“We want for ourselves not what we are missing, but more of what we already have.” That’s from my all-time favorite book about leadership, Management of the Absurd. The author, Richard Farson, is a psychologist and thought leader who likes to upend conventional thinking. His research and observations are often about paradox, about how paradoxical situations—and people—actually are.
What he means here is that people want to get better at what they’re already good at rather than to improve in areas in which they’re lacking. While it may seem logical that we’d pursue knowledge and abilities we don’t have in our current trick bag, the fact is most of us don’t. It’s why athletes, for example, want greater athletic ability rather than, say, to improve their knowledge of architecture. It’s why powerful people want more power, scholarly people want to be more intelligent, and articulate people want to be more eloquent.
I would venture to say it’s why engineers and technical professionals want to conquer new technologies and improve their higher math abilities rather than to work on becoming better writers and speakers. We want more of what we already have.
I know what you’re thinking: “See? That’s why I’m not a great communicator! Because I’m an engineer and I want to get better at what I’m already good at, not something I don’t already know! I’m normal!”
But before you let yourself off the hook, let me share with you Dr. Farson’s additional warning from this same chapter: “The difficulty for all of us is that our absorption with what we do well may blind us to what will enable us to do even better.”
Communication skills are in that category. They enable us to do even better. Imagine adding to your already-impressive professional repertoire the ability to speak clearly, listen thoroughly, and write memorably (or at least efficiently). What a boon to your professional credentials that would be!
But let’s not stop there. Speaking, writing and listening abilities offer more than just a shot-in-the-arm for your professional life. Good communication skills also improve time management, clarity of thought, your reputation, your ability to learn, and even your relationships—just to name a few.
Investing time and energy in improving your communication skills, then, pays you back in many ways, including these three:
1. Relationships improve.
An essential (but usually overlooked) communication skill is the ability to listen. Listening without interrupting. Listening without planning what you’ll say next, even though the speaker is still talking. Listening without being distracted by your own thoughts. That kind of listening.
It’s rare to meet someone who listens completely and patiently. But imagine what it would be like if someone listened to you that way. Imagine someone listening and not interrupting. Imagine someone listening to you who is in no way distracted; fully attentive to you. How would that make you feel? You’d feel valued. You’d feel a connection with that person. You might even feel better understood.
If you improve your communication skills and become that kind of listener, your professional and personal relationships will improve in all those ways. The people to whom you’re listening will feel valued, connected to you, and better understood. How can that not improve your relationship with them?
2. Clarity improves. Knowledge level deepens.
My son was struggling recently to write a paper in one of his college courses. Midway through his litany of complaints about the assignment, he hit on the essence of the problem: “You know, Mom, here’s the thing: you can’t write about something you don’t really get.”
Amen to that.
Writing complete sentences, then stringing them together into coherent paragraphs, requires clarity of thought and depth of knowledge. When either is missing, the writing ends up superficial, disorganized, fragmented, and unreadable. I’d have to say that describes a lot of business writing—fragmented, disorganized and poorly worded.
So improving written communication skills also strengthens our ability to think clearly, to make sure we really get how, for example, an abundance of technical detail adds up to a useful, congruent whole, or how a design fulfills requirements, or doesn’t. If we’re trying to write about how design details satisfy requirements, it’ll be a struggle to explain it in writing if it’s not crystal clear to us.
Good writing skills help us figure out where the gaps are in our understanding. The proof is, as they say, in the paragraph. Well, they don’t really say that. They say it’s in the pudding—a metaphor that means the sum of the ingredients creates a finished pudding, which either hangs together and is edible, or isn’t. Kind of like a written deliverable.
3. Perspectives expand.
Good communication skills require analyzing the intended audience, whether they’re people we’re speaking to in a presentation, people we’re writing for, or participants in a meeting we’re attending. “Audience” is anyone we’re communicating to.
When we analyze audience, we’re taking into account where they’re “coming from”—what their level of familiarity is with the topic, whether they’re likely to agree or disagree, whether they’re jetlagged or fresh from vacation—anything that can improve or interfere with their understanding of what we hope to convey. That’s audience analysis.
When we think about our prospective audience this way, we climb down from our own tree and climb up into someone else’s, giving us a fresh perspective.
The ROI on Communication Skills
We’re all scrambling to get everything done—going to meetings, working on project deliverables, resolving outages, fulfilling family obligations, tackling personal stuff, and more. In your world of competing priorities, do you have time to work on your communication skills? Should it really be a priority?
Let’s think about it from a purely mercenary viewpoint. Here are the ways communication skills save expense dollars and improve work performance by saving time.
- Improving relationships by being a better listener avoids time-wasting conflict. It also greases the skids for future conversations.
- Being able to anticipate someone else’s confusion can, at the very least, save time because we don’t end up doing rework—and even damage control—after the fact.
- Clearing any lingering confusion in the mind about the complexities you work with every day can only accelerate progress.
So, yes, we like to get better at what we’re already good at, as Dr. Farson said. But since we know there’s wisdom in broadening our horizons here and there, improving communication skills seems to be a good outside-the-comfort-zone place to venture—and an investment with significant return.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time.