Enhancing Communication Skills – Three Perspectives

By Melinda Sinclair

So you want your team to have better conversations? Then consider three important perspectives to guide you

Collaboration is increasingly important in how we work and lead. And the more important collaboration becomes for performance and results, the more important communication becomes. In a collaborative environment communication is needed to ensure that information flows from mind to mind in a timely and smooth way – to help coordinate work efforts, to align direction, to co-create solutions to challenges, and much more.communication

Technology has a key part to play in facilitating this flow of information in collaborative contexts.   However, human to human conversation remains an absolutely critical component in this flow.  With collaboration increasingly at the root of successful working and leading, leaders, teams and organizations who cultivate the ability to have effective conversations across a wide range of situations have a distinct advantage.

Here are three important perspectives to consider when planning to enhance the conversation skills in a team environment.

Conversation is a social activity; hence social climate matters a great deal.

Conversations is a social activity – minds meeting other minds with a variety of social needs and motivations at play. Not surprisingly, then, that there is an intimate link between the quality of the conversations we can have and the quality of our social climate. Social climate is the invisible, sometimes unconscious, social forces that help shape the individual and collective behaviors, perceptions, thoughts and feelings of a group or team.

Climate and conversations mutually influence and shape each other. We tend to underestimate the impact of context and climate on behavior, and by implication their impact on the quality of our connections and conversations.

Putting all our efforts into improving the quality of our conversation without attending to the quality of the social climate in which we’re connecting is like continuing to water a struggling plant without considering all the other factors that may affect the plant’s well-being: soil quality, the amount of sun it is getting, weeds that may be choking its roots, weather, and more.

Hence, enhancing the quality of conversations in a team/ group has to be linked to enhancing the quality of the social climate of the group. Enhancing conversational ability is not merely a technical issue; it is at heart a social issue. An effective process for enhancing the quality of conversations in a group will be solidly grounded in the social nature of conversation – starting with the learning environment itself, and extending to the actual practices, skills and tools taught.

Natural ability is a start; specialized ability is required.

With a few notable exceptions, all human beings develop the ability to converse without special training. By the time we are working in a team, we’ve had many years of practice this ability. Increasingly, this natural ability is not enough without further development and refinement. The demands placed on conversations as a medium through which work gets done have, in many ways, outstripped our natural ability. This means we need to invest time and energy in developing more specialized forms of Conversation Intelligence.

The analogy would be with someone with great natural athletic ability who wants to compete as an athlete. Without special training and hard work that natural ability will likely not be enough to carry the athlete to success.

People tend over-estimate their conversational skills level and under-estimate the skills levels required for certain kinds of interactions. People are also often oblivious of deeply ingrained habits that detract from their conversational effectiveness.

The challenge from a learning perspective is to provide ways and means for people to become aware of the shortfall in their conversational abilities relative to what will support high levels of performance, without leaving them feeling that it is an impossible task. Awareness needs to be combined with a sense of positive and hopeful aspiration towards enhanced effectiveness. Only then will people actively engage with the learning required to enhance their conversational abilities.

Dealing with difficult conversations is important - and it is just a small part of conversational effectiveness.

A desire to get better at dealing with “difficult conversations” is often what makes leaders and teams reach out for processes that can help them enhance their conversation abilities. This is both understandable and worthwhile. Difficult conversations can trigger negative emotional response and damage relationships.  Because of the potential fall-out, the discomfort with difficult conversations can also lead to conversation avoidance – with potential huge costs.

While leaders and teams need to be able to have difficult conversations, an over-focus on difficult conversations can be costly. A narrow focus on difficult conversations can make us blind to the enormous opportunity cost of not being skillful at a whole range of conversations needed for effective work. Moreover, as we get smarter and more skillful at a wider range of conversation, we may discover that the number and the intensity of difficult conversation decrease – and that our ability to have them skilfully increases as we become more conversationally skilful in general.

Enhancing the level of conversational ability in a group is no longer a “nice to have”. It is an essential ingredient for high performance.  This offers a powerful reason for engaging in leaning and development processes to enhance this ability. The three perspectives outlined above offers some important guidance to ensure that such efforts will have real traction and create a positive shift.

Melinda Sinclair of PeopleDynamics Learning Group is a Chartered Business Coach™ practicing in Toronto, ON. Her work with leaders and teams focus on enhancing the conditions and skills required for high quality collaboration. In addition to her executive coaching and leadership development practice, she is also one of the lead faculty for the WABC  Level  1 Accredited Business Coaching Advantage Program™.


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