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The art of communication in the workplace


Communication is key to keeping any relationship running smoothly – and workplace relationships are no exception, writes Rob Payne.

Communication is key to making sure any relationship runs smoothly.

Conflict is a feature of all human interactions, from family friction and relationship dramas to dealing with that Holden Commodore tailgating on the freeway. It’s also a fundamental part of the workplace, where divergent personalities often collide in an atmosphere supercharged with time constraints, egos, conflicting opinions and the odd case of the Mondays.

As with most conflict, workplace problems can escalate quickly. While they may manifest as open hostility, more often they get suppressed, taking the form of stress, anxiety, depression, lower productivity and disengagement.

Companies ignore this issue at their peril, with one recent survey estimating strained relationships are behind 65 per cent of Australian employee performance problems. Meanwhile, ‘presenteeism’ – being present, but not engaged – costs the nation between $5.7 and $35.1 billion per year. So, it pays to get along – but how? We’ve asked four communication experts to weigh in.

Living the company’s values

Professor Stephen Teo from ECU’s School of Business and Law has been studying workplace wellbeing and performance for two decades. He believes managers and leaders need to live the company’s values, setting a standard for positive communication.

“Most problems come down to a lack of respect, which begins at the top,” Teo says.

“Leaders need to be authentic, which means embodying the organisation’s professed values and always trying to be open and honest.

“This approach has been shown to reduce incivility across the workforce and reduce worker stress.”

Part of this respect is acknowledging diversity in the workplace, including cultural and ideological differences.

Teo believes diversity and different ways of thinking are important assets, but they need to be managed.

“We sometimes think of listening as a passive action, but effective communication involves being cognisant that not everyone thinks the same way,” he says.

“We need to be open to the speaker’s intentions and deeper meaning – and that requires effort and patience.”

Sometimes complaining about work is a good thing.

It’s OK to blow off steam

While it may seem counterintuitive, allowing employees to be critical is actually constructive and good for morale.

“Having a voice is very important in any organisation. You need a climate where people are allowed to say what they think,” Teo says.

“That doesn’t mean a person can say anything outrageous, but they should feel safe enough to raise an issue or let off steam.

“This is not to say that an employee can complain about the same issue over and over again. If you whinge every day, that is negative, and you don’t want that behaviour in the workplace.”

So next time you’re having a rant and get told to pipe down, feel free to point out that criticism is a constructive process that seeks solutions, drives innovation and brings about creative change.

But what about when things do go wrong?

Every workplace has issues that require intervention and resolution – but how can we approach these uncomfortable meetings in a constructive way?

Dr Shane Rogers from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities suggests being mindful of the unconscious ways in which we show our feelings, including body language, tone and even how we construct our sentences.

“When problems occur, you usually know there’s going to be a conversation. It’s important to approach these like a race – starting strong out of the blocks,” Rogers says.

“In psychology we have the norm of reciprocity, which is the idea that you tend to get what you give.

“If you walk into a meeting expecting awkwardness and conflict, your body language might betray that, which can influence the person you’re talking to, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So even if you feel tense, a veneer of pleasantry can serve you well.

Make your language fit the frame

Our language is also important, including avoiding ‘you’ language – such as ‘you did this’ or ‘you did that’.

“'You' language is accusatory and frames the situation as blame, which people really hate. Even if they feel sorry, this approach might prompt them to respond negatively,” Rogers says.

Instead we need to use ‘I’ language, which shares our perspective, but keeps communication open, allowing the other person to clarify information or give their own version of events.

“It subtly tells the other person that you have respect for their understanding, which can lead to a compromise or mutually beneficial outcome,” Rogers says.

Making an apology count is hugely important.

What to say when things really go pear-shaped

As human beings, we’re going to make mistakes in the workplace, and that sometimes requires an apology. But what is the best way to make amends and repair damage?

Professor Alfred Allan from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities has been studying this question for more than two decades, and suggests we need to look beyond ‘I’m sorry’.

“Apologies are not always discrete, but can occur along a spectrum, varying in degree and composition depending on the wrong committed and the willingness of the victim to accept apologetic gestures wrongdoers make,” Allan says.

While sometimes a simple acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed is enough, other times making amends requires a longer period to rebuild trust.

An apology may be a communication process that occurs over time, involving parties trying to understand one another’s perspective, which is not easy.

This might require talking, going away, thinking and consolidating and then returning for further engagement.

Allan explains that these larger apologies have a number of components, including taking responsibility, demonstrating remorse and making amends. While they can be explicit or verbal, they are also expressed through attitude, tone, body language and small gestures that show how we feel.

“Individuals often read apologies at a level that is deeper than what is presented,” Allan says.

“Mediators say they don’t always hear an apology, but discover recipients are satisfied that they’ve got what they wanted and can move on.

“This goes back to our evolution, which is why people can’t always tell you why they understand an apology – we’ve learned it in an instinctive way. It is way beyond the verbal and what people consciously think.”

So the key may be to show your remorse and demonstrate it through action, and not simply say you’ve made a mistake. Allan also suggests we make sure our apologies are genuine.

“You can camouflage a justification or excuse as an apology, but that is not going to work, because people are pretty astute at picking up whether a person’s apology is self-serving or not,” he warns.

And if you do need a new job...

If your job situation does unravel to the point of needing a new start, Dr Cathy Henkel from the WA Screen Academy suggests you do a bit of work on your ‘practical intelligence’.

This involves the ability to read people and decode non-verbal messages, adapt behaviours to achieve goals and manage real-world situations.

“These are the most important skills needed to survive our rapidly-changing work world: knowing how to be a functioning person and how to work with people,” Henkel says.

The takeaway from all this expertise is that communication is a skill. As with any skill, practice makes perfect – and while perfect may be out of reach for most of us, improved communication will certainly help to make your work life just a bit more tolerable.

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