Workplace Communication and Teamwork

15 Strategies for Effective Communication

First Impressions

Any business that provides customer service relies on good first impressions. When a guest enters your restaurant or food service establishment, the guest makes judgments about the business based on the appearance, grooming, posture, and courtesy of the staff, and the appearance of the business. In other words, these factors communicate a message to the guests about the business and its attitude to guests. These first impressions can colour the guest’s perception of the entire dining experience. Once the perception is formed, even if it is faulty, it is very hard to change. You only get one chance for a good first impression (Figure 8).

A female server wearing a white shirt and black tie bears a tray of glasses and smiles.
Figure 8. A friendly smile, spotless premises, and an attractive menu creates a good first impression.

If guests come into your restaurant and see you replacing the hot vegetables on the buffet while dressed in a stained or torn uniform, they may immediately jump to the conclusion that the restaurant staff is sloppy. If the host does not greet them politely when they first come in the door, they may feel that customer service is not a priority. The appearance of the business itself is also part of creating a good first impression. Dirty windows, a tattered menu, untidy service areas, spills on the buffet table, and less than pristine washrooms can create a negative impression.

To create a good first impression of your business, you should:

  • Keep all work areas tidy
  • Greet guests as soon as they enter, even if seating guests is not your responsibility
  • Make eye contact and smile at guests when in the dining room
  • Ensure that uniforms are spotless when you enter a public area
  • Maintain an erect posture and alert manner

Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is an important component of effective communication. Non-verbal communication includes such things as tone of voice, voice quality (nasal, whiny, musical), making eye contact with the person to whom you are talking, paying attention when somebody else talks, body position, distance from the person, and body movement. It is easy to say one thing but to communicate the opposite with your non-verbal communication. When the non-verbal part of your communication is in conflict with the verbal message, others tend to trust the non-verbal message.

For example, if somebody tells you that he or she wants to hear your opinion and at the same time is doing something else, what is being communicated?

Working in the hospitality industry, you will need to communicate with:

  • People who supervise you; for example, the executive chef
  • People who you supervise, such as apprentices, helpers, and dishwashers
  • People who are your co-workers in the kitchen
  • Other workers in the hotel or restaurant such as servers, hosts, and bartenders
  • Guests in the restaurant
  • Suppliers

You will probably communicate differently with each of these groups of people. However, effective communication is much the same no matter with whom you are communicating.

Communication is a two-way process. You can talk as much as you want, but if nobody is listening there is no communication. When you first meet others, they will not know how you communicate or anything about you. They will probably expect you to be a reasonable person until you prove otherwise.

To start your relationship off right, and to build understanding with that person, you need to treat them with respect.

Show Respect

If you do not respect the person to whom you are speaking, your language and your non-verbal communication will communicate that. Showing disrespect for somebody will remove their respect for you. People who do not respect one another cannot communicate effectively and may reach the point where they cannot communicate with each other at all. Whatever personal feelings you have about co-workers, you need to communicate effectively with them in order to do your job efficiently and safely. Do not start off on the wrong foot by showing a lack of respect.

This applies to anybody in the company, whether it is your supervisor, somebody who works under you, or somebody who works in another area of the company.

Showing respect for somebody is not difficult. If you treat people how you would like to be treated, respectful communication will come naturally. Here are some additional guidelines to maintain respectful relationships:

  • Acknowledge other people’s presence with a “hello” or a smile even when you do not need to speak with them
  • Remember their names
  • Listen when they speak
  • Do not intimidate them or make them feel uncomfortable
  • Show honesty and consistency
  • Show agreement when possible
  • Say thank you often
  • Offer your help
  • Ask advice
  • Avoid status battles

A smile is powerful non-verbal communication. A smile welcomes people and makes them feel at ease. It suggests that you do not have bad feelings about them, and that you are willing to listen. A smile acknowledges the presence of others when you do not have time to ask how they are doing or if they are speaking to someone else while you pass by (Figure 9).

A chef in an industrial kitchen wears a black cap and a wide smile.
Figure 9. A smile is welcoming.

