Public speaking. Leadership. Giving feedback. Handling conflict. You need soft skills to be effective in the workplace. But what exactly are they? And can you develop and improve them?
This guide explains what communication skills are. It shows you when you need to use them. And it gives you tips and tricks that make you more effective.
People skills don’t come naturally. Nobody was born with them! You need to learn and practise them to succeed. The good news is that it isn’t difficult, and anyone can learn. It’s also great fun to develop your skills with other people.
Whether you’re running a workshop, pitching to the CEO or responding off the cuff, we’ve got you covered. This guide tells you everything you need to know about communication at work.
What are communication skills?
Communication skills enable you to work well with other people. This could be at work or with family and friends. They include:
- Making yourself understood. (Sometimes called verbal communication.)
- Active listening. This method helps you understand other points of view.
- Interpersonal skills. This includes emotional intelligence.
- Public speaking. Includes presentation skills and storytelling.
- Nonverbal communication. Including body language and use of space.
- Effective writing. Like how to structure an argument or write a persuasive email.
- Leadership skills. Including charisma and how to inspire people to work with you.
- Coaching and mentoring.
- Conflict resolution. This includes how to negotiate and assertiveness skills.
- Collaboration. Including giving feedback and building on other people’s ideas.
That’s a long list! At first it might feel overwhelming. You don’t need to tackle them all at the same time. Instead you can assess which ones you already have, find the gaps and decide what you’d like to work on.
If you’d like to do this right now, take our communication skills test. It takes less than 10 minutes and you’ll get a custom report as soon as you finish.
Most people who want to work on their soft skills have a goal in mind. Perhaps you want to improve your career prospects. Or you’ve already got a promotion and your new role involves supervising others. Or you’re working on a project which includes tricky communication challenges. Or maybe you’re nervous about a big presentation that’s coming up.
Whatever your goal, developing your soft skills will help.
Communication is a bit like running. An experienced runner wouldn’t try to run a marathon without spending weeks training for it. In the same way, you need to practise your people skills to stay in shape. That means you can use them whenever the need arises. It’s useful to learn new approaches and techniques. And it’s also important to practise the skills you already have.
Types of communication
We communicate all the time, both at work and elsewhere. That means you use soft skills all the time. Usually without giving them much thought.
It’s useful to consider the different types of communication you may need to use. This helps you set goals for developing your skills.
There are seven main types of communication:
- One-to-one communication. Includes active listening, empathy, feedback and coaching skills.
- Public speaking. Any time you speak to a group of people. This includes team meetings, sales pitches and conference talks.
- Formal communication. Like a wedding speech, job interview or meeting minutes.
- Leadership communication. How to project confidence in your ability to lead while listening to people’s views.
- Crisis communication. Rapid decision-making, speaking “off the cuff” and giving instructions with confidence.
- Collaboration. Working well with others in a group and getting buy-in for decisions.
- Conflict communication. Negotiation, building trust and resolving conflicts.
Some of these are common in the workplace. Others happen less often or only in particular roles. Skilled communicators can handle them all. That’s because they’ve learned and practised the methods, and they know when to use each one.
If you’d like to develop your soft skills, here’s an exercise to get started. Write down the types of communication you need to use. Then assess how confident you are in each one. Pick three that seem important at the moment. For each of these priorities, write down a goal. What would you like to achieve with this type of communication, and how would you know when you’d achieved it?
For example, your goal might be to improve your one-to-ones with your line manager. Or it might be to present a case study at a conference.
Your list of goals is a starting point for developing your people skills. As you learn new techniques and try them out, keep your goals updated. Note down the progress you’ve made towards them.
Common barriers to communication
Why are you interested in soft skills? Many people get curious when they notice barriers to communication.
In today’s workplace, team-working is crucial to success. Most workers can only succeed if their team communicates well.
Have you ever noticed that you aren’t doing as well at work as you’d like? But the problem isn’t the quality of your work or your technical skills? Instead, barriers to communication may be stopping you from working well with others.
If this happens to you, learning to identify these barriers can be the first step. It may lead you to develop your people skills. Or it might show you that the problem lies elsewhere. It might be a colleague. Or it could be the structure of your team.
Common barriers to communication include:
- Not considering your audience before you start talking.
- Overwhelming people with information that isn’t relevant to them. Instead of tailoring your message to an audience.
- Using the wrong communication channel. Like sharing negative feedback by text message instead of discussing it face-to-face.
- Not allowing space for feedback. Includes being defensive or refusing to take other people’s input on board.
