From education to employment

Communication: The soft skill that we’re not doing enough about

people talking

We all communicate in our professional lives. Every email or direct message is a chance for something to be misinterpreted. Alia Coster, communications coach and founder of The Four Pillars Group, is here to explain how communication is the soft skill we’re not giving enough attention to.

I had a conversation with a match from a dating app recently. Their opening gambit was a reminder that we had actually connected in the past and that the chat had been going well until I “just went crazy,” according to them. And here we were once again. 

That was honestly how he decided to open the conversation. 

When I was able to translate what he meant by crazy, it was that his communication style was aggressive, and he didn’t respond well to politely established personal boundaries. 

As you can imagine, the conversation wasn’t exactly scintillating from that point on. It started on a bad foot and it continued that way. What was it that told him his opening message was the right tact? Did he assume I would laugh off being called crazy? That’s what he said he would have done if the tables had been reversed. I don’t think it would have gone like that – had the shoe been on the other foot, I bet he would have something to say.

That’s communication to a tee though, isn’t it? There are times where most of us will have butt heads with someone. It’s practically an inevitability. We are individuals with our unique quirks. It doesn’t always have to be explosive. In fact, it can be this silent, unspoken poison that leads to toxicity and miscommunication, especially in the workplace. But where does it come from?

Communication, communication, communication

Communication is a soft skill like any other, but it isn’t given the same attention. It isn’t something taught in schools, nor is it something we learn about once we’re set free on the world. It’s “goodbye, good luck, figure it out.” So we’re pushed into this new chapter of our lives – our careers – without a parachute.

No one guides us through the intricacies of navigating interpersonal conflict in the office. There’s no 101 on approaching difficult discussions or making your point heard. Even during further education, it takes a mostly academic focus rather than building critical, transferable skills.

Could it be because certain aspects of communicating – such as writing – are viewed as “creative” endeavours? We see it as a topic of talking to Richard about that deadline he missed isn’t exactly on the same level as writing Romeo & Juliet. There’s a difference between creative writing – for which there are set FE courses – and professional writing. One is for the poets and storytellers of the world. The other is for everyone. You can’t avoid communication.

The impact

Where does bad communication lead? In the professional world, it can end up in crossed wires, a toxic work environment, and people not feeling heard. Each one is a hurdle that upsets productivity and efficiency. And the worst part is we so rarely see this aspect of ourselves. That again comes down to the fact that we don’t value it as a soft skill.

Here’s another story of it in action. I saw someone the other day proclaim they were quitting LinkedIn in dramatic fashion. The time and effort they had put in hadn’t led to the return on investment they were expecting. Someone familiar with them offered some kind advice: their private messages came across as pitches. Pushy. Salesy.

They did not take it well. To them, they had simply used their private messages to tell people more about themselves and their services. Which is the definition of a “pitch.” They didn’t see it that way, but instead of internalising that feedback, came out defensive. Had they taken it onboard, they could reflect on how they came across and made changes that led to the returns they were expecting.

It’s a lack of awareness about how we can appear to other people. That’s the silver bullet missing. But we’re expected to pick this up by osmosis, despite the fact that everyone’s world and perspective are different. We’re not taught to read people and situations. We’re just taught to read Shakespeare.

Quintessentially British

There’s a cultural element to it, too. An aversion to addressing conflict or our own blindspots that’s sewed into the fabric of British culture. This isn’t to paint anyone with a broad brush. But the way we’re brought up might influence us to communicate in a way that would seem alien to others. Some cultures have a much more direct approach. Others are more deferential.

It’s when these come together that there can be a clash. In this amazingly and increasingly diverse world, you’re going to have more situations where communication styles don’t line up. Sure, you could say “but they’re just words; as long as we’re speaking the same language, what does it matter?”

But that’s just it: it matters more than ever. It’s a slippery slope to believe we shouldn’t think about words so much. But we need to. There’s so much nuance to communication that we have to think deeper about the words we’re using. And not only the words we’re using, but how they’re going to land for the people we’re speaking to.

It’s yet another reason why we need to be preparing people. We can’t control how others interpret our words. It isn’t on us to dictate how a person thinks and feels. All we can do is control ourselves.

What can we do?

All of this happens because we’re not equipped with that foundation that’s built up in further education. Teamwork, problem-solving, time management – the structure of education is designed to promote these qualities. We need to add awareness to that skill set. An open-mindedness to how we can change our approach to communication.

I do want to say, as a neurodivergent person myself, it isn’t going to be as easy for some as it is for others. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to equip everyone with the tools they need to navigate their professional challenges. I’m living proof of someone that can take a step back and focus on how I come across, even if my ADHD brain says otherwise.

And while I’ve highlighted further education as a space where we can make this happen, it’s never too late. We have workplace training for inclusivity or health and safety – communication can be a part of that, too. Because it’s just as vital. When we learn to communicate effectively, we can improve cooperation, work as a more cohesive unit, and tackle issues with tact.

We are driven by a multitude of traits. Our personality traits, communication styles, values, and fears. And I see a fear of confronting who we are in many people. No one wants to feel like the social outcast who can’t talk to people in a normal way. But this isn’t about fear. It’s about self-belief and self-improvement.

If we can all add a little of that into our lives, it could transform us as professionals.

By writing and communication coach, Alia Coster. The founder of The Four Pillars

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