The billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, once wrote, “Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections, and allows us to learn, grow, and progress. It’s not just about speaking or reading, but understanding what is being said — and in some cases what is not being said. Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.”

True. In fact, Forbes reports compelling research conducted by the Carnegie Institute of Technology that shows 85 percent of financial success comes from the ability to effectively communicate, negotiate, and lead, both when speaking and listening. The other 15 percent? Actual knowledge or technical skills.

We’ve asserted that communication is absolutely critical for success. Yet it is so multifaceted and beyond just the expression of words. In fact, if you want to master the full spectrum of communication, extensive research identified three areas that people will perceive and interpret your message, whether good or bad:

  • Fifty-five percent of a message is perceived through the facial expressions and body language.
  • Thirty-eight percent of a message is perceived through the tone of voice.
  • Seven percent of a message is perceived through the words.

5 Ways to Master Communication

Assessing and improving your communication and intentionally working on both your verbal and nonverbal messages, actions, and words are key to your success. Here are some useful approaches.

1. Communicate with regular feedback.

One principle of effective communication is the ability to give feedback when addressing challenging issues and keeping people abreast of their performance. Research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies shows that “67 percent of people want to have performance feedback conversations often or all the time, but only 29 percent actually do.” Even more alarming, the research states that “36 percent say they rarely or never receive performance feedback.” Leaders who do an exceptional job of providing feedback do so with clear and consistent messages that always focus on concrete actions with a positive end goal in mind. This gives people a vision to work toward.

2. Communicate in “we” rather than “I” language.

There are certain “I” statements that may come across as critical or bossy. For example, “I want this done like this” or “I need you to make this happen for me” are good examples of “me first” or “I” lingo. On the flip side, “we” language implies that the challenge or problem is the concern and responsibility of both speaker and listener. It suggests inclusion, immediacy, cohesiveness, and commitment. Example: “We need to figure out a system that works more efficiently.”

3. Communicate with regular one-on-ones.

It’s been proven that when managers have frequent one-on-one conversations with their direct reports, it improves not only leadership skills but also job satisfaction. In the Ken Blanchard Companies research, they found that employees actually want to have more time with their leaders. The best one-on-ones, however, are not used for discussing performance but actually to develop the relationship between manager and employee. The rule of thumb is to keep it short — 15 to 30 minutes at least every two weeks. And give your direct report the responsibility to set the agenda. This ensures they own the process which increases engagement. It allows for them to talk about their goals, share personal information or ask for help to solve a problem.

4. Communicate with good body language.

Be aware of your stance. While focusing so much on how we come across with our words, we tend to forget the importance of our body language. People do pick up cues from the position of the entire person standing before them, especially how we position our leg and feet positions. The expert on all of this is Dr. Donna Van Natten, the Body Language Dr and author of Image Scrimmage. Van Natten says, “We know that the feet tell us where the mind wants to go. Someone who is authentically engaged and present in the situation involves their whole body in the conversation. They get closer, they face you, and they bring their bodies and feet toward you to demonstrate ‘I’m fully here.'”

5. Communicate by listening first.

As a leader, building up your active listening skills is crucial for solving problems, building trust, and winning the hearts and minds of people. Here’s a tip: Put down your smart phone! My point is stop what you’re doing, eliminate your distractions in the moment and give the speaker your full attention. What you’re communicating nonverbally is “I am interested in what you have to say.” Now that you’re actively listening, you’re not out of the woods yet. Have open body language and posture, don’t rush the conversation, and give the speaker time to think and process his or her thoughts. And whatever you do, don’t interrupt. This is especially true for a person who is upset and needs your undivided attention. Allow for ventilation to occur. Park your thoughts in the moment and your need for a rebuttal. Your time will come to reflect back what you heard or state your point. But for now, while the speaker is stating his or her case, your MO is to be patient and continue your open body posture and eye contact to show understanding. This is what we call empathetic listening.

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