Communication skills Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

No matter what other skills you have, communication skills rank the highest among employers seeking quality employees. That goes for accounting and finance professionals as well, according to a recent survey by Accountemps.

The reason for this, says Terry Phillips, vice president of Robert Half International in Akron, is that managers realize the wide-reaching impact of communication and the dozens of interactions employees have each day with other people.

Smart Business spoke with Phillips about what people can do to improve their communication skills

Why are communication skills more important than ever before?

Managers realize the wide-reaching impact of communication. Every day, people have dozens, if not hundreds, of interactions with colleagues, managers, customers, investors and others.

How high do communications skills rank among employers when hiring for management positions?

They rank quite high, actually. Managers rely on soft skills every day in their interactions with staff, senior management and clients, so proficiency in all types of communication is essential to success. Since senior-level responsibilities include motivating and retaining employees, strong ‘people’ skills are as vital as financial expertise.

What can employers do to sharpen their employees’ communication skills?

Employers can take a number of steps to help improve their staff’s communication and other soft skills. Some things other companies in our area have done are: developing a mentor program, providing tuition reimbursement for employees taking courses in business writing and public speaking, and encouraging staff to volunteer for team leadership roles. Each of these is an excellent way to help employees become more effective communicators.

What can business professionals themselves do to sharpen their skills?

Like any other skill set, soft skills can be learned, practiced and improved upon.

Those willing to improve on these skills should observe others, taking a close look at people in their organization who present their thoughts well at meetings and can write detailed yet brief e-mail messages. They should also invite constructive criticism, informing trusted coworkers of their desire to improve and asking for suggestions to act upon. They should seek opportunities to improve.

There are a number of courses individuals can take to heighten listening, negotiation and public speaking abilities. Also, the capacity to perform under pressure, make good decisions in a time crunch and project a professional image can be enhanced with practice.

Another thing they should do is give attention to the details, making it a habit to double-check all of their e-mails for accuracy and clarity. A clean, error-free e-mail speaks volumes about your attention to detail.

Being an active listener is also important. The savviest communicators do more listening than speaking. They pay attention and look directly at the person speaking. Instead of thinking about their response, they focus on what’s being said. They’re also aware of their body language. Poor posture, drumming fingers and tapping feet can break the connection between them and the speaker. They also avoid distractions, refraining from using their computer while talking on the phone.

You’re guaranteed to tune out a portion of the conversation if you’re engaged in another activity. They take thorough notes, bringing a pen and paper to every meeting they attend but not letting their note-taking interfere with the flow of conversation. They don’t interrupt, realizing the temptation to break into the conversation but always letting the speaker finish. Interrupting runs the risk of short-circuiting specific information or ideas.

Finally, they ask questions. Agreeing with everything you hear doesn’t mean you’re a good listener. Active listening means asking questions to clarify salient points.

TERRY PHILLIPS is vice president of Robert Half International in Akron. Robert Half is a specialized staffing firm headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. Reach Phillips at (330) 253-8367.