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Tools and best practices for effective verbal and nonverbal communication
There is no skill that is more important for a park and recreation leader to have than communication, specifically verbal communication. Leaders — including supervisors and managers — find themselves in constant communication with co-workers, boards, sponsors, parents and other stakeholders. Therefore, clear, effective communication is critical to a leader’s or manager’s success and contributes to their employees’ and the agency’s success. Failure to effectively communicate may lead one down a path of miscommunication, distrust, anger, inefficiency and other negative outcomes.
While this article mainly focuses on verbal communication skills, it is also important to understand the role that nonverbal communication plays in a conversation. Verbal communication centers around an individual’s (or sender’s) choice of words and how they are received and eventually interpreted by the receiver. This not only includes word choice that considers one’s audience, but also delivery (e.g., pace and tone), and reinforcement (e.g., body language and other cues) that influence how the message is received. In addition, active listening is an important part of the equation. That is, successful message delivery + active listening = effective conversation.
There are useful guidelines that should be considered when communicating with a variety of individuals and groups. Being observant is particularly helpful in communicating, as it stresses noting nonverbal cues presented by the audience. In addition, it is important that the speaker recognizes nonverbal cues and how they may have a strong impact on how the message is received. For example, impatiently tapping one’s fingers, looking at a smartphone, or not making eye contact may all send a message of indifference.
Regardless of the conversation topic, it is important to remain calm. At times, conflict can rear its ugly head; however, working to tamp down emotions in the moment will go a long way in producing more effective communication. From word choice to tone and body language, a calm demeanor will help both during the conversation and also in maintaining a healthy professional relationship. Spontaneous negative outbursts often have long-term ramifications.
Empathy is a powerful tool. Understanding the feelings of your staff will go a long way toward a productive conversation. The ability to be clear and concise in communication can help you improve the efficiency of people’s work in that it will allow for greater understanding of the message the first time it is presented. If employees clearly understand your message, productivity will be increased and confusion decreased, thus, making for a better work environment and helping reduce frustrations.
Often, leaders will find themselves in a situation where they need to advise others on an appropriate course of action. At times, these are situations where the employees’ own behavior needs to be adjusted. There are different tools one can use to address these scenarios.
Tools to Improve Communication Outcomes
Continuously working to improve verbal communication skills may help a leader achieve professional goals, such as career advancement, positive communication with a stakeholder, or an employee’s performance improvement. The use of reinforcement is one way that a person may facilitate an effective conversation. With eye contact, smiling, nodding and other types of nonverbal actions, leaders can provide encouragement within the discussion without disrupting its flow. These actions help minimize nervousness in other people by communicating openness, warmth and interest, which serve to improve the relationship between the sender and receiver.
Asking questions also is an effective communication tool that consists of two forms, depending on what you hope to achieve. On one hand, open questions will encourage elaboration or discussion. For example: “What do you mean by that statement?” On the other hand, a closed question is appropriate for queries that call for a simple answer, such as: “Did you submit your final budget?” Recognizing how a well-timed, appropriate question can move the conversation forward is an effective tool in a variety of situations.
It also is beneficial for a speaker to check with the “receiver” for clarification. Paraphrasing and repeating back what you hear is an effective technique to ensure both parties in the conversation are on the same page. This type of clarification affirms that the speaker is showing that they are trying to understand a situation from the other person’s perspective (empathy), demonstrates respect and interest, and allows further clarification.
While it is a good practice to summarize the main points before moving away from the conversation, following up with an email outlining the points may be effective to document next steps. Should the conversation focus on a more challenging topic, such as a performance review, summarizing main points may help ensure that both parties are clear on what to take from the conversation.
There are six different communication styles that a leader may want to consider incorporating — the who, what, when and why of the conversation. Probably the most critical style to master is that of listening, specifically active listening. While there is no ideal ratio of speaking to listening, it is important that a leader uses the information available to gauge any reactions. From body language to what others are saying, active listening allows individuals to evaluate a situation and respond in an appropriate manner. Beyond using reinforcement and nonverbal cues, active listening involves focusing on a speaker and what they are saying. It also involves formulating an appropriate response, maintaining an open mind, and keeping distractions at a minimum (for example, setting a phone to silent or moving to a quieter area). While formulating an appropriate response is part of active listening, the receiver should make sure they aren’t just anxiously waiting for their turn to say something without truly taking in the message.