- Anxiety about presenting. This distracts the audience from your message.
- Trying to fix people’s problems. Instead of listening to understand their point of view.
- Not practising soft skills. Everyone needs to learn and develop their skills. Even seasoned communicators.
Consider your workplace. Do you recognise any of these barriers?
How to overcome these barriers
If you recognise some of these barriers, I have good news. First, they’re all common. So common that some of them exist in every workplace in the world. Which means you’re not the only one! And the fact that you’ve identified these barriers makes you more likely to overcome them.
Second, you can remove these barriers by:
- learning new skills and techniques,
- practising, and
- getting feedback.
It’s not difficult. If you commit to it and have a go, the speed of your progress might surprise you. You’ll have fun, too. People often feel more free when they try out new soft skills. It’s empowering to have more choices.
Here are some principles to get you started:
- You can learn skills to overcome these barriers. People with great soft skills weren’t born like that. They learned methods and practised them. You can do the same.
- Stop trying to win. Communication skills only work when you help your audience. You can’t use them to get your way at someone else’s expense.
- A little effort goes a long way. Invest a bit of time and energy into growing your people skills. The results may surprise you. It isn’t difficult and you’ll have fun doing it.
What is effective communication?
Effective communication achieves an outcome. But not any kind of outcome. One that works for both you and the person you’re talking to.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that success means delivering your message. You won’t be effective if:
- the other person hasn’t understood your message, or
- they don’t think what you’re saying is relevant, or
- they find you unhelpful.
That’s why you need to do as much listening as sharing your ideas.
Effective communication is two-way
People often focus on the outcome they want to achieve. Or they talk without thinking about whether their ideas are relevant to others. This doesn’t work. That’s because you haven’t considered your audience’s point of view.
Communication isn’t all about you! It has to be two-way. You need to adopt a mindset which values your audience’s needs as much as your own.
Before you start talking, stop and think about what the other person wants. Do they share your goals? What is their perspective? Are your ideas the best or are you attached to them? What if the other person’s point of view could improve your ideas and achieve a better outcome for everyone?
The key to effective communication is to develop your people skills. For example:
- active listening helps you understand the people you need to work with
- public speaking skills help you structure a message so it’s relevant to your audience
- leadership skills let you inspire others to work with you to achieve a shared goal
Learning these skills—and practising them—will make your communication more effective.
Examples of effective workplace communication
People often use terms like “excellent communication skills”, particularly in job ads. But what do they look like in real life? Here are some examples of effective workplace communication.
- Helping your team to make a sudden change of plan. Like when the person who was leading the sales presentation falls ill. And you need to make a decision that people can get behind.
- Getting feedback from stakeholders. In a way that lets them share their concerns without delaying delivery.
- Delivering complex information so it’s relevant. Like when you need to tell your team about a reorganisation. And you start by explaining how it affects them.
- Asking your boss for a change to your work pattern. In a way that explains your reasons, why it matters and how the new arrangement will work.
- A one-to-one meeting where you talk through challenges. When you listen to your colleague’s point of view without trying to fix their problems.
- Handling disagreements in a productive way. Like when you request a meeting with someone who objected to your project. And talk through their concerns and agree next steps.
Which of these examples do you recognise from your own workplace? Do you notice any opportunities to develop your people skills?
Showing your skills in a job interview
Many job ads ask for communication skills. For example:
excellent written and verbal communication skills
You may need to show these skills in your application. Or when you answer interview questions. If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s a formula you can use.
- Consider your past jobs. (If this is your first job, use work experience or school activities.) List all the ways you worked with other people. This includes colleagues, customers and external partners.
- Rate each task on your list by how important people skills were to achieving it. Select the strongest examples to mention to the hiring manager.
- Think back to an occasion in a past role where you had to use soft skills to resolve a problem. Employers love to hear about times you went outside of your normal responsibilities. Or when you showed initiative or leadership. Or when you made a special effort to help a colleague or customer.
- For your chosen example, write down:
- what the trigger event was
- how you responded
- which communication skills you used
- who else was involved, and
- the final outcome.
You can now present your answers to points 2 and 4 above. Either in writing or as an answer to an interview question. For example, you could say:
In my past role my regular responsibilities included [answer to point 2]. I also sometimes went beyond that, like when [answer to point 4].
Employers aren’t looking for miracles. They want to understand whether you’re a “people person”. The more evidence you can provide to show that, the better. It doesn’t need to be heroic or fancy.
People use different terms to describe communication. Here are the key concepts you need to understand.