A person’s name is central to her or his identity. Greet people by name whenever you can. This will show that you have made the effort to remember who they are, and that you acknowledge their existence. If you have trouble remembering people’s names, get into the habit of repeating the name several times to yourself right after you first hear it. You can try to associate names with some aspect of appearance or with another person you know who has the same name. You can write the name down. You can concentrate only on the first name to make remembering it easier. If you know you have to go and see a person whose name you cannot remember, ask somebody what it is.

In Canada today, most people prefer to be called by their first name rather than by their last name or by a title. However, some people prefer more formality. If your boss wants to be called Ms. Lee or Mr. Johnson, then you should use that name. In many kitchens, it is still the policy to call your supervisor by his or her title; for example, “Good morning, Chef.”

Most people like to laugh. Telling harmless jokes is a good way of having fun together and can help to build a team atmosphere in your workplace. However, jokes that are in poor taste or make fun of people will probably have the opposite effect. Even if the person you are joking about laughs, it does not mean that he or she enjoys the experience. The person may feel awkward about saying anything, but you should know that jokes of this nature can be intimidating and make people feel ill at ease.

Get into the habit of thanking people. Say thank you when they do something for you or bring something to your attention. Thanking people encourages them to do more of the same and makes them feel good about talking with you. Not thanking people when they deserve it will have the opposite effect.

Showing agreement is a good way of making people feel good about talking with you. You do not need to agree with a person’s argument in order to agree with some of his or her statements. You can encourage a person to keep speaking by nodding your head or by saying “yes” to show that you are paying attention.

You will need the help of other people to do your job. Even if it is their job to help you, the way you communicate and establish a working relationship with them will influence how willingly they help you. It pays to help those people from whom you need help. In that way, the help is not all one way.

As long as a statement is a sincere offer of help, the other person will feel less imposed upon. For example, you need the skills of the hotel’s maintenance engineer to repair a faulty ventilation fan in the kitchen. The engineer can do the job alone. You could describe the problem and go do something else. Or you could describe the problem and offer your assistance. The second option shows that you are willing to help, and that you value the work enough to offer your time. You can make people who work for you feel appreciated by asking their advice. Even if you do not act on the advice, you will make that person feel like part of a team. They will be more likely to ask your advice when they need it.

One of the obstacles to communication is believing that the actions of others are attempts to get the better of you. With this kind of attitude, it is easy to interpret all communication in terms of motives and status battles. Keep in mind that the other people are probably as preoccupied with their own situations as you are; they probably do not think about you very much at all. If you find it difficult to accept people’s communication at face value, try going through a few days without assigning any motives to anybody. You will find that communications are much easier as a result.

Listening Skills

A person who talks a lot is not necessarily a good communicator. People who talk a lot may actually be poor communicators because they never stop to listen to you.

If the talker constantly interrupts you, or finishes your sentences for you, the communication is only one way. If somebody constantly interrupts you and tries to finish your sentences for you, you need to keep speaking through the interruption. If he or she continues to interrupt, you need to say, “Please let me finish” in a calm voice, and continue talking.

A good communicator talks about things that are of importance to you, and says them in a way that you can understand. When good communicators are telling you important information, they stop often to ask you whether you have understood so far. Good communicators avoid annoying mannerisms of speech, such as “you know” or “like,” or annoying gestures like playing with a pencil or looking at the clock. A good communicator is someone who practices active listening.

Active listening

You can listen about four times as fast as you can speak. It is easy to listen to your own thoughts at the same time as listening to somebody else speak. It is also easy to listen to only your own thoughts while somebody else is speaking. To be an active listener, you must deliberately resist this tendency to let your mind wander. Not only will you remember more of what the speaker is saying, but the speaker will feel that you are listening.

Others will know you are listening through your non-verbal communication, such as your eye contact and posture. You have probably experienced a situation when someone asks, “How are you?” and you reply, “Not too well,” and then you hear “That’s good.” You know you were heard because the response came at the right time. But you also know that you were not listened to. The difference between hearing and listening boils down to choice. You have no choice but to hear, but you do have a choice to listen.

You must be totally involved in listening. You cannot be doing other tasks at the same time. You must block out or overcome all distractions, including those that you generate in your own mind. Active listeners show a sincere attitude. They show attention by not speaking, by facing their body toward you, by leaning forward and by making eye contact at least part of the time. Active listeners have an open posture; their arms and legs are not crossed, and their hands are open. They wait until you have finished. Active listeners let you explain your problem fully and do not rush in with solutions.

