will come across as disinterested or uncomfortable. These examples of non-verbal communication may lead the negotiation to falter or break down.

Other negative body language you should avoid includes:

  • clenched fists
  • folded arms
  • shrugs and shuffles
  • finger pointing.

You can learn positive body language easily, by watching how other people conduct themselves during conversations. Anything that seems positive is worth copying, while anything that repels you in a conversation should be avoided.

Looking people in the eye when talking to them is a good way to let them know you are listening to them and interested in what they have to say.

Eye contact can also convey sincerity and confidence, which is often important in business situations. Not looking the other party in the eye can sometimes make you appear disinterested, nervous, or even shifty.

In come cultures, not looking you in the eye can be a sign of respect.

For example, some Asian cultures, or remote community Aboriginal people, may have been taught that you should not look someone in the eye if they are considered to be a higher status or profile than you—such as in a teacher–student relationship.

If someone begins to portray negative body language cues such as these in a business situation, it can sometimes be difficult to regather their attention. Try smiling, using their name in the conversation, and maintaining eye contact whether they are a customer, client or employee.

Of course, it is important not to stare them out, accidentally or otherwise. Use your best judgment.

Our faces are extremely expressive, and often give our emotions away before we have a chance to say what we feel.

It is important to try to keep your facial expressions positive and genuine during a business conversation.

Smiling is very important—a simple, natural smile is known to help the other party relax during a conversation. Most people have experienced someone looking at them with a fake smile. A genuine smile is said to change the shape of the eyes, whereas a fake smile doesn't.

Avoid negative facial expressions, such as:

  • frowning or scowling
  • glaring
  • rolling eyes
  • looking elsewhere
  • blankness
  • sneering
  • pouting.

Meeting new people and introducing yourself

Your first impression can be the difference between starting a successful business relationship or finishing with a one-off meeting.

It is said a person forms an opinion of you within the first 3 seconds of seeing or meeting you, and the following 3 seconds they are finalising that opinion mentally.

It is very easy to create a negative first impression with someone, often without knowing you've done so. It's much harder to make a positive impression and it's worth putting some effort into your introductions.

The way you introduce and present yourself provides people with a first impression of you.

In business, consider what impression you would like to make, and prepare yourself for it (i.e. dress and groom yourself appropriately for that meeting).

When we introduce ourselves, we're saying we're interested in establishing an ongoing relationship for mutual benefit.

There are usually 3 parts to business introductions:

  • the handshake (often, but not always)
  • introducing yourself
  • moving into conversation.

You are more likely to be remembered by a person whose hand you've shaken.

In traditional Australian culture there are 4 main opportunities for handshaking:

  • when introduced to someone and when saying goodbye
  • when you run into someone you haven't seen in a long time
  • when you enter a business meeting and are introduced to participants
  • when you reach agreement or commit to a deal.

As a result of the physical contract restrictions imposed during COVID-19, many business owners are unsure as to whether to shake someone's hand. There are many alternatives: the elbow bump, a foot tap, a bow, the namaste gesture, a brief nod or head tilt, placing a hand on your heart.

The best advice is to 'read the room' and make a judgment.

Extending your hand is a sign of confidence in business but the key is to respect how somebody would like to meet.

These are the most commonly used features of handshaking in Australia:

  • stand
  • step or lean forward
  • make eye contact
  • smile
  • shake hands—firm but not hard
  • greet the other person and repeat their name.

Try not to put your second hand on top of theirs as that is typically a show of dominance or power in business.

Your introduction should tell people who you are and encourage people to engage with you. Project confidence while doing so because this will put others at ease.

Consider the '30-second elevator pitch'. When introducing yourself, apart from your name you should consider including:

  • your role or title
  • your business, trade, or industry
  • a brief description of your business
  • a 'memory hook' (quick, ear-catching phrase that people are likely to remember)
  • a benefit statement of 1 particular product or service you offer.

The length of your introduction will depend on the circumstances. It doesn't need to be long, and it's possible to combine certain elements, such as your business and your benefit statement.

Always remember to speak clearly and smile, making eye contact with the person you're speaking to. Using a bit of humour can put people at ease, but note that certain types of humour can offend.

If an introduction doesn't go according to plan, the reason may be cultural differences. Every culture has its own way of meeting people in business situations for the first time.

Here are 3 examples of how the common business practices of other cultures contrast with those used in Australia.

  • In Brazil, an initial handshake is considered very important. There is likely to be a great deal of small talk before the meeting properly starts, and the tone set here can be very important in the relationship development cycle.
  • In Russia, meetings are often very formal, structured and serious. Many Russian negotiators believe that a formal meeting is a serious affair and should be treated accordingly. Humour is rarely used in such serious situations.
  • In Japan, formal exchanges of business cards are performed at the beginning of a first meeting. The respect you show the card equates with the respect you show the person.