You use interpersonal skills to interact with and understand other people. This includes:
- making yourself understood
- public speaking
- nonverbal communication
- developing empathy
- understanding emotions
- resolving conflicts
What’s the difference between “interpersonal” and “communication” skills? Not much. For example, you could argue that written communication is not “interpersonal”. But the words mean almost the same thing.
Collaboration means working together to achieve a shared goal.
In recent years, business leaders have recognised the value of this approach. Their companies get better results when people work together. This requires them to move away from “command and control” structures. And to enable more open decision-making.
But collaboration isn’t easy. It calls for specific skills, including:
- building on other people’s ideas
- being willing to try and fail
- active listening
- taking on feedback
Many people in the workplace could get better at these skills. Especially more experienced people.
For example, most professionals are good at explaining their area of expertise. But many of them find collaboration difficult. That’s because it requires different skills.
Recognise this? Working on these skills might boost your career.
Soft skills can refer to:
- non-technical skills, or
- skills linked to emotional intelligence instead of rational thinking.
On this website we use the term “soft skills” to mean communication skills. (For one thing, it’s much shorter!)
People sometimes compare so-called “hard” skills with soft skills. The idea is that hard skills are more logical. They represent real work. Disciplines like engineering or mathematics come to mind. Whereas soft skills are more squishy and emotional. Based on this way of thinking, soft skills include:
- emotional skills like building empathy
- conflict resolution
- coaching and mentoring
- project management
The problem with this way of thinking is that it simplifies the way work gets done. In practice, success requires both emotional and rational skills. And communication skills aren’t purely emotional. For example, you need both rational and emotional awareness to resolve a conflict. In reality, few people can succeed in today’s workplace with “hard” skills alone. You need to be proficient in both.
Nonverbal communication & body language
Nonverbal communication means the messages we send that are not based on words. It includes messages we send unconsciously. This includes:
- facial expressions
- the sound of our voice
- body language, like making ourselves seem big or small
- physical signals of dominance or submission (also called status)
- signals of emotional states like anxiety or confidence
Studies have shown that the meaning we convey doesn’t come from words alone. This is also an intuitive fact. If you say the same words with a different tone, their meaning will change.
Most discussions about nonverbal communication focus on a particular problem. This is when your words do not match the physical signals that you’re sending. For example, imagine you say the words, “this is a wonderful piece of work,” while shaking your head. It makes you look like you disagree with yourself. Your body doesn’t seem to agree with your words. That means people won’t see you as genuine.
People also assert that nonverbal communication is more difficult to fake. While this is true at face value, it draws a false distinction. Effective communication is hard to fake, full stop. It isn’t just about saying the right words. It’s about:
- understanding your audience,
- meaning what you say, and
- conveying that in a consistent and credible way.
That involves paying attention to what your body is doing as well as the words you’re saying. One can’t work without the other.
Skill 1: Listening
Listening is the most important communication skill. Everything else depends on it. If you want to build your people skills and you can only focus on one thing, this is it.
Listening skills help you to understand another person’s point of view. Use them to find out what matters to people and what they need from you. This is how you build empathy, the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone else.
Earlier we defined effective communication as two-way. You will only succeed if the outcome works for both you and the other person. To achieve that, listen before you speak.
Active listening lets you focus your attention on someone else’s point of view. You put your own concerns aside and concentrate on imagining what it’s like to be them. You reflect back what they’ve said in your own words. Then they either clarify or share more details.
This method has a surprising result. The person you’re listening to may learn something about their own situation. From nothing more than talking it through with you. Remember, you didn’t add any of your own ideas. You reflected back what you heard in your own words. And then gave them a chance to clarify or say more.
This is what the word “active” refers to. Even though you don’t add anything, you help them to get clarity through your presence and attention.
Active listening is the Swiss Army Knife of communication. Use it whenever you need to:
- understand someone’s perspective,
- build trust, or
- help someone without “fixing” their problems.
The technique is simple:
- Ask an open question. Like, “how are things going with you?”
- Listen to the answer. Focus on what’s happening to the other person. Disregard any thoughts, memories or suggestions that come into your head.
- When they finish speaking, say, “it sounds like…” and then paraphrase what you heard. Then say, “did I get that right?”
- The person will now either clarify—“that’s not quite what I meant…”—or provide more detail. Return to step 2 and continue the process.
Although active listening is a powerful tool, it’s not suitable for every situation. There are times when you need to collaborate, which requires adding your own ideas. And there are times when you need to advocate for your own interests. The more you practise and learn about this technique, the better you’ll get at recognising when to use it.