When it is time for them to speak, they speak more slowly and softer than usual to show that they are considering what you said. Active listeners will ask for more details on something that you said, which shows that they were paying attention. Active listeners will show understanding by expressing what you have said in different words.

Practise being an active listener by focusing on what the speaker is saying.

Show that you are listening by facing the person and looking at her or his eyes at least part of the time. Tell yourself that you are interested in what others are saying and try to understand their point of view. Do not interfere with your listening by forming your opinions while they are still speaking.

Let the speakers finish their own sentences; do not help slow speakers by finishing their sentences for them. When a speaker has finished speaking or asks if you have understood, repeat what you heard in another way. You can say for example, “In other words, you are saying that…”

Stay focused when you listen

You may be an active listener, but what if the speakers are not good communicators? They may repeat themselves or go on and on about insignificant things. They may have a poor grasp of English or fill their talk with meaningless words. They may be too shy to come out and say what their real problem is.

Some people will repeat themselves because they want to emphasize what they are saying. Others repeat themselves as a cue for you to start speaking. This is a characteristic of some cultures where interrupting others is regarded as normal and not impolite. As an active listener you should keep speakers focused on their subject. If they start to repeat themselves, you can say, for example, “Yes, I understand that,” and ask a question that moves the conversation forward. If they go on about insignificant things, you will need to find out whether they just want to talk, or if they are having difficulty in saying what they need to. You could ask, for example, “How does this relate to the problem in the company?” or, “Is this part of the same problem that we were discussing, or a separate problem?”

When it is clear that the speaker just wants to talk for the sake of talking, you will have to judge whether you have time to chat.

If you do not have time, you will have to let the speaker know. You could say, for example, “I have to get back to work now, but let’s talk again later.” If you do have time, such conversations are a good opportunity to get to know the speaker and establish a better understanding of his or her personality and background. You can respond with similar information about yourself, so that the other person gets to know you better.

People will appreciate if you remember details of their personal life, such as the names of their children, or what sports they enjoy. They will not appreciate hearing detailed accounts of your personal problems. If a speaker is inclined to tell you too much of a personal nature, you should politely make it clear that you are not a willing listener. You could say, for example, “I’d rather not hear about your operation.”

Some people who are poor communicators may rarely speak. When they do speak, they may appear angry or disrespectful to you. Keep your focus. Ask yourself why this person has decided to speak to you now. They may seem angry or disrespectful, but they may still have a message. Ignore the poor communication skills and ask questions that help determine what they really want to say.

Let’s take an example of a restaurant manager who rarely speaks to you. The manager grabs your arm as you pass by and says, “What’s with the salad bar today; was there a special on wilted lettuce?” The communication is poor; you do not really know what the manager is talking about. You could take insult over this comment as a reflection on how you are doing your job. On the other hand, there may be valuable information to learn. Find out by asking, “Is there a problem with wilted lettuce in the salads?” It may be that the manager has noticed a problem that is reducing the quality of the lettuce in the salad bar.

By finding out what the comment is really about, you may be able to deal with a problem that you had not noticed. As you show your willingness to listen, the people you listen to will show a greater willingness to speak. They will tell you about problems that they notice sooner. On the other hand, if you take poor communications personally and respond by ignoring or insulting the person, those people are less likely to speak to you.

Other Languages and Cultures

Not all of the people who you work with will speak English well. They may be from other countries, or have little education, or both. Because a person does not speak English well, it does not mean that he or she is not intelligent. Think of situations where you did not understand the words being used, perhaps in school or while in another country.

When you speak with people who have a lower level of English than you, imagine trying to speak in their language if you were just learning it. Speak like you would want them to speak to you. Speak slowly. Choose simple words and pronounce them carefully. Watch the person’s non-verbal communication for signs of understanding. Ask simple questions that will give the person a chance to show understanding. Because expressions are usually based on cultural knowledge, avoid using them. Avoid using unnecessary jargon, but do use the jargon that is common in the company. Do not treat the person like a child but as a dignified adult whose knowledge of English is limited. Do not raise your voice. A lack of language is not a hearing problem.