Phone communications

A great deal of business communications is completed via phone. The phone works well as it is a personable approach for both parties and can often enhance the working relationship.

Phone communication requires active listening skills and asking the right type of questions to ensure you have heard and understood the message your counterpart wants to share.

Even if you are busy, it is important to allow time for the other person to speak without interrupting them.

A disadvantage of phone communication is that there isn't a written 'paper trail'.

Consider sending an email as a follow up after an important phone call to put in writing the matters discussed.

This will help ensure you are both on the same page and allows the opportunity for feedback if something wasn't correct.

Leaving a message

If you attempt to phone someone and they don't answer, be prepared to leave a short succinct message with your:

  • name
  • business or company name
  • reason for the phone call
  • your phone number.

A short friendly text message with the above information is also a good option.

Sending a succinct text message encourages the other party to either respond with the answers you need via text or by return call at a time convenient for them.

Tips for better phone communications

  • Reduce distractions around you while you are on the call.
  • Paraphrase to ensure you have heard or understood correctly.
  • Note that mobile phone calls are prone to disruptions from poor bad service or connectivity issues, particularly while driving.
  • Assume the other party doesn't know your contact details—always offer your phone number when leaving a message.
  • Note that many people won't answer a call from a 'private' number.
  • Listen carefully and talk clearly when the other party has an accent.
  • Aim to return someone's call on the same day, or if within 24–48 hours (same day is best practice).

Video calls—Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, webinars

Since the pandemic, business has embraced video calls using Zoom, Teams, FaceTime or similar software.

Video calling has created significant efficiencies and cost savings for business, resulting in people prioritising this medium in place of face to face meetings, phone calls, and time-consuming travel.

Another benefit of video calling is that you can reach a greater number of people at the same time.

The biggest challenges for video calling are lack of data connectivity and bandwidth issues which can cause delays, a lag in audio, and poor video quality.

Tips for better video calls

  • Test your microphone, audio and video settings before joining the video call meeting.
  • Ensure you have enough lighting so when people see you, they are able to see your face properly.
  • Change the name of profile settings to be your first name and business name so the other people on the video call know who you are and what business you are representing.
  • Be conscious of how you appear to others—your surroundings behind and beside you can be seen on the video call. Consider staging, blurring or setting a background image to remove or reduce distractions.
  • Recognise bandwidth issues can often be reduced by turning off your video stream—ask the people on the call if they mind you turning off your video to improve your listening experience.
  • Ensure team or family members are aware you are on a video call and don't interrupt you. Someone walking behind you can distract other people on the video call.
  • Check your screen before sharing it. Confidential or embarrassing information can damage your credibility.
  • Mute your microphone if you are not talking. This ensures other parties on the call don't hear your background noise, typing on keyboard or others talking.
  • Look at the camera when you are talking, rather than at faces on screen. To others, you will appear to be looking directly at them.

Written communication for business

Much of the business communication you engage in, will involve emails, documents, letters and reports.

Although you have more time to prepare written communications, writing well for business is no less important than other forms of communication.

Many of the skills required during conversation can also be applied to written communication, such as the need to ask questions and find the right tone.

You should be polite and clear in what you're asking or saying to another party, particularly if your written communication requires follow-up action.

Written communication done well usually results in less messages between parties.

The challenge with written communication is to consider how the other party may receive and potentially misinterpret your message. It is recommended that you keep written communication friendly, reasonably short, factual, and with an appropriate tone.

Using the correct level of formality in your written communication can be the difference between your email or document being read or ignored.

Use your best judgment. Being too formal can be interpreted as brash by the receiver. Being too informal can reduce the importance of your message.

Consider your personal relationship with the recipient

If you have not met the recipient, or your meetings have been in only formal, business settings, it is sensible to continue to remain formal in letters and emails.

If you have already established a rapport with the recipient, you can be more informal, but make sure you keep the communication focused on the business at hand.

Consider the purpose of your communication

In some situations, emails can quickly move back and forth between parties. It is important to gauge the tone of each email carefully. If the other party moves to a more informal style while you remain rigidly formal, you may miss the opportunity to encourage a more informal and cooperative relationship.

Equally, being overly informal too soon can be seen as disrespectful.

Use your best judgment when choosing a communication style.

To assist with writing formal emails and letters, follow this simple outline:

  • polite greeting, for example:
    • letters: Dear [name]; Dear sir; Dear madam
    • email: Hi [name]; Hi customer service team
  • simple introductory paragraph—explaining why you are writing
  • second and/or third paragraph—the facts you need to share with the reader
  • last paragraph—the closing summary outlining your recommendation or what you require the reader to action
  • signature block—finish the communications with your name, signature and contact details.

