Doug Blizzard
Why you should resolve to improve your communication

Many of the problems we face at work and at home are related to communication failures.

January 20, 2015
by Doug Blizzard

It’s late January again, and, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably already broken your New Year’s resolution. It’s understandable: Working out in the morning to lose weight is hard, and cutting back on sweets isn’t fun either. Being more organized takes too much time, and as for saving more money … well, spending is just much more fun. 

Yet, as I scan the many online lists of top resolutions such as those, I’m amazed that they all are missing perhaps the one thing that would most improve our careers, relationships, and workplaces: better communication. Quite simply, many of the problems we face at work and at home are either directly or indirectly related to communication failures. And we are directly to blame.

The costs of poor communication are well-documented. A recent study by SIS International Research and Siemens Communications found that ineffective communication is one of the major problems facing small to midsize businesses—and it costs those businesses around $26,000 per knowledge worker each year in lost productivity. Poor communication can even be deadly in some industries, such as in health care when doctors don’t communicate clearly with nurses or don’t clearly understand patients. 

So what does communication have to do with accounting, which by its nature, is so focused on numbers? Since accounting and auditing are conducted by human beings, success is still directly related to an ability to effectively communicate. Think about it: How many projects suffer because we didn’t adequately understand client needs? How many times did we not receive the right information from a client because we couldn’t articulate exactly what we needed? How many employees have we lost or demotivated because we didn’t clearly communicate job expectations or career paths? The language of accounting may be numbers, but the practice of accounting is all about people. 

Similar to many items found on the typical New Year’s resolution list, there are many books, articles, and programs to help all of us become better communicators. As a result, it can be overwhelming to even know how to start.

Fortunately, you can do one thing to improve communication in every area of your life. The late author Stephen Covey summed it up best in just a simple sentence in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey said that learning to communicate effectively is the most important life skill, however “[m]ost people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” People primarily focus on being understood, on getting their point across and in doing so “ignore the other person completely, pretend that [they’re] listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.” 

So then, the key to becoming a better communicator is actually becoming a better listener. That may sound counterintuitive since we tend to think of “communicating” as something we do when we give a speech, write an email, or provide verbal instructions to someone.

But listening is also an active state and, frankly, it’s a lot harder to do, especially for those of us who like to talk. Consider this simple example: You’re in a meeting, and a co-worker is explaining something important. Do you typically (a) listen intently with the sole purpose of understanding the other person’s point of view or (b) start “listening” to yourself by crafting your reply or determining which questions you are going to ask? Most people, if they are honest, probably will choose “b.”

Now, when you start talking, guess what the other parties are doing in their heads? That’s right—the same thing you were when you were “listening” to them. This vicious cycle often continues until someone gives up and leaves without clarity. Bad outcomes typically are the result. And we play out this little example all day long with clients, employees, spouses, children, etc.—anywhere two or more people are gathered. It’s a wonder anything gets done right and on time.

Imagine if you could improve your ability to understand and be understood by just 10%. What kind of impact would that have on your career, your workplace, or your life? So for 2015, resolve to do just that: Use your two ears and one mouth in the proper proportion and seek first to understand others. 

You can do this by listening—really listening intently—and then asking good questions to seek clarity. You’ll soon discover that the more you understand, the easier it becomes to get your own point across. You’ll be amazed at how much time you save, how much your relationships improve, and how much better your business operates. The change may even help you achieve some of the other resolutions that you made.

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Doug Blizzard, MBA, is vice president for membership at CAI, a nonprofit employers’ association handling HR, compliance, and people development.