Skill 2: Public speaking
Public speaking skills allow you to share ideas with an audience in a way that’s engaging and relevant. Almost everyone needs to present as part of their job. That’s because we need to share our progress, findings or issues.
In many roles, public speaking skills are as important as technical skills. If you can’t explain your work, people won’t understand its value.
There are two types of contexts for public speaking. High stakes events and everyday activities.
High stakes contexts include:
- conference talks
- presentations to leadership
- sales pitches
- media appearances, like a TV interview
- social media presentations, like a live Q&A or webinar
- presenting a portfolio at a job interview
Everyday contexts include:
- updating your team on progress at a weekly meeting
- sharing your table’s work with the rest of the room during a workshop
- providing a summary of your current project when your boss walks past your desk
- sharing your ideas at a “town hall” meeting
- explaining your company’s offering to a prospect at a trade show booth
Public speaking skills include:
- Understanding your audience. What do they care about and how can you help them?
- Structuring your ideas. You need to present an argument that’s relevant to your audience and easy to follow.
- How to build interactivity into your presentation. So it feels like a conversation, not a lecture.
- Creating slides or other visual aids. To help the audience understand and remember your message.
- Voice and physicality. How you show up on stage and use space. This helps you engage the audience and encourages them to learn from you.
- Dealing with anxiety and nerves. Most presenters feel nervous. You need to learn tricks and techniques to appear confident when you don’t feel it.
- How to rehearse and learn from feedback. To improve your presentations you need to practise and get input from others.
- How to answer audience questions. Some presenters are scared of Q&A. But if you learn how to respond “off the cuff”, you may find it’s the most enjoyable part of your talk.
Some of these skills may seem specific to high stakes contexts. But you can apply them almost anywhere. So it’s worth learning them now, even if you don’t expect to speak at a conference soon.
Skill 3: Leadership styles
Leadership styles are the way leaders interact with an audience when they want to:
- win support, or
- inspire action.
Everyone who uses people skills needs to understand them. Even if you aren’t in a leadership position. For example, when you present at a meeting, the style you use changes how people perceive you.
Think about leaders you’ve come across at work or in public life. What’s it like to listen to them?
- Do they seem likeable or aloof?
- Do you feel inspired and part of their mission? Or bored and uncomfortable?
- Do they seem to be talking down to you?
- Do they command respect? Do you believe what they say?
- Are you moved by their speeches? Do you laugh at their jokes? Or do you hope that they’ll finish?
- When they speak do you feel energised or drained?
What makes these people come across in different ways? Their leadership style. Studying them will help you to develop your own authentic style. You’ll also learn to adapt your communication to suit the situation.
Leadership styles come from two elements:
- Whether your interactions are defensive or generous. Defensive interactions try to maintain control. For example when you say, “yes, but…” to other people’s suggestions. Generous interactions show that you’re happy to share control. For example, when you accept and add to other people’s ideas. We call this a, “yes, and…” attitude.
- The status you play relative to others in the room. This isn’t about your social status or how senior your role is. For us, status means the relative power relationship between you and the other people in the room. High status behaviours include taking up space and making steady eye contact. Low status behaviours include mumbling and making yourself small.
We can plot these elements on a graph to show four different leadership styles:
The four leadership styles are:
- Defensive low status. This is when someone plays low status while lashing out at others. In the UK we call someone using this style a jobsworth. Few people who behave like this become leaders, because they can’t inspire anyone to follow them.
- Generous low status. This is the joker or clown. These leaders lower their status and raise yours at the same time. This style is rare but it does exist, both in public life and in organisations.
- Defensive high status. Common both in public life and among business leaders. These leaders maintain their status at the expense of others. They put people down or assert their superiority. They command respect but aren’t likeable.
- Generous high status. Also known as “happy high status”, this leadership style is less common than the previous one. But you may know some examples. These leaders maintain their high status while raising yours. Their status doesn’t come at your expense. In fact, raising other people’s status seems to make theirs even higher.
Want to work on your own leadership style? First, identify the style you use when you present to others. Would you like to try a different style? It’s as simple as learning the behaviours of that style.
Do you need to make things happen or bring people with you? The generous high status style is your best bet. To adopt it, play high status and raise other people’s status at the same time.
Skill 4: Coaching
Coaching is a set of techniques that help people solve their own problems.
A coach doesn’t fix problems or offer advice. Instead, they support the person to make their own decisions. They do this by asking questions, offering frameworks and listening.
