In a two-hour time span at the office, you might have to present the latest strategy deck to your boss, deliver constructive feedback to a direct report, and invite a colleague out for brainstorming over coffee. As each workplace situation changes, so too will your means of communication.
It’s not just verbal versus nonverbal communication techniques, or oral versus visual methods of communication. We also have to take the tools and technologies we use—and how we use them—into consideration. After all, they can alter and influence how colleagues interpret your message. Here’s how to use the following means of communication effectively to avoid confusion or conflict.
1. When face to face is the best means of communication
Face-to-face communication is often an effective strategy for managing conflicts at work and having difficult conversations. After all, taking time to talk to someone in person can convey integrity, honesty and authenticity. If you’re concerned that one of your team members is struggling, there’s a big difference between sending a note and sitting down to have a conversation.
“It’s OK to schedule the conversation via email, but it’s important to remember that emails are not shared interactive conversations,” says entrepreneur and architectural designer Ed Connealy, contributing to Forbes. “Simply let them know what you wish to discuss, and save the in-depth conversation for when you meet.”
It’s not just tough conversations that should be held face to face. When discussing how to optimize a colleague’s performance, David Rock, Jay Dixit and Barbara Steel, all of the NeuroLeadership Institute, describe three strategies to improve outcomes:
- Minimize social threat by creating a workplace culture in which people feel psychologically safe so that candid communication is frequent and welcome.
- Focus on continuous growth by not getting caught up on perceived failures or weaknesses. Help your team members feel seen and heard, and set meaningful goals.
- Facilitate insight by asking questions, not giving answers. You can listen actively and guide the conversation in a way that helps your coworkers help themselves.
2. When video chat helps colleagues connect in virtual workplaces
Of course, face-to-face meetings are often a challenging means of communication for distributed teams. In those cases, video chat can be the next best thing.
Professors Barbara Z. Larson and Erin E. Makarius study the impact of technology on workers and organizations. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, they recount a conversation with the HR director of a large consumer products firm: “ ‘Ten years ago, we would regularly drive between buildings to meet each other, but today, we almost never do; meetings are conducted by video conference and everything else is handled on email and IM.’ ”
Hopping on a video call can be a huge time saver for any large team. It can also bridge the gap between you and your colleagues who work remotely. When Adrienne Jones, the director of global prospect campaigns at Okta, needs to reach out to remote employees like Remy Champion, her campaign manager, she uses Zoom. Even just picking up the phone can help create that human connection with someone who works outside of the office.
3. When meetings are the most effective option
In most organizations, meetings are a common means of communication—and one that often receives mixed reviews. The key to running effective meetings is to schedule them only when you need to have an actual conversation with multiple team members at the same time.
Bear in mind that presentations are not the same thing as meetings. If you want to divulge information one way through a slide deck, simply build it out and send it to your team.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Elizabeth Grace Saunders devised a simple decision tree to think through next time you want to schedule a meeting. Before you book, ask yourself:
- Have I thought through this situation?
- Do I need outside input to make progress?
- Does moving forward require a real-time conversation?
- Does this necessitate a face-to-face meeting?
If you answer yes to all four of those questions, then it’s time to call your team to order and have a conversation. But if any one of them makes you think twice, there may be a way to address the issue on your own or solicit input from some of your colleagues.
Meetings are most useful if they provide a productive, nonjudgmental space for open conversation, mutual understanding and proactive problem-solving. Paul Axtell, an award-winning author and corporate trainer, explains how you can facilitate great meetings by giving permission and creating safety for your team members to express themselves and ensuring that everyone is heard.
“In the process of having more candid, mutually respectful conversations, your team will become more cohesive and able to work together more powerfully,” he says. “They may even begin to look forward to your meetings because of the remarkable conversations that permission and safety create.”
4. When to create rules of engagement around instant messaging
These days, online office communication and collaboration tools are commonplace. As the distributed workforce grows and more people choose to work remotely, instant messaging platforms allow distant colleagues to stay connected in real time, and help make remote team members feel included.
While you may rely on these tools to keep in touch with coworkers halfway around the world, you’re likely also using them to check in with people on the other side of the room. “We find that people tend to significantly underestimate the proportion of their work that is virtual, largely because they believe virtual work occurs outside the office,” Larson and Makarius write.
What’s more, Larson and Makarius want people to understand that conversations using office communication tools and instant messaging apps involve a unique set of interpersonal skills. They call this “virtual intelligence,” and identify two valuable ways to increase it.
- The verbal and nonverbal cues we rely on when we normally communicate no longer exist in the virtual sphere, so it’s vital to establish clear “rules of engagement” around what your various technologies and channels are explicitly for, the best times to touch base, and the best ways to share information.
- Building trust is key, not only by responding to your team members in a timely manner and proactively completing your tasks, but also by checking in personally, being enthusiastic and letting your own voice shine through in your virtual correspondence.
Carefully consider the most productive means of communication
With various means of communication at your disposal, it can be hard to know which is the best way to connect with your teammates. That’s why it’s important to take the time to learn how your team and your organization prefer to communicate in different contexts, and which tools are best to deliver your message.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager or an employee. At the end of the day, your entire operation depends on your team’s willingness to talk and listen to each other.