The Ultimate Key to Effective Communication


Is there a single “holy grail” of effective communication?

For more than 20 years I have been helping organizations and individuals improve their communication effectiveness in both professional and personal settings. I have developed and delivered training on a wide variety of communication topics: presentation skills, high-impact writing, active listening, understanding communication styles, speaking with clarity and brevity, how to have “tough” conversations about difficult topics…and the list goes on.

On occasion during a workshop someone will ask me to identify the most important communication skill – usually this means they have become overwhelmed by too much information and feel they cannot assimilate all of the communication skills, habits and techniques being delivered – so they want to know… what is the ONE technique they should definitely learn.

(Shameless Plug: If you are looking to assess your organization’s overall communication competency, take a look at the Professional  Communication SkillMap which is an organizational communication assessment.)

For many years my standard answer was “there is no single most important skill” and I would go on to describe the intricacy and complexity of human interactions. I would pontificate regarding the importance of this topic, how so much business productivity is lost and personal life satisfaction is never realized because people are unwilling to invest the time and energy needed to truly master interpersonal communication. Essentially I was saying “This is hard stuff, so stop trying to find the easy way to master it all. Take your medicine. You may not like the taste but it will be good for you. Really.”

Please accept my apology.

If you are one of the individuals who asked this question over the last 20 years, and received a response similar to the one above. Because I think this response was short-sighted and really meant that I had simply not thought the question through fully enough. But it is of course uncomfortable to say “I don’t know” when someone asks a good question in a communication skills workshop. And my response achieved the intended result – no further questions along this line.

Which brings me to the reason for writing this article. Because after many years of thought, discussion and observation, I believe I now have the answer to the question.

Bear with me a moment while I get to the point.

All of the skills I have taught over the years are still valid and important. Here is a listing of the skill categories included in some of my most recent workshops:

  • Authentically communicating what you really feel and think.
  • Speaking and writing with clarity and brevity.
  • Asking tactical and strategic questions to seek understanding.
  • Listening actively for deeper understanding.
  • Communicating with emotional effectiveness.
  • Clarifying agreements and outcomes.

And while these topics are still valid and immensely important, if tomorrow I were to be asked the question “what is the most important communication skill,” my answer would go something like this:

The most important communication skill is learning to motivate others to want to communicate openly, authentically and safely.

In both your business world and your personal life, if you can encourage others to open up, to share authentic thoughts and feelings, to feel safe knowing there is no downside to full and open dialogue, and to deeply understand the benefits of authentic interpersonal communication, this will be a profound ability that will radically change the quality and direction of your life – and the lives of many others.

With that said, this is not an easy ability to develop. It goes far beyond the mere development of communication skills. Because of course, before you can focus on helping others you have to first develop your own communication capabilities. You have to become a true “model” of open dialogue and communication.

If you are a business leader this means setting an example for others in your organization. It means “walking the talk” every day, communicating openly and authentically, addressing difficult situations directly and respectfully. The most effective communication “training” any business leader can provide for his or her organization comes from that leaders day to day communication style itself. In fact, the case can be easily made that this is the only real communication skills training that ever occurs in any organization.

Communication training workshops for businesses are a total waste of time if the skills, habits and techniques that are highlighted by the training are not reflected in the actual day to day practices of that organization’s leadership. Employees learn very quickly what the real communication culture of any organization is – and that culture is inevitably set by the organization’s leadership.

So once again – the most important communication skill any business leader can develop is the ability to motivate others to want to communicate openly, authentically and safely.

This is the ultimate communication skill. And it is profoundly difficult. Especially for business leaders. Because they are often under enormous pressures. They are under the microscope all the time. A business leader can spend years working hard to establish an open communication culture within an organization, and all it takes is a single slip – snapping at an employee, over-reacting to bad news – and the open communication culture can begin to erode quickly.

Business leaders also struggle because there is so much that they cannot say. Financial reporting requirements place severe restrictions on any business with publicly traded debt. Even privately held companies usually have important restrictions regarding what a business leader can and cannot say. And beyond the legal restrictions,  a business leader has to be careful because every word from the leader of an organization carries so much weight.

For a business leader, even something as simple as giving a compliment for a job well done to a specific subordinate during a business meeting can be problematic. Because it comes from the leader, that compliment carries great weight, both positive and negative. Positive for the person receiving the compliment. And potentially negative for others who did not receive similar positive comments. It isn’t fair to the business leader, but every comment is scrutinized this way.

(Shameless Plug #2: If you are looking to assess your own communication abilities as a business leader, check out the REAL Communication Assessment.)

So what specifically can a business leader do, to instill in others the motivation to communicate openly, authentically and safely? By “safely” I mean working to help others feel safe and certain that they will not suffer negative consequences because they have brought up a difficult topic. Here are a few specific recommendations for business leaders:

  • Spend more time asking questions and listening carefully than you spend talking and expressing your opinion.
  • Be careful not to “telegraph” your own opinions before asking questions in order to minimize the natural tendency of many people to echo the thoughts and opinions of the business leader.
  • Listen actively throughout your day. So much is being communicated all around you. Don’t just listen for what people are saying. Listen for what they are NOT saying, and listen for the emotions underlying everything they say.
  • Don’t be annoyed that you have to be so thoughtful with your communication. It is not that others don’t want to be direct and open with you – but we all have a tendency to be careful when we aren’t certain about the safety of the environment.
  • When you DO speak, don’t be too careful or nuanced in your communication. Be a “plain talker” who is known for speaking frankly, directly and respectfully in all situations.
  • Also when you speak, tell people what you REALLY feel and think. Don’t split hairs or equivocate.
  • Speak with clarity and brevity – this will come easier when you are saying what you really think. Many business leaders fall into the trap of talking way too much because they are essentially dancing around what they really think.
  • Your writing should reflect these same thoughts. Even email should be written with clarity, brevity and respect. Never “flame” an employee by email, or in person.

Final thought – remember, the most important communication skill any business leader can develop is the ability to motivate others to want to communicate openly, authentically and safely.

If you keep this goal in mind every day, continually assessing your own communication effectiveness and  monitoring the level of open communication in your organization, you will begin to move in the right direction. This is often slow, difficult progress. And it is very easy to backslide. But the benefits can be enormous. Imagine how much more productive your entire organization could be if everyone was comfortable. motivated and had the skills to communicate openly and authentically at all times.

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