We all need help sometimes. On our own it’s hard to think things through, weigh up options and take action. That’s where a coach can help.
Coaching is a subject of its own. You could do many courses on it. Whether you have a coaching qualification or not, you need to use coaching skills. They’re an essential part of your communication toolkit.
The most concise way I’ve found to explain the value of coaching is this quote:
The next time someone asks you for help with a problem, remember that the brain that contains the problem probably also contains the solution. Then set up the conditions for them to find it.
—Time to Think by Nancy Kline
When you listen to someone at work, they may mention that they’re experiencing a problem. Or they may ask for help with it.
When this happens, most people either:
- try to fix the problem by offering advice, or
- share experiences from their own life.
This approach doesn’t work because you don’t know enough about the situation to find a solution. It’s also unlikely that the person wants you to fix their problem.
By contrast, coaching techniques draw on the person’s knowledge. As Nancy Kline says, this allows you to set up the conditions for people to solve their own problems.
The GROW model is a popular coaching framework. It’s easy to learn and you can use it for any problem. GROW is an acronym for four stages:
- Options (or sometimes, Obstacles)
- Will (or Way forward)
This diagram summarises the model:
You don’t need to run a formal coaching process to use the GROW model. It adapts to any problem. For example, you can use it for peer coaching, when two people coach each other. Or use it instead of offering advice when someone mentions that they have a problem.
Here’s an example of using GROW to help someone solve their own problem.
- Goal: Ask the person what they’re trying to achieve. What do they want to change, and how would they know if they achieved it?
- Reality: Ask what their current reality is. Remember that their reality does not include the goal.
- Options: Show them what they wrote for the previous two stages. Ask them to think of as many options as possible for getting from the Reality to the Goal. Write them down.
- Way forward: Ask them which option they prefer. If they have difficulty, first ask them to rule out any which they definitely won’t choose. Then get them to list pros and cons for each of the remaining options. Reviewing the list will help them to choose an option.
There’s more nuance to the GROW model than I’ve captured above. But it shows you the essence of how the technique works. Try it out the next time you’re tempted to offer someone your advice.
Most people will need to attend a job interview at some point. Communication skills can improve your chances. Here are some tips for your next interview.
- Do your research. Make sure you know as much as possible about the role. Read through the job description, person specification and the corporate website. Make sure you understand the details of what you’ll be doing if you get the role. Look up any jargon and read around the industry or specialism you’re applying for.
- If anything is unclear before the interview, ask. Most employers will provide contact information for questions. If anything is unclear in the job spec, get in touch and ask your question. Employers like to see that you’re interested in the role, but that’s not the main reason to do this. The real point is to get a clearer idea of what the role involves. That makes it easier to guess what responses the hiring manager is looking for.
- Write a rationale for why you want the job. It doesn’t matter whether this is your dream role or one you need to get. Walk into the interview with a solid rationale for why you want it. Given a set of well qualified candidates, employers will choose the one who seems to want the role. Explain what you would get from the job and how it would benefit you. Think of this like a mantra that you say to yourself as you walk into the interview. It will colour your interactions with the hiring manager. And give them the impression that you’re a good fit.
- Rehearse your interview with a friend. If you’re competing with a lot of applicants, this tip will give you an advantage. That’s because very few people practise beforehand! Draft a list of interview questions and send your friend the job description. Then get them to pretend to be the hiring manager and ask you questions. Respond as if it’s the real thing. You could even dress up smart to get in the right mood. At the end, ask your friend for feedback. And if you have time, have another go. You’ll feel less nervous on the day. And you’ll give better answers.
- Make eye contact and smile. Look like you’re comfortable and happy to be there, even if you feel nervous. Make strong eye contact and smile when you greet the hiring manager. (Don’t stare then out, just make a connection when they talk to you.) Other ways to look relaxed include sitting back in your chair and taking deep breaths.
- Remember that the hiring manager wants you to succeed. The other people in the room aren’t trying to trip you up. They want you to give the best interview possible. The fact that they’ve invited you to interview shows that they liked your application. And that they think you could be a good fit for the role. They want you to fulfil that expectation. The better you perform at interview, the easier the hiring manager’s job is. So try to give them what they want!
- Before you answer a question, stop and think about why they asked it. There are many ways to answer an interview question. Don’t use the first answer that comes into your head. Why did they ask you that question? What do they need to understand and what information will be relevant to them? Answer the question you think they’re really asking.
