Communication. It is one of the most important skills we need, yet many of us often fail. Why is that? There are many reasons why we fail to communicate effectively with each other, especially in the workplace. Let’s start off by understanding what communication is and the various types we use on a daily basis. Then, I will share a recent story of a communication mishap I experienced at work.
Communication: What Is It?
Communication in the workplace is the way we let each other know what we want, what we need, what we expect, and so on. The problem is there are so many ways to communicate and often we are not all on the same page (pun intended). To complicate matters even more, there is so much technology to use when communicating, it can be very overwhelming to decide on the best format for a specific situation.
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Let’s take a look at the four basic types of communication that we use on a daily basis.
This is arguably the best format of communication to use, especially in the workplace. We use verbal communication in person face-to-face, on the phone, and even through use of video technology. Of the four types of communication, verbal is one of the easiest for us to really know what someone means, yet also the easiest to misunderstand. In order to use this format effectively, we also need to team it up with the art of listening.
The problem here is sometimes we have a hard time expressing ourselves verbally. Whether we are not finding the right words to say, not getting through to the other person, or just not feeling comfortable telling someone how we feel, communicating verbally can be a challenge.
Nonverbal. This format involves us using our bodies to communicate what we are feeling or trying to express. Hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language can tell someone else a lot about us. Sometimes this can tell us how people are really feeling because sometimes actions speak louder than words.
Using nonverbal communication can also send the wrong message. For example, if you are listening to someone else but have your arms crossed in front of you, they may perceive you as not being interested or disagreeing with them.
Written communication goes back to the beginning of mankind. We have been communicating to others through drawings on caves, to writing books, to digital communication with others. We use this method today in our field to write documentation for the masses, email individuals with information, and instant message or chat people to get their immediate attention.
Writing is a great tool, when used properly. When we write something, we know exactly what it is we mean. But that does not always translate our meaning to someone else. When we write something we often assume everyone else reading it will totally understand what it is we meant. I have seen many times when our team has written documentation that someone else read and got a different meaning from it than was the intention of the author.
Visual. Visual communication is when we use pictures, charts, graphs, PowerPoints, etc. to convey our message. The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I personally like visual communication best because I listen and learn more with my eyes than my ears. When it comes to presenting data or information, I like to see it in a chart or graph rather than hear about it or try and read a report. We often use this form of communication in our applications and on our websites to make it easier for people to understand what it is we are trying to say.
But like the other forms of communication, visual has its drawbacks. Have you ever played the game where you were challenged to find the differences between two pictures? Often people become confused or miss the point you are trying to make. If information is not labeled or titled properly or not clear, translation can be lost. I often make spreadsheets that I know exactly what they mean. The problem is I do not always clearly label columns or include comments to what the information means or where I got it from. When I share my spreadsheet with someone else, I usually have to explain using verbal and written communications because my visuals were not self-explanatory. Recently, I have done this to myself, where I went back to a spreadsheet a week later and forgot what some of the data represented.
A Communication Failure Story
While I was writing this article, I encountered a communication-gone-bad incident in my department. One of my desktop support technicians was having a problem with one of our computer vendors. We received a computer that was not working properly out of the box. My technician thought he could handle this himself and just get it replaced. He decided to email the vendor and ask for a replacement. The vendor told him we missed the window for an exchange and must go through the repair process. My technician decided to express his dissatisfaction (via email) and demanded the unit be replaced. Since this was via email, it took several days for the vendor to get him in touch with the right team to handle this request.
The vendor finally agreed to send a technician on site to replace the necessary parts to fix the issue and scheduled it for the next day. Here is where the things went bad. We usually repair hardware ourselves on site, so it is a rare occasion where we have a vendor come on site and do this for us. To make it more challenging, it was close to our winter break and the technician working on this ticket was off all week. So, he arranged for the repair tech to go to our service desk to complete the repair. He used our instant chat message application to let the service desk team know the repair technician would be coming the next day and that he had given the technician the service desk’s phone number as a contact.
he next morning the repair technician called the service desk before they opened for the day and left a voice mail to call back. Our service desk manager did not understand why the repair technician was calling them instead of my desktop team. He instant messaged us to ask what was going on. My technician, although off for the week, was quick to respond. But his response was terse and seen as rude by others, including me. Although off that day myself, fortunately, I saw the communication in the chat application going bad fast and jumped in. I asked everyone in that channel to please stop bickering and let me handle it. My plan of action was to call the service desk manager and explain what was going on and why his team was involved. Once that happened, we quickly got the situation under control.
So what happened here? My desktop technician used a different form of communication with the vendor and our service desk to get this problem fixed. The real problem here was not his failure to try and use multiple forms of communication. He failed to recognize that the forms of communication he was using were not working.
When working with the vendor, he used email (written) to communicate with them. Instead of coming to me in person (verbal), he continued to get frustrated by their process of passing him along to different groups in their organization. He just kept emailing each person he was passed along to in their process.
When communicating with our service desk, he used the chat application to communicate. He failed to recognize that they were not understanding what he wanted them to do. To make matters worse, he is a very direct person and when he writes in the chat application, it can come across as rude, arrogant, or demanding. I assure you it was not his intention, but it led to a situation where people at the service desk got upset. What he should have done was call them or send someone else from his team over to explain the intentions.
Think About It
So I challenge you to think about how you are communicating with others. Are you conveying exactly what you mean to others? How do you know? When using verbal communications, ask them what they thought you said. Make sure your message was received as intended. When using nonverbal communications, be cognizant of your body language and gestures. Know what certain gestures like using your hands mean when communicating. For written and visual communications, ask someone else to review them for you before giving them to others to use.
I hope this helps and that my communication to you was not lost in the length of the article.
Are you conveying exactly what you mean to others? How do you know?
Thomas Wilk is an IT manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has become a performance improvement leader, helping employees find their way along their career path. As a mentor to managers, he helps them develop leadership skills so they can better engage with their staff. Tom has a bachelor’s degree in Information Science and is currently working towards a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in the Public Management program. To see more from Tom, visit
his YouTube channel , and follow him on Twitter @spiller150.