Effective communication skills are an essential part of our everyday lives — whether you’re applying for a job or ordering food at a restaurant. But these skills take on increased importance at work, when groups of people with individual skills and tasks need to come together and collaborate to achieve company goals.
Among all positions, effective communication skills are perhaps most vital for project managers. They need to align everyone on a single goal and ensure that all the right information finds its way to all the right people.
When we think about how project managers can improve their communication skills, we often only focus on the output: when to say something, how to say it, and how often. While these are all core components of communication, a successful project manager knows that they also need to consider how to listen, facilitate work, and manage emotions — their own and those of their team.
Keep reading to find out:
- Why effective communication skills are so important for project managers.
- Actionable tips, tricks, and resources for improving your communication skills.
- How to overcome common project management obstacles with effective communication skills.
Why effective communication skills are crucial for project managers
“Communications is a core competency that, when properly executed, connects every member of a project team to a common set of strategies, goals, and actions. Unless these components are effectively shared by project leads and understood by stakeholders, project outcomes are jeopardized and budgets incur unnecessary risk.”
Effective communication skills aren’t just “nice to have” for project managers. When project managers have solid communication skills, they’re empowered to lead more successful projects, boost ROI, and help businesses outperform their competitors. At a micro level, these strong communication skills enable project managers to establish healthy, trusting relationships with their team and stakeholders.
Now that you know why effective communication skills are so important, let’s talk about improving yours.
The top 4 communication skills for project managers
Making sure you’re communicating accurately — and understanding what’s being said to you — can be complicated. But if you put the following communication skills into practice, you’ll get a handle on it in no time.
The first — and arguably most important — communication skill isn’t about what you’re saying. It’s making sure you’re hearing what the other person is saying and understanding it correctly. That’s where active listening comes in. It means asking questions to clear up misunderstandings before they happen. It means showing that you’re listening. If the person you’re communicating with doesn’t get the sense you’re paying attention, you’re fighting a losing battle.
By having empathy, you can understand someone else’s point of view and put yourself in their shoes. It forces you to think beyond someone’s words and consider why they’re saying what they’re saying. Having empathy can absolutely transform your interactions. Say a developer is telling you that a product launch is getting pushed back, and you have to adjust your marketing projects accordingly. Without empathy, you might focus solely on how this information affects you and your project. With empathy, you start thinking about how this is affecting the development team. You might catch a subtle request for help you would have missed otherwise, and find ways to collaborate towards the product launch.
Focusing on the other person’s message is one thing, but you need your own message to come through loud and clear, too. One of the best ways to do that is making sure you’re communicating clearly. That encompasses things like speaking slowly and articulating your words carefully. But it also means checking in throughout your conversation to make sure people are listening and understanding what you’re saying. Be mindful of how your words are coming across, and ask people what they think you said. That gives you the ability to nip a potential misunderstanding in the bud.
Wait, what do processes have to do with communication? Well, if you’re looking to improve communication skills at a project level, you have to go a bit beyond listening and keeping an open mind. You need to actively build best practices and document processes that help everyone communicate more effectively. That can be making a clear distinction between what needs to be communicated in a meeting vs. in an email. You might give your team a dedicated communication channel — like a regular report — to communicate project updates. Whenever you’re looking to improve communication at scale, you need processes to support your initiatives.
How to build a framework that fosters communication stkills
Whether you’ve been working with a team for years or are just starting out at a brand new job, the first step towards effective communication is establishing a framework. This framework is a plan that enables efficient communication with your team, stakeholders, executives, and clients.
As Project Management.com explains:
“This means agreeing on who communicates what, to whom, when and how. For instance, a team member might communicate the project’s internal and external technical matters (the “what”), while the project manager will communicate the project status (the “what” again) for various audiences (“whom”).”
Communication skills start with the individual but need to be scaled team-wide. In setting clear expectations from the start, you give everyone the tools they need to succeed.
A complete communications framework includes:
- A purpose. Make sure you’ve outlined the reason for the framework, as well as reasons for each communication method it covers.
- A clear outline of project needs. Think about the requirements needed across the majority of projects and list them here.
- A list of communication methods to be used and goals associated with each. These include meetings, emails, daily stand-ups, instant messaging, and any associated software or tools to be used. More on these later.
- Timelines, dates, and frequency. Maybe your team prefers daily stand-ups over emailed weekly updates, or maybe you just want to make sure stakeholders don’t lose their cool when the designer needs an extra day to consider project changes. Either way, it’s important to set expectations and precedents for the timing of communications.
- Roles and responsibilities. Whose job is it to send out project reminders? Who takes the meeting notes? While most communications will be handled by you, the project manager, there needs to be a clear process for how other team members and stakeholders communicate.
With a dedicated communications plan in place, you limit the risk of miscommunication and common project obstacles, while boosting the effectiveness of your team and the business as a whole.