When you adjust the way you speak so that people who do not speak English well can understand you, both they and you will benefit. Those people will be able to do their job better because they understood your instructions. They will work more safely because they understand the situation or procedure better. They will appreciate your effort to communicate with them and respond better to your demands.

Four chefs from different regions smile for the camera.
Figure 10. Different cultures may communicate differently from you.

The way that we communicate depends on our culture. Language is a big part of culture, and so is non-verbal communication. In some cultures, it is insulting to make eye contact or to stand in front of the person you are speaking to. In others, it is good manners to speak very loudly. Many cultures have different norms of communication for women, men, older people, and younger people. When speaking to people from different cultures (Figure 10), keep in mind that their norms of communication may be different from yours. What you think is a sign of disrespect may actually be the opposite — a sign of respect in that person’s culture. You may need to ask them what the meaning of certain non-verbal communication actions means to them, and explain the meaning in your culture.

Communicating in a Noisy Environment

A busy kitchen in the midst of meal service can be a noisy environment in which it is hard to understand speech.

You will need to speak more loudly, but avoid shouting because shouted words are more difficult to understand. Be sure to face in the direction of the person to whom you are speaking because the sounds you produce are loudest in front of you. Be sure that the person is looking at you so that the sound can easily reach both ears, and so your facial and body expressions can be read. Support what you are saying with appropriate gestures, such as pointing at the objects to which you are referring. Often there are specific gestures used in the company for certain actions: a kind of local sign language. Be sure to learn what these gestures mean and use them whenever you speak in a noisy location.

For longer conversations or when you must be sure that the listener has understood you, go to a place where there is less noise.

You may meet people who do not hear very well because of hearing damage. A person who is deaf in one ear may never tell you, but may always stand to one side during conversations. Be sure to give those people a chance to take their preferred position before speaking to them. Not all people who have hearing damage know that they do or want to be reminded of it. Be aware of how loudly they speak and adjust the volume of your voice to match theirs.

Making Oral Reports

You will need to make oral reports to other staff, such as the executive chef or restaurant manager (Figure 11). For example, you might have to report on the condition of some equipment or explain your actions regarding a problem with a restaurant supplier. You will also need to make oral reports to people who work under you, such as apprentices or salad preparation staff. For example, you might have to explain the preparation of a new menu item.

An effective oral report has the same parts as an effective written report, namely an introduction, a body (or explanation), and a conclusion.

In the introduction, you must get the listener’s attention and introduce the subject. For example, “I am having a problem with the appearance of the Caesar salads, and I could use your help.” The listener now knows what the conversation is going to be about, and that attention must be paid because he or she will need to get involved.

A chef confers with a man in a shirt and tie holding a file. Both men are focused on the file.
Figure 11. You will need to make oral reports to other people who work in the restaurant. Image courtesy go2HR

Compare the above with this opening line: “Why is there too much dressing on the Caesar salads?” The listener is being asked to find solutions for a situation that you have barely begun to describe. The listener does not know whether you are asking for help or just educating yourself on something that you have been wondering about.

In the body of your oral report, identify the key points or ideas of the subject matter. Put them in a sequence that makes sense, and join the key points in a logical manner that your listener can follow. The more points you try to make, the harder it is for the listener to follow you. In the case of an equipment breakdown, it would probably be most effective to describe the problem in the sequence that it came to your attention and what you have done about it so far. If the listener interrupts you to start offering solutions before you have finished, you could say “Let me explain what I’ve done so far to give you the whole picture.”

In the conclusion, summarize your main points. This is a chance to re-emphasize those points, but do not repeat everything you have already said. For example, “I do not know enough about this convection oven to know how to prevent the vol-au-vents from being lop-sided. Can you help me with it?”

Using the Telephone

Communicating on the telephone can be more difficult than speaking in person because many of the non-verbal cues are missing. When dealing with guests and other outsiders, it is particularly important to create a good first impression of your business. This first impression is created almost solely by your voice. For example, if you pick up the phone and bark “Yo” into the receiver, the caller is likely to be put off by your offhand manner and tone of voice. The caller may wonder whether he or she has reached the right number.

