6 Reasons Communication Is the Most Underrated Superpower at Your Job
How the simple act of talking to each other can make or break a project
Every time I meet up with people I don’t know I dread the inevitable small talk that comes with building new relationships. Not because I hate it, but mostly because I feel like I’m really crap at it.
It’s different when it comes to my job. Communication feels less forced when you actually have a solid reason to talk to someone. It’s also incredibly important. Almost all projects where poop ended up hitting the fan had one thing in common: The team members didn’t talk to each other. Well, they oftentimes did, but not in a very productive manner. Meetings ended up taking twice the appointed time with no real outcome but general disagreement. People were agitated and felt left out.
I would go as far as saying (proper) communication is the most important skill you can have when you’re working full-time (probably in private as well). It’s the invisible glue that prevents a team from falling apart.
1. It fosters constructive discussions
Most people think discussions at your workplace are a bad thing. They tend to avoid any confrontation like the plague, usually ending up incredibly frustrated. If it doesn’t end up in a screaming match (or maybe even then) discussions actually are a healthy way of clearing the air in any team. In modern scrum-lead projects, tensions build up quickly because of short sprints where it’s oftentimes hard to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. One product owner in a recent project was particularly good at encouraging healthy discussions and encouraging people to talk more, especially when they were angry. You could have full-on verbal clashes about the project with him and still have a beer and laugh a couple of hours later. The way he simply refused to take any project-related discussion personally was quite impressive. That also led to more open communication within the team. People didn’t worry about hurting each others’ feelings anymore but could openly discuss and quickly solve problems. If you take the emotional layer out of a discussion, it can actually be incredibly fun and rewarding.
2. People feel appreciated
Did you ever have that friend where you know they are just waiting for you to finish talking so they can have a go at it? It is awful feeling like your opposite doesn’t really care about anything you say. If one participant of the conversation is simply not listening, it feels like it is not important.
The same goes for work. While money is a major way to show appreciation for a job, communication seems to be completely undervalued sometimes. Really sitting down to listen and understand what your colleague or employee has to say is more powerful than any bag of money you throw at them. Giving a conversation the room to go both ways shows that you appreciate what the other has to say. Everyone wants and needs to be heard, neglecting that human need for validation only ends up building a high level of frustration and distrust.
3. Fewer feedback loops
When developing a product, there is something you call the feedback loop from hell. Either internally with team members or externally with a client you get stuck and don’t seem to get it just right, ending up in a million change requests. Mostly the issue comes down to a lack of proper communication. Halfassed emails are being sent back and forth, discussing only part of the problem and completely leaving out others. While it does cost time and effort to sit down and have a chat in person or via Zoom to pin down the issue, it can save a lot of time (and nerves) in the long run.
You only fully understand any job once you’re able to rephrase the task and validate it with the client or colleague.
4. Avoiding island knowledge
Language barrier here, so I’m not sure whether you can call it that in English. Simply put, it’s the accumulation of knowledge with only one team member. I think everyone had the experience of a colleague getting sick or leaving and not being able to find any form of documentation to carry on the job. Talking regularly helps to avoid that bottleneck because at best everyone in the team at least has an inkling about what everyone is doing and knows where to find the information if need be. Communication doesn’t stop at the verbal part but includes a proper form of documentation, be it an excel-sheet, confluence page, or a full-blown Wiki. Giving the whole team access to all the information gathered in a project does make it easier to onboard new people quickly and avoids losing important information through a lack of communication.
5. Properly working remotely
Remote work, or working from home had its final breakthrough due to a global pandemic. Even at old-school organizations where home-office wasn’t even part of the dictionary it suddenly had to be made possible to work from home. If you scroll through various articles on the internet and this platform it seems to work just fine, with people feeling more productive and flexible. It also opens up a series of new problems, with communication at the top of the list. You don’t have the luxury of getting up and talk things through with the colleague next door anymore. Discussions in apps like Slack or Teams suddenly seem way more aggressive than they actually are (a friend literally started to use emojis to convey his facial expression and gestures in a work-related chat). It’s easy to zone out and do other stuff in meetings because you can simply turn off the mic and video (due to “technical issues”, of course). With a decentralized team spread through the country or the whole world, proper communication is even more important to keep everything together. Remote communication etiquettes like turning on the video in meetings or documenting discussions in a channel or platform accessible to all team members help to not lose the sense of connection that naturally occurs when you’re sitting next to each other.
6. The learning curve goes through the roof
Probably a no-brainer, but the more skilled you are in communication, the steeper your learning curve is. Coming out of university you assume you know everything important about the job because you’ve just spent years of reading books and attending classes about it. That presumption quickly backfires and dissipates when you find the myriad skillsets you slowly need to acquire when entering the real world of being an adult and having to properly convey an argument. Slowly transitioning from only doing design to working on user experience and information architecture helped me realize how important it is to think outside of the box (the box being your specific area of expertise). Starting to talk and really listen to colleagues about topics seemingly unrelated to my own job helped me better understand the bigger picture in a project. By gathering basic knowledge about all topics that play a role in creating a product you become interdisciplinary. While it initially seems unimportant to know the code nomenclature in the frontend framework, it axes a whole lot of feedback loops beforehand because everyone is talking about the same thing.
Improving the ability to draw connections throughout various disciplines is one of the biggest advantages of open communication. Of course, I could sit in front of my screen and watch YouTube tutorials, but oftentimes I didn’t even know what I needed to learn before I started to ask colleagues and clients.
I still struggle with a lot of the aforementioned habits to keep an open mind and foster open communication with teammates and clients. Mostly because I do have a temper and I can be terribly stubborn at times, but I’m working on it. Writing this article made me think about the value of communication a lot though and I feel like it was the most important skill I acquired through the years, both personally and professionally. It helped me to build an amazing network of like-minded people and to generally still have fun at my job. Interdisciplinary learning through talking to people from other professions was one of the major catalysts kickstarting my career as a freelancer.
It seems trivial to think about communication as a skill, but the impact it has on every part of your life can’t be understated. It’s a secret superpower making a large portion of usually dreary tasks in a project seem effortless.