Chapter 9: Effective Communication
Professional communication sometimes means acting in ways that may be different than how you act at home, with your family, or with your friends. In a Canadian context, professional communication is usually direct and assertive. This is because communication tends to be functional and serve the purpose of identifying actions and next steps. This is particularly important in written communication, where receivers are looking for the information they need to act and respond efficiently.
Assertive communication is defined as the ability for individuals to “clearly state their opinions and feelings, and firmly advocate for their rights and needs … while being very respectful of the rights of others” (University of Kentucky, n.d. ). An assertive communicator is confident in what they are saying, attempting to be direct, brief, and kind.
Here are some qualities of assertive communication, along with some examples.
- Reflect on what your audience needs. If you need someone to take an action, ensure that they understood what you asked. Think about their needs and concerns.
- “I know you often take your lunch break at 12. Would it be okay if we scheduled our debrief at 11am or 1pm?”
- Explain what you need in simple language. This means focusing on actions and outcomes, while recognizing the feelings of others.
- “Could I please come in late next Tuesday? I have a dentist appointment. I can make sure the office is clean and ready to open on Monday evening.”
- Describe your feelings when necessary using I statements. Try to use objective language when you are describing other people’s actions. This means you want to avoid blaming or accusing the person you are speaking to.
- “I feel frustrated when you don’t cover your food in the microwave in the lunch room. After you use it, I need to clean the old food our before I can heat up my lunch.”
- Be respectful. This can be a challenge when you are upset or when you think you may upset the person you are talking to.
- “I am sorry to hear that you had a problem with our product’s quality. I would be happy to exchange that for you.”
- Stand up for yourself. Other people may try to manipulate you or try to get you to do their work. In severe cases, they may even try to infringe on your rights.
- “I’m sorry, but that task is outside of my job description. I don’t report to you, so I will need to confirm with my supervisor before I proceed.”
How to Say No
An important piece of learning to be assertive is knowing when and how to say no. Although it can be hard to say no to someone, it is better to be realistic about what you can do. As a WIL worker, you may also not have the authority to give a customer what they are asking for. Often, you will need to defer to your manager or other supervisor. Saying yes when you aren’t able to do something also has real consequences. If you fail to do something you said to do, you will lose credibility, strain relationships, and even risk job loss. Saying yes is taking on a responsibility. So, even though saying no may feel uncomfortable in the short term, there are ways to do it politely. Here are a few phrases you can try:
- I’m going to have to pass.
- I’d love to but I just don’t have time.
- I don’t want to say yes and then let you down.
- I don’t want to say no but I have to.
- It’s just not right for me.
- It’s just not the right time for me (Satran, qtd. in The Whoot, 2021).
Difficult Conversations and Managing Complaints
There are times when you will need to have a difficult conversation and this may come in the form of managing a complaint.
Here are some tips that will help you:
- Take a step back and evaluate the situation from the other perspective.
- Process your emotions away from the job. This may take the form of journaling, meditating, talking to a friend. It’s fine to vent but do so in a space that is appropriate.
- Reflect on what you are really upset about. The conversation may have triggered a sensitive area for you.
- Pick out the learning opportunities (Guidoccio, 2021).
- Engage in active listening, be curious and ask clarifying questions.
- Take a break. Sometimes a conversation comes to a point where it is best to take a break. Ensure that you do so respectfully and with the intention of revisiting the conversation.
No matter how good you are at communicating, mistakes and misunderstandings will still occur. If and when you are on the receiving end of a customer complaint, remember to listen attentively with the aim of understanding. Allow them to finish their message before you offer advice or assistance. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you have made a mistake. Work with the customer to find a solution. This may mean you need to be creative or that you may need to get your supervisor’s opinion or approval. Follow up with the customer or client to ensure that it was resolved to their satisfaction. If necessary, learn from the misunderstanding and move on.
Communication Behaviours to Avoid
There are some definite communication behaviours to avoid in the workplace.
- Making excuses
Feedback. The word alone makes many people anxious. Some people automatically associate this with criticism but while feedback may contain some concerns, it isn’t always negative. We should view feedback as a positive experience, “an opportunity to celebrate achievements, and share some difficult growth points” (Winwood, 2018). Remember the discussion about a growth mindset in Chapter 1: Work Integrated Learning, this is an important aspect of receiving feedback.
Here are some tips on how to receive feedback effectively:
- Engage in active listening. Remember to listen fully and wait until the speaker has finished to clarify.
- Approach feedback objectively. Try not to be defensive. In most instances, the person providing the feedback is aimed at improvement not criticism.
- Be aware of your physical body. Assume an open, comfortable, but confident posture. Take a deep breath. Hold your head up and look directly at the speaker. Your mind will follow these bodily cues and feel calmer.
- Seek to understand. If you aren’t completely sure of what the feedback is, ask questions and clarify in a non-defensive way. You can also ask for an example of the behavior to illustrate the feedback.
- Have a growth mindset. Embrace the feedback as a learning opportunity (Winward, 2018).
- Thank the person for giving you the feedback. If you’ve ever been asked to give feedback, you’ll know that it is difficult and when done well, it requires a lot of time. Be grateful that the person giving you feedback feels you are worth that investment.
- Reflect on the feedback. Sometimes it’s best not to respond in the moment but to give yourself some time to reflect on what was said, “assess the value of the feedback, the consequences of using it or ignoring it, and then decide what to do” (University of Waterloo, n.d.). It is ultimately your decision how you use the feedback you have been given.
- Report inappropriate feedback. If you think the feedback is inappropriate, talk to a trusted friend or colleague and ask for a second opinion. This may help you determine the validity of the comment. If you need to, take action with the help of your WIL instructor, supervisor, or a human resources professional.
Early in your career, you may find that you receive feedback more than you give it. However, when you engage in peer learning or are training a new co-worker, you may find yourself in the position of giving feedback. Here are a couple of notes that will help you give effective feedback when you are asked for it.
- Be genuine, humble, and respectful.
- Seek to understand. Don’t look to score points or make yourself look superior.
- Be collaborative and supportive.
- Give concrete and specific examples.
- Look for things that can be improved upon.
- Avoid lavish praise (InnerDrive, n.d.).
- Avoid comparisons with others (InnerDrive, n.d.).
- Remember to also add positive comments.
Remember, don’t offer feedback for others without being asked for it or asking if they would mind you giving them some feedback.
- Watch for communication barriers and reflect on how to remove them.
- Engage in active listening.
- Manage your emotions. Communicate in a calm, respectful, but assertive manner.
- Look at feedback as an opportunity.
- Practice communication skills.
- “Figure 9.4 Communication behaviours to avoid” by Deb Nielsen, Emily Ballantyne, Faatimah Murad and Melissa Fournier is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence. Based on Treasure, J. (2013).
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