The Top Skill We All Need in 2021

Don’t worry, this is not another top 10 list of what we need to do, focus on, or learn, for next year. You can go to Google for that and you can easily fill up the remainder of the year with reading articles. From a personal perspective, this year has been, without a doubt, the most challenging year I have faced in my lifetime. The world of work changed overnight and we were all forced to adapt. All leading change management practices would never have prepared us, or helped us, navigate the change we all faced. However, through my work with several growing SMBs this year, one thing continued to surface as a critical element to organziational success. That thing is communication. If we can all focus on improving just one skill in 2021, it would be communication. Frankly, there is not one other skill that would top communication, not one. Many thought-leaders agree with this perspective.

Preamble on Communication

Communication has always been an important part of any organization, but I would argue that it’s more important now than ever before. It’s important to take a deep dive into why this is the case. You need to look no further than the impact of COVID-19. The majority of us are now working remotely from home on a full-time basis, which has resulted in a massive change in how we communicate with one another. Video has replaced in-person meetings. Social collaboration tools such as Slack for real-time conversation and chat, and Google Drive for real-time document collaboration, saw massive adoption spikes. The interesting thing about these developments is that these tools are not new. They have been around for awhile, but due to our changing environment, we were forced to adapt.

Another point of interest that needs to be mentioned regarding communication is the “how”. How we communicate, specifically our demeanor, tone, body language, and intentions, have always been important, but with the absence of being able to communicate with someone in-person, has put a strain on our abilities to interpret these elements. While having a video conversation with someone is still effective, it’s not as effective as the in-person conversation with a colleague in a meeting room. This shift has resulted in each of us paying more attention to how we communicate; demeanor, tone, body language and intent, so that our messages are being interpreted accurately.

So while being flexible and adaptable to the communication tools that we use (e.g. Slack and Google Meet), being self-aware of how we are being perceived and interpreted is even more important. Heading into 2021 if we can all improve our self-awareness and communication delivery, the collective improvement in the quality of how we communicate with one another could be huge.

How To Improve

Improving how you communicate is not easy. However, it can be learned and you can improve. There’s an excellent guide on how to do this (view here). Having worked with several dozens of organizations and hundreds of leaders, the following are my recommendations:

  • Undivided attention – if you’re on a video call and you’re looking at your phone it’s blatantly obvious that you’re not completely invested in the conversation. The perception is that you don’t care about what the other person has to say. From that point forward, nothing you say will really be taken at face value.
  • Consistency – we have several communication channels at our disposal and it’s important to use them all consistently. Using the analogy of diversifying your investment portfolio, the same thing applies here. If you use Slack, Google Meet, Google Drive, email and regular telephone then use them all consistently.
  • Take a pause – technology is not always perfect. For example, depending on the strength of your wifi connection your video call could be a little patchy. Pause before responding so that you a) hear everything the person is saying and b) do not inadvertently interrupt them. It can easily happen and it can be frustrating so pause for a second or two before responding.
  • Don’t jump to quick conclusions – non-visual communication such as Slack messages and email can easily be misinterpreted. Before jumping to conclusions, ask questions and check in with the other person regarding your interpretation. This is where “damn autocorrect” comes into play. The last thing you want to do is jump to conclusion and interpret an email incorrectly. Check yourself first.
  • Always think about accommodation – as someone with a severe hearing disability, it has been really difficult for me to communicate with people who are wearing a mask. I immediately lose the ability to read lips, which is one of the key things that I rely on to communicate. While it may be difficult for me to ask someone to remove their mask, I will ask someone to switch from Zoom to Google Meet for a video call because the latter has live caption, which I can lean to effectively communicate. The learning here is always ask the other person if there’s anything you can do to make the meeting more accommodating for them.

Communication is complex. It always has been and always will be. The world in which we live and work will always be constantly changing. I think 2020 has demonstrated this. While we need to be adaptable and flexible to new and emerging communication tools, even more important is our continous improvement in “how” we communicate. Being self-aware of the non-verbal cues that play such a pivotal role, and constantly asking questions of others, are crucial to success today, next year and for years to come.

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