- BONUS TIP: If you don’t get the job, ask for feedback. If you aren’t successful, you can learn from the experience by asking for feedback. Sometimes you’ll get something generic about having a lot of qualified applicants. But you may get something specific and useful. They might tell you what you didn’t do, which meant that they couldn’t offer you the job. This is gold dust, because you can apply this knowledge to your next job interview.
Many people feel nervous about interviews. This is a natural reaction to something we can’t control that has big consequences. Although you can’t stop the feeling of anxiety, you can do a lot to prepare. You’re guaranteed to increase your chance of success if you follow these interview tips.
Common interview questions
Do you get nervous before interviews? One reason for this is that you can’t control what’s going to happen. You don’t know what questions you’ll have to answer.
This belief isn’t completely true, though. You can predict most of the questions. That’s because there are a few key interview questions that employers often ask. If you rehearse answers to these questions, you’ll improve your chances.
The 5 most common interview questions are:
- Tell me about your work experience. This doesn’t mean, “give me your complete work history”. That’s not what the hiring manager wants to know. Focus on how your work history sets you up to do this role well.
- Why are you interested in this role? Here’s what this question really means. “Do you actually want the job? If so, why?” Some jobs get a lot of applications. Employers prefer to hire someone who seems to be enthusiastic about the job. Because they’re likely to stick around. Explain why you want this particular job and how it would benefit you.
- Tell me how you dealt with a problem. This is about finding out how well you work with others. Employers often worry that new hires will be difficult to work with. Calm their concerns by telling a true story from a past role. Choose an event where you solved a problem using people skills. It doesn’t need to be heroic.
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Employers ask this to find out how you see the role. Is it a long term commitment or a stop-gap? It’s worth preparing an answer to this question. If you see the role as long term, explain why. But if this is a short-term fix, you need to reassure them that you will stay as long as possible. Say something positive about how you hope to learn new skills and become part of the team.
- Do you have any questions? This question isn’t exactly what it seems. In one sense it’s simple: let me know what questions you have about the role. But there’s something deeper too. If you really want the job, you would have questions about it. So employers will expect you to ask a relevant question at this point. Make sure you have one ready!
Of course there will be other questions depending on the role. But if you rehearse answering these five, you’ll perform better on the day. Good luck!
How to improve your communication skills
Communication skills don’t come naturally. You need to learn and practise them.
The good news: you can improve your people skills by making a few simple changes. Give it a go! Your progress may surprise you.
Here are 3 tips to get you started.
- Before you speak, take a moment to consider your audience’s point of view. How do the people you’re speaking to see your topic? What’s important to them? Adapt your message to make it as relevant as possible.
- Rehearse presentations in front of a friend and ask for their feedback. This works face to face or via video call. You can do this for any presentation, from a high-stakes conference talk to a weekly team meeting. Rehearsing helps to reduce nerves. Getting feedback will improve your delivery and content.
- Use active listening whenever you need to build understanding and trust. Here’s a quick formula. Listen. Then say, “it sound like you ………… because …………. Did I get that right?” Fill in the blanks with what you heard, in your own words. Wait for their response and continue the process. This simple technique can transform your listening skills.
Try these tips to see how powerful they are.
Communication skills training
Communication skills training makes you more effective in the workplace. It does this by creating a space where you can learn new techniques and practise them.
The best communication courses enable you to:
- Set goals for training. This includes identifying outcomes and deciding how to measure progress.
- Understand the principles of effective communication. Including common barriers and how to remove them.
- Learn new techniques and behaviours. This includes theory and exercises, workshops, games and role play.
- Integrate different approaches. This might include improvisation, conflict resolution and organizational psychology.
- Leave your comfort zone. You need a safe space to learn and try out new behaviours.
- Apply your skills in realistic role plays. Playing out workplace scenarios lets you experience how soft skills can change outcomes.
- Get custom feedback and guidance. An experienced people skills trainer can point you in the right direction.
Topics you’ll cover
Shop around for the communication course that meets your needs. Topics and will depend on the trainer’s approach and the needs of the cohort. They should include:
- Listening skills (including active listening).
- How to build on people’s ideas (saying “yes, and…”).
- Presentation skills. Including how to structure a message so it’s relevant to your audience.
- How to give effective feedback.
- Conflict resolution.
- How to speak “off the cuff” (without preparation).
- Physicality and use of space (also called nonverbal communication).
- Leadership skills.
If you’re not sure whether a course will work for you, ask! Most trainers will be happy to arrange a free call to discuss your needs and explain their offerings.
How does soft skills training work?
Soft skills training works by creating a learning environment for the cohort.