Try not to use all capital letters unless you need to emphasise a word which can be better emphasised in bold or italics.

ALL CAPS is considered to be 'shouting' at the reader.

Some general rules for writing include the following.

Formal writing:

  • avoids contractions such as 'you're' and 'won't'
  • is less likely to use abbreviations, preferring 'television' to 'TV' for example
  • is more likely to include longer sentences and complex expressions.

Informal writing:

  • can include more colloquialisms and slang, such as 'loads of' in place of 'many'
  • is more likely to use short, simple sentences.

It is safe to apply the rules of conversation to writing. Generally, you should probably be more formal in written communication to begin with than you would be in a conversation.

Let the emerging relationship with the person you are writing to guide the conversation.

Letters are becoming increasingly rare.

This is due to the speed and ease of email. You should only send letters if there is a specific need to do so, such as the recipient has indicated they do not like using email, or they do not have the means to communicate electronically.

Alternatively, the situation may require a letter, but you may be able to attach it to an email for faster delivery and reply.

Letters are still the most common form of legal communication between parties, although these letters are often sent as attachments via email.

It is good business practice to respond to a letter received through Australia Post within 5 days of receiving it, dependent on the importance of content within the letter (i.e. legal or financial documents usually require specific response timelines).

Email is common though it is slowly being complemented by 'contact us' forms on web pages and on page chat applications.

For email and web forms, it is still common to use letter writing conventions such as 'Dear [name]' and 'Yours sincerely' in emails. More recently however, 'Yours sincerely' is often substituted with 'Kind regards' or no closing salutation.

It is good business practice to respond to an email shortly after receiving it, or within 24–48 hours, dependent on the importance of content. Responding on the same day is best practice.

Web forms form part of a web page but have a series of boxes, or form fields, for you to fill in and a button to submit the form.

Like an email, they ask for information from you, but in a structured way. This can help organisations process incoming correspondence more efficiently.

Web forms may also request your email address or phone number to reply to you.

Text messages, or SMS messages, have also become a popular channel of business communication. When sending text messages for business purposes, resist using abbreviations as it can be considered less professional.

Text messages can be:

  • faster to send
  • faster to process and respond to
  • generally accepted to be short and to the point
  • directed to a person or monitored phone number—versus an email which may be directed to a central mailbox where others could read it
  • captured, saved and printed for 'paper trail' purposes.

It is good business practice to respond to text messages within a very short timeframe. For many users, text messages are a form of 'instant' messaging and this expectation carries over into business communication. While 'instant' replies might not be practical, the key is for a text message response to feel faster than email.

For professional communication, review your writing and correct any spelling or grammar mistakes. Automated spelling and grammar checkers can be turned on in most software.

If the spelling of any words is unclear, online dictionaries can assist. Note, there can be differences between Australian spelling and spelling used in other countries. Unless working with foreign organisations, it is recommended that you choose Australian spelling in all your written communication.

How written communication can be received and misinterpreted

When sending written communications for business, you often are not aware of the emotions, schedule and environment of the person receiving your communications.

Case study: Ways of working

You sent an email to your staff member questioning why they did a particular task in a different way to the way you had outlined.

A key step has been left out and it will need doing again. This will cost you time and money.

Your email is short, to the point and points out the work will need to be done again.

Unknown to you, your staff member has been feeling overwhelmed as they manage a difficult personal situation.

When the staff member reads your short email, and as result of their raw emotions, they respond to the email as a personal attack instead of a request for the work to be done again.

Case study: low-season stress

Your business is experiencing a difficult low season. Your accounts are a little behind schedule and the low-season project you'd budgeted days to complete, has become difficult, delayed and expensive. Adding to your day, is the news that your casual employee has called in sick.

You find yourself in a very stressful situation. Even though it's the low season, it feels like there aren't enough hours in the day.

When a customer email lands in your inbox, you skim it quickly. Another demand for your time and attention.

In your stressed frame of mind, you've inadvertently misread the intent of the email. Without the stress, your review of the same email would have been different.

The customer's email asks you to replace a faulty product. This is a normal part of your customer service process and a routine part of the business.

Instead of showing the customer's email to another person, you react and respond to the email negatively.

A few days later, another customer shows you the email. It appears your upset customer posted your negative response on social media.

You are left wondering how to manage the impact of this on your business' good reputation, in addition to your low-season stress.

Find help to prepare for a reputation incident.

When communicating effectively for business, it is recommended that you write deliberately, use empathy where appropriate, and keep a clear view of how written communication can be received and misinterpreted.

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