To communicate effectively on the telephone, follow these tips:

  • Answer the phone quickly, within three rings.
  • Use a pleasant tone of voice when answering telephone calls. Avoid sounding harried, angry, or distracted.
  • Greet the caller and identify the business and yourself. For example, you could say “Pleasant Stay Hotel kitchen. Carl speaking.”
  • Keep a message pad and pen handy when you take calls.
  • Do not carry on a conversation with someone else while you are on the phone. If it is necessary to speak to someone else, excuse yourself or offer to call back at a more appropriate time.
  • If there is an uncomfortable pause on the other end of the phone, ask for clarification: “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
  • Summarize the conversation at the end. For example, if you have taken a reservation for dinner, you might say, “I’ve made a reservation for February 12 at 7:00 p.m. for eight people under the name of Smith.”
  • If you have to put someone on hold, ask the person to hold and wait for a response.
  • Return to calls placed on hold quickly, and thank the person for waiting.
  • If you have to transfer the call to someone else, explain that you are transferring the call to a person who can help and state the name of the person to whom you are transferring the call. Give the person to whom you are transferring the call a brief summary of the caller’s request so that the caller does not have to repeat the request.
  • Be prepared when you make calls. Have a plan of what you will say. Have everything you need for the call at your fingertips. For example, if you are phoning in an order to a supplier, make sure that you have the restaurant account number, a list of the items you require, order numbers, the quantity needed, and other information beside you when you call.

Giving Directions and Feedback

A form of oral report that you will have to make if you supervise other people feedback on others’ performance. Feedback can be constructive or destructive. As these words imply, only constructive feedback serves any useful purpose. When you must give feedback on someone’s work, keep these tips in mind:

  • Focus on the work performance, not on the person
  • Be objective and descriptive rather than too personal
  • Start by mentioning things that the person is doing well
  • Keep the feedback to the point
  • Focus feedback on two or three things that the participant might be able to change in a short period of time
  • Give feedback as soon as possible after an event
  • Focus feedback on something a person can do something about
  • Never criticize a person in front of guests or other staff
  • Give the person a chance to comment

If you are responsible for the work of others, you will be checking that they do it correctly. You may find fault with some of their work even if they perform most of their job well. If you mention only the faults, the message is that they are doing everything wrong. By mentioning the things that they are doing right, they will better accept some things could be improved.

Take an example where the apprentice under your supervision is making pastries. Destructive feedback would be, “Are you stupid or something? The oven needs to be preheated before you put the pastries in to bake!” Do not use blaming words or indulge in name calling (“You are so…”). When people feel blamed, they often tune out of the discussion and do not hear your positive suggestions for improvement.

Less destructive, but still not constructive, feedback would be, “You did not preheat the oven before you baked the pastry. You must make sure the oven has reached…”

Now compare this constructive feedback: “Phil, you’re doing a good job with the pastry. They have a neat, attractive appearance and are well browned. I’m not sure you understand how critical the preheat time is. The quality of the finished product could be improved by…”

Tell people what they are doing right

Phil will feel good about your directions because he was told about the things he is doing right. It is a good idea to tell people about the things that they are doing right on a regular basis, not just when you are giving feedback. That way you encourage them to keep doing those things right. You also make such people feel good about speaking with you, so they will accept your directions easily when it is necessary. You do not need to say good things in private. Most people enjoy being praised in front of others.

Give feedback that is specific and descriptive

Give feedback that is concrete and specific. Your directions should tell the person exactly what she or he is doing well and what needs improvement. For example, saying, “You did a good job on the buffet tonight” may make the apprentices feel good, but it will not help them understand exactly what you feel was performed well. You could provide more information by saying, “You did a good job of serving the roast beef tonight. You sliced the beef thinly and evenly, and you always asked the guests for their preferences before serving.”

Focus on the behaviour that needs changing

Keep the discussion focused on the behaviour that needs changing. Often when people are uncomfortable about giving or receiving criticism, they change the subject or bring up the past. If you are uncomfortable, you might share your feelings. This may help put them at ease, and let them know that you are honestly struggling with being direct.

Give suggestions for improvement

Provide specific suggestions on what you would like done in future. For example, you might say, “In future, I would like you to consult me before you make changes in the recipe.” Or you might say, “Tomorrow, could you check that the vegetables are refilled promptly? Tonight, the line was slowed because there was no broccoli left in the steam trays.”