This is a space where students can learn skills and try out new approaches. For example, imagine you’re working on public speaking. You might give a speech to your cohort and listen to their feedback. In this way, your fellow students create a group setting where you can learn and practise.
Imagine another student wants to practise setting boundaries. Then you might take part in a role play where you play that student’s colleague.
The trainer’s role is to help students to get out of their comfort zone by creating a “safe space” for learning. They also provide guidance and feedback. And they make sure that each student achieves their goals while also having fun.
(In the special case of self-paced online training, there is no automatic group setting. In this case, you may need to ask a friend or colleague to help you practise the techniques.)
You’ll spend your time doing:
- workshop activities
- group discussions
- role plays
There’s also time to set goals and reflect on your progress. Your trainer will offer personalised feedback throughout the course. They may also offer one-to-one coaching, either as part of the package or as an optional extra.
Types of courses
There are three main types of communication course to choose from:
Below we compare these types, to help you choose which would work best for you.
|Type of course||Live trainer?||Ideal cohort||Typical duration||Benefits||Drawbacks|
|Intensive||Yes||4–10||1–4 days||Best learning environment||Time commitment / cost|
|Live online||Yes||4–10||4 × 2½ hour sessions||Practise between sessions||Challenges of video calls|
|Self-paced online||No||No cohort||You decide!||Access anywhere / lowest cost||No bespoke feedback|
- Intensive, face to face courses. These are the gold standard. They provide the most effective learning environment, particularly for smaller cohorts. (Look for courses with 10 or fewer students per trainer.) Courses are typically 1–4 days long. In-person training provides the time and space to try out new skills and get to know your cohort. Having a physical space to work in allows you to experience the full range of techniques. Students often find these courses to be transformational.
- Live online courses (trainer-led). These courses use video systems (like Zoom) to create a live learning experience. They’re led by a trainer and a small cohort of students. They generally run over a longer period, with shorter sessions than in-person training. For example, 4 × 2½ hour sessions over a 2-week period. This format has some advantages. Because the course is longer, you can try out techniques at work between sessions. And then reflect on how it went. Online courses are also more accessible (no need to travel or book out your entire day). And they tend to be cost less than in-person courses.
- Self-paced online training (recorded videos). These courses use recorded videos and online exercises. You work on them where and when you want to. Because there isn’t a cohort, you need to buddy up with someone when you’re practising the exercises. This is easy to organise: ask a colleague or friend to give you 15 minutes. The advantages include a broader curriculum, access from anywhere and lower costs. To get the most from this format you might supplement it with one-to-one coaching.
If you’re not sure which format would suit you best, ask your trainer to talk you through the options.
How to choose a people skills course
If you’re looking for a communication course, it can be tricky to choose. You’ll find many suppliers online, all with different approaches. Here’s a simple process you can follow.
Start by writing down your goals and the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Also note down the approaches you’re interested in. And the skills you want to learn about (eg, active listening or giving feedback.)
Next, decide which type of training you’re looking for. If you want face-to-face training, you’ll need to search for local providers. This helps to narrow down your search.
Now it’s time to make a long-list of training providers by searching online. Note down important features of each provider like:
- the approaches they use
- the background of the trainer
- costs, and
- logistics like session times and location.
Also write down the sense you get from the website, videos and student reviews. Does the course feel like a good fit for you?
As you start to narrow down your list, consider these questions:
- Does the provider offer many courses on different topics? Or do they specialise in soft skills?
- Does the curriculum cover the skills and techniques that you want to focus on?
- Does the website specify which trainer will lead your course? Or does the company work with many trainers?
- What is the trainer’s background and which approaches do they use?
- If there is a video of the trainer, do you like their style? Could you imagine learning from them?
- If there are student reviews, are they relatable? What did they achieve from taking part in the training?
- Is this course relevant to the goals you wrote down earlier?
Sometimes an obvious winner will emerge. But you may end up with 2–5 providers on your shortlist. To make the final decision, contact each of your shortlisted providers. Ask them to explain how their training works and whether it would suit you.
Most trainers will be happy to arrange a free consultation call. This will give you enough information to make an informed decision. Good luck with the training!
If you want your whole team to attend a communication course, in-house training may be the best option. This means that the trainer will:
- visit your workplace, or
- run a session at your company offsite/conference, or
- train your team via video call.
The benefits of in-house training include:
- A bespoke curriculum focused on what your team needs.
- A shared learning experience that people will remember.
- Leadership can take part. This shows that they value communication skills.