How to improve listening skills
Having the “gift of gab” is one thing, but a project manager can set themselves apart by knowing how to truly listen to someone. After all, your communication skills should focus on what others are saying just as much as what you say. Listening isn’t just the physical act of hearing, either. When a project manager practices mindful listening, they’re not only paying attention to the content of a message, but tuning in to nuances such as body language, facial expressions, and tone.
“This skill [mindful listening] allows the project manager to better identify apparent and subtle issues, risks, and opportunities necessary when working with any level of uncertainty,” Project Management Institute explains. “In contrast, poor listening is often attributed to mistakes, reduced effectiveness, and missed opportunities.”
Becoming a mindful listener takes some time, practice, and dedication, but the professional and personal benefits are worth it. The best part? You can start becoming a better listener right away.
Here are some tips to help you boost your listening power:
- Don’t interrupt. It seems like common sense, but it’s all too easy to interrupt someone when you feel excited by the conversation — or don’t want to hear what they’re saying. Show others that you respect what they have to say by taking a one- or two-second pause after they’re done. This doesn’t just apply to spoken communication, either. When using an instant messaging tool like Slack, it’s always good to pause before answering to ensure the other person has finished their thought.
- Set aside dedicated conversation time. Nobody can listen properly when they’re in a rush or distracted by other tasks. Don’t have a conversation, whether in-person or online, if you’re not prepared to dedicate your full attention to it. This is how mistakes and miscommunication happens. Even if it’s just a three-minute window, set aside this time to listen and answer thoughtfully.
- Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Your team member might be saying that they have no problem with the stakeholder’s last-minute requests, but their tone and visible cringing tells you otherwise. Look towards these kinds of non-verbal cues to give you the whole story — and to show your team members that you care about more than just surface-level communication.
- Ask the right questions. If you’ve ever been the victim of a one-sided conversation, you know how important asking the right questions is. If a stakeholder comes to you with a complaint and you simply listen without asking any questions, it can give the impression that you don’t care or aren’t engaged with what they’re saying. Ask thoughtful questions to make sure you’re truly understanding what is being communicated.
- Ignore your personal agenda. It’s easy to get caught up in your own feelings and priorities when communicating with somebody. In order to practice mindful listening, you need to leave these biases behind. Process and consider the messages you’re receiving from an objective standpoint, disregarding any personal input.
Tools that build on communication skills
For communication to be most effective, everybody needs to be on the same page. Literally. If one team member never checks Slack and another never attends weekly project meetings, there are going to be regular communications misfires. Once you’ve built up your communication skills and set up your communications framework, having the right tools brings it all together.
For non-urgent communications issues
Sometimes you don’t need the formality of an email, but also don’t want to book a whole meeting to discuss something. When it comes to non-urgent communications needs, instant messaging is the next best thing to marching up to somebody’s desk to talk.
Tools with strong messaging features like Slack or Asana are great for casual questions or concerns, don’t require real-time participation, and perhaps most importantly, don’t interrupt others’ workflow.
As we explain in our post on building efficient communication across your team, “Using these tools also provides a record of the conversation that you can refer to later on. This is especially important in projects that require a lot of changes or shifting responsibilities, as it lets you pinpoint and track where issues in communication arose.”
For project updates
Since your communications framework lets everyone know which platforms you prefer, these tools work great for general project status updates and announcements.
- Basecamp puts communication and content in one place so your team doesn’t need to waste time searching for what they need. Every document, file, discussion, task, deadline, and team member can be seen in one place. Basecamp’s Message Board function is especially great for project announcements and progress updates. Learn more about how to use Basecamp to improve communication across your team with our Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Basecamp.
- Wrike is another tool that streamlines communications and your project workflow. Wrike automates many routine communication tasks and makes sure that everyone involved in a project is updated with any changes, progress, and deadlines. Find out more about using Wrike for your projects’ communication needs with our Beginner’s Guide to Wrike.
To ensure accountability
With all the moving parts a project manager is constantly responsible for, it’s easy for things to get lost in the shuffle. Thankfully, there are tools to help not only communicate your own accountability, but that of your team members and stakeholders.
Oftentimes, team members will discuss something in a meeting, and agree it’s important, but nobody takes action. It can be hard to know who’s in charge and what the next steps are. Avoid this by recording task assignments using a project management tool like Wrike or Trello. Use these tools to clarify and assign whoever is responsible for the task or project.
Wrike is also helpful when it comes to accountability thanks to the visible discussion board assigned to each task. If it works for your team and the specific project, ensure all members involved are communicating via the Wrike “Updates” section attached to each task. If something is missed everyone can go back and see where the miscommunication happened — and find a solution that works for next time.
Effective communication skills are within your reach
The success or failure of a project (and project manager) can hinge on effective communication skills. With a clear communications plan in place, a dedication to mindful listening, and the right tools, you and your team will be better prepared to take on any project that comes your way.
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