Give criticism in private

Always give criticism in private. When people are criticized in public, they may feel belittled or humiliated. It is especially important not to criticize staff in front of guests. Guests may be very embarrassed for the staff member. Their embarrassment may ruin their enjoyment of an excellent meal.

Provide opportunities for the person to respond

Ask the person for her or his reaction or comments about the criticism. There may be an explanation for the problem. For example, an equipment malfunction may be responsible. Treat the criticism as a problem that you and the employee will work on together. Do not treat the employee as the problem. Blaming will not give results.

Handling Criticism

It is often difficult to receive criticism. When your behaviour is criticized, it is easy to take it very personally, especially if the person giving the criticism is angry, frustrated, or blaming. Constructive criticism can provide you with feedback that can help you improve your skills, so it is important to pay attention to the criticism you receive.

Sometimes lack of feedback can create difficult situations at work. If your supervisor is reluctant to provide direction, you may not know that you are doing something poorly. You think that everything is all right with your work. At the same time, your supervisor may be getting more and more upset about your performance. Finally, the supervisor blows up. You cannot understand why the supervisor is so angry. You feel justifiably upset that nothing has been said before.

If you are not getting constructive criticism about your work, it is helpful to ask your supervisor for specific feedback. You might say, “I’m not sure that I am completing the mise en place in the way you would like. What suggestions do you have for me to improve my work?” By asking for feedback, you are indicating to the supervisor that you want to do a good job and constantly improve your skills.

The following tips will help you make best use of the suggestions you receive for improving your work:

  • Relax and pay attention: Relax and listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Taking a few deep breaths may help you overcome your anxiety.
  • Paraphrase the criticism: Repeat what you have heard in slightly different words so that the other person knows that you have heard and understood what was said. For example, you might say, “You would like me to pay more attention to the levels of the vegetables on the steam tray, and refill them before they are empty.”
  • Decide whether the criticism is fair: Decide whether the criticism is fair or unfair. If you feel the criticism is unfair, question the matter of unfairness rather than the criticism itself. For example, you might say, “I know it is important to keep the buffet line moving, but so many people want roast beef that I find it difficult to refill the vegetables when it is needed.” In other words, treat the complaint like a problem to be solved by you and your supervisor, not as a personal attack.
  • Ask for clarification: If the criticism is vague or unclear, ask for an explanation or specific examples. For example, if a server tells you that the soup does not taste right, you could ask, “Can you explain what you mean by ‘does not taste right’? Is it too salty or too highly spiced?”
  • Ask for suggestions: If the criticism is fair, ask for specific suggestions or alternatives for improving your performance. For example, you might ask, “Can you suggest a better way for me to handle orders that are shorted?”
  • Admit your mistakes: Do not go into long, self-critical, or rationalizing excuses. Admit your mistakes. For example, you might say, “Yes, I did not notice that today. I will do my best to watch for it tomorrow.”
  • State your opinion if you disagree: If you disagree with the criticism, respond with statements that begin with “I” rather than “you.” I statements give an opinion, which may differ from the other person’s. They are less likely to be perceived as blaming. For example, you might say, “I think that you misinterpreted what I said.” If you say “You misinterpreted what I said again. You’re always doing that,” you are likely to get into a shouting match with the person that will leave hard feelings on both sides and not resolve the problem.
  • Respond calmly: When responding to someone who is speaking loudly, quickly, or angrily, keep your voice low and speak slowly. The other person is more likely to slow down and become more reasonable. If you respond angrily or loudly, the confrontation is likely to escalate. This does not mean that you have to act in a humble or submissive manner. You just need to stay calm and focused on the problem.
  • Share your feelings: If you find yourself getting angry or upset, take a few deep breaths before you respond. It can be helpful to share your feelings about the criticism. You could say, “It is not easy for me to take criticism,” or “I am feeling annoyed that you are bringing up this issue again.”

Media Attributions

  • A Server Holding a Tray © go2HR. Used with permission
  • A Cook Smiling at the Camera © go2HR. Used with permission
  • Different Cultures © go2HR. Used with permission
  • Oral Reports © go2HR. Used with permission


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Working in the Food Service Industry Copyright © 2015 by The BC Cook Articulation Committee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book