Sometimes an inexperienced leader holds a team back. Sometimes what stops a team from advancing is the absence of an essential skill, or an unwillingness to take risks.

But most often, what holds people back in the workplace is lack of effective communication.

Minor misunderstandings and lack of clarity in delivering messages are small issues that eventually culminate into significant problems and at worst, lead to the breakdown of working relationships. Poor communication has been linked to high turnover rates and slower growth. A study conducted by SIS International Research showed that ineffective communication cost companies of 100+ employees more than 500,000 every year. That’s half a million dollars lost on misunderstandings.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is, communication is a skill that can be honed like any other. You can become an effective communicator by identifying your weaknesses, strengthening your information delivery, and developing an awareness of your team members’ needs and concerns.

Here are the five communication skills we found most important:


People don’t have a very long attention span: many lose focus after just five minutes if the subject matter doesn’t pique their interest.

This is why, when you have something important to communicate, you should get straight to the point and start your remarks with your best material. Don’t get bogged down in all the details from the start: command attention by emphasizing the importance of your message and why that should be important to your interlocutor.

Clarity in your spoken communication, like with written content, comes from the style of your delivery. Don’t talk too fast or overuse fillers such as “um,” “you know,” and “like.” Instead, take a pause and cultivate a calm and deliberate attitude when you communicate. Plan what you’re going to say in advance. Avoid nervous rambling that stops you from making a meaningful impact.

Tackle confusion head-on

Misunderstandings frequently occur because the parties involved don’t voice their concerns at the start. Mixed signals are sent; incorrect assumptions are made; and then projects get held up because not everyone is on the same page.

First, let’s look at mixed signals: these often occur when someone has concerns or disagrees with a project but doesn’t voice their opinions clearly. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t just acquiesce and then go about your day: speak up about why you disagree and so that your team can start working towards a constructive solution.

The same goes for assumptions: if you ask your coworkers for “frequent updates” on a project, you won’t be happy if they only report to you every other week when you meant for them to give you updates several times a week. So when you give instructions of this kind, be more specific and say “I’d like you to update me every 3 days” instead of using vague terms like “frequent updates.” If you’re the one receiving the instructions, ask your boss for clarification from the start: what do “frequent updates” mean?

When everyone’s on the same page, everyone is happier. And things get done faster.

Pay attention

This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s something most of us need to work on. So much miscommunication occurs when people are not attentively listening, but only recreationally listening. For example, you may be pulling up a report to show your coworker on your computer, but then you get distracted by a new important email that just came in. While your boss keeps talking about the latest strategy you’re working on, you start thinking about that email and how you should answer it. Then a few moments later, you realize that everything your coworker just said went in one ear and out the other  - and you don’t remember a thing.

It’s easy to miss part of someone’s message if you’re distracted with your phone, your computer, or your thoughts when they’re talking. So stop multitasking: give people your full and complete attention. If you’re dealing with phone calls or emails that are distracting you from the conversation at hand, deal with them first and have your conversation later. Or decide before you start your conversation that all your other pressing tasks can wait. Just don't do two things at the same time: you’ll end up missing something important.

Likewise, if the person you’re talking to appears unfocused and distracted, there are a few things you can do to bring their attention back to you. You don’t need to reprimand them harshly or show annoyance. Instead, you can deal with the problem in a positive way. For example, if they’re checking their digital devices you can go silent until they stop using it - they’ll quickly understand that they should put their phone away. Or, say something that doesn’t come off as criticism, but as concern. You can ask them if they’re having a particularly busy day, or if they’re dealing with an urgent issue and need a few minutes to handle it before getting back to your conversation.

Active engagement

Learning how to be a great listener is as important as learning to deliver a great message. If you show genuine interest in what your coworkers are saying, you will probably absorb much more of what they’re communicating, and you’ll seem more approachable. It’s important to be curious, to be actively engaged.

Part of being actively engaged means learning more about the person you’re in communication with: if you open up a conversation with questions about their background or interests, you open up a more relaxed channel of communication where you share a greater amount of information with each other.

Another easy way to facilitate communication is simply through your body language. Don’t hunch over or turn away from the person speaking; sit with your shoulders back and look at them directly. Making eye contact does wonders for improving communication: it shows you’re alert, interested, and receptive to interaction.

The Conviction Principle

The last communication skill on our list is what Bill McGowan calls the Conviction Principle. The Conviction Principle is especially important for those who are a little unsure, nervous, or shy when communicating with bosses, coworkers or clients. In many situations, people tend to downplay their ideas and their talents, often to their own detriment.

So stop downplaying yourself. Convince your audience, and convince yourself that the idea you have is a good one and worth listening to. Don’t start your conversation by saying “this is probably a dumb idea, but...” or “I’m sure someone else will come up with something better, but...” If you’ve thought carefully about what you want to say and feel like you’ve had an idea worth sharing, you need to share it in a way that’s convincing and engaging.

Appearing confident does wonders not only for your own work, but for those around you. Ideas that are delivered in a confident way will stick in the mind of your audience, are more likely to be acted upon, and can eventually lead to significant change. So embrace the Conviction Principle and start communicating with confidence.

What communication skills do you find most important? Have any of these helped you and your team work as a more cohesive unit? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!