Another communication style of note is coaching. In these situations, the leader helps an employee develop a broad set of skills, laying out goals for moving forward.
Another style is teaching. Teaching is focused on helping an employee with a particular skill or task that they are struggling with. The leader lays out the foundation for addressing the situation, explaining why the course of action would be beneficial.
Providing direction allows a leader to specify steps to move a project forward. However, it is essential that a leader understands that the delivery of their message is key to avoiding a style that would be classified as “dictating.” Outlining a framework is helpful.
Advising employees is a communication style that focuses on providing clarity or advice to help a person move forward with a task, project or skill development.
Motivating can look different for each employee. A leader using this style should determine what motivates their employee.
While difficult conversations are inevitable, the strategies outlined above can ensure the outcomes of these conversations meet your goals. Conveying constructive feedback while emphasizing specific, changeable behaviors, and disciplining employees in a direct, respectful manner, can help de-escalate tense situations. The more specific and respectful the leader can be in delivering the message, the more likely it is to be received in a manner that can be acted upon. Combining this with awareness of nonverbal cues can keep the conversation on track. Finding a way to give positive credit can help acceptance of the message.
Strong communication skills are an essential characteristic of an effective leader. Only through successful communication can the goals of the individual, their employees and the agency be met to successfully provide park and recreation services.
Dos and Don'ts of Communication
Regardless of your communication style and keeping in mind the basic skills of effective communication, there are some clear dos and don’ts of communication that help any leader ensure an effective communication style in a wide variety of situations.
DO: Have a strong communication plan.
Don’t: Depend on technology for communication.
It is likely that you use several communication tools (e.g., email, social media, brochures) as part of your overall communication plan, depending on your goals and audience. If we limit discussion of the communication plan to internal conversations, typically we rely on face-to-face conversations, phone conversations, texting or email. It would behoove a leader to really consider the topic of the conversation and which approach may produce the best outcomes. Of the four, texts and emails often have the most downside even though many of us rely on them almost to the exclusion of the other two. Electronic messaging allows for the person to respond in their own time, as well as to disseminate information that is clear and does not require a prolonged back and forth. Unfortunately, emails and texts are often used with poor results. As they lack a personal touch, some people will be emboldened to say things they would never say face to face or even in a phone conversation. This can lead to hurt feelings, as well as misunderstandings, particularly if fired off in the heat of the moment. Therefore, in more volatile situations, and situations where the way forward is less defined, talking to a person is likely not only more efficient, but also more effective and leads to fewer instances of misinterpretations.
DO:Understand your audience.
Don’t: Use negative body language.
Whether your audience is comprised of employees, supervisors, community members, agency members, board members or others, it is important to understand where they are coming from and their perspectives on the message you are communicating. Of course, part of the communication is body language. Therefore, be sure to avoid negative body language that can completely derail your message, such as frowning, lack of eye contact or holding your arms crossed.
DO: Be consistent.
Consistency in messaging is a hallmark of a strong leader. How a message is delivered may change depending on the audience; however, the core message should remain consistent. Failure to do this can result in a multitude of poor outcomes, including mistrust and poor performance by your employees. In addition, it is important that a leader not overshare. Sometimes, this is in reference to personal information, but oversharing also involves the ability to edit oneself by recognizing what an employee, depending on their management level, should and should not be privy to. From budgetary decisions to personnel decisions, it is important for a leader to have a solid understanding of what is appropriate to share with colleagues. While sharing personal stories related to the topic can be instrumental in opening and furthering dialogue, there is a line between appropriate stories and “too much information.”
Don’t: Be afraid to ask questions.
Part of active listening often includes asking questions. Asking questions, assuming they are thoughtful questions that show you were listening to the person you are speaking with, not only helps provide clarification to a conversation, but also indicates to the speaker that what they are saying is important and confirms that you are both on the same page.
Don’t: Have one-sided conversations.
Feedback to the speaker indicates that you hear what they are saying and also is part of active listening. If you spend most of your time talking or waiting for your turn to talk rather than listening, it is likely that you will miss most of the message. Being prepared to give feedback forces you to really listen, so that the feedback is on target and ultimately leads to more positive outcomes from the conversation.
Denise Anderson is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Clemson University.