- Colleagues are more likely to practise new skills after the training. Because they learned them together.
- No travel or accommodation required.
- Costs per student may be lower compared to open training courses.
There is one possible downside of in-house training. People may be less willing to open up about communication challenges in their team. In an open course, students come from many organisations. People tend to be comfortable sharing challenges with people they don’t know. Sometimes they don’t want to air these problems with their coworkers.
Not sure whether in-house training is the right choice for your group? Talk through the options with your trainer.
Working with a communication coach
Apart from courses, the other way to develop your soft skills is to work with a communication coach.
What is a communication coach?
A communication coach works one to one with people who want to improve their soft skills. This suits clients who need custom guidance in a private setting.
Coaches help their clients to:
- set goals for communication
- learn and practise new techniques
- rehearse and improve talks
- experiment with different communication styles
- learn from feedback
- measure success
Soft skills coaches come from different backgrounds, including:
- management consulting or business schools (often executive coaches)
- media (often former journalists)
- performing arts (often actors or voice coaches)
- life coaching or counselling (often life coaches)
If you’re looking for a coach, start by deciding which type you need. That will help you narrow down your selection. A coach’s background tells you which approaches they will use.
How does coaching work?
Communication coaching works one to one, either in person or by video call. You’ll arrange a block of sessions, maybe once or twice a month. During the sessions you’ll work with your coach to:
- set goals
- unblock or diagnose issues
- try out new skills and techniques
- role-play important interactions
- rehearse presentations
- learn from feedback
Your coach will set you homework to complete between sessions. This could include:
- trying out new skills in the workplace
- writing or rehearsing a talk
- getting feedback from colleagues
Soft skills coaches come from many backgrounds. That means that they use different approaches and techniques. But there is a common thread: the importance of practise and feedback.
During each coaching session you’ll rehearse an aspect of communication. It could be a talk. Or a difficult conversation. Your coach will offer feedback, tips and exercises.
How to choose a coach
Before you look for a coach, identify the skills you want to develop.
Every coach has a different background and approach. Choose someone who has experience in the area you’re interested in. Common communication goals include:
- leadership for executives
- dealing with the media
- changing your pronunciation or accent
- public speaking, handling conflict and leadership style
Let’s take each of these in turn.
Leadership for executives
Look for an executive coach. Or someone with a background in management consulting or business schools. These coaches will teach you how to:
- project authority while telling a story
- inspire people to follow you (charisma)
- win the confidence of stakeholders
- present data in a way that engages your audience
They can also help you write presentations, and deliver them with confidence.
Dealing with the media
Media communication is a specialised skillset. Look for a coach with a media or public relations background.
These coaches will focus on the way you come across on screen (or on the radio). They might help you to:
- give a press conference
- take questions from journalists
- deal with a crisis
- present your organisation well on social media
Changing your pronunciation or accent
Look for a speech/voice coach or an “accent softening” specialist. These coaches have backgrounds in the performing arts. They may be trained actors, singers or voice coaches.
They will train you in the techniques that performers use. People like singers, actors and TV presenters. They’ll also show you how to:
- use body language to project authority
- make your presentations engaging
- tell stories that are relevant to your audience
Public speaking, handling conflict and leadership style
Look for someone who specialises in communication coaching. These coaches have helped hundreds of people to be more effective in the workplace. They’ll show you how to:
- find an authentic leadership style
- present in an engaging and confident way
- give effective feedback
- deal with conflict and set boundaries
- navigate hierarchy
Free ways to improve your soft skills
If you don’t have the budget to access training or coaching right now, there are some free alternatives. Here are some starting points.
Free or low-cost online training
There are some free or low-cost online training options available. They tend to be short, so they’ll only cover a small amount of material. But they’re free, so what do you have to lose?
You can also find many free videos on sites like YouTube. They tend to be collections of tips and tricks. There are also some complete courses available.
As with most online content, the quality is variable, and there is some bad advice out there. Use your judgement! Try to take one piece of good advice from each piece of content you find. Try watching these videos with a friend and trying out the techniques. Which work well?
Books and articles
Search for books on topics you’re interested in. On Amazon you can find the bestsellers within a category and read the reviews. You can also preview the beginning of the book.
There are also many articles and blog posts about communication. There is plenty of good advice out there, but be wary! Take everything with a pinch of salt. If possible, test the techniques with a partner before bringing them to the workplace.
Set up a peer coaching relationship
One of the best ways to improve your people skills is completely free!
Communication skills aren’t difficult to master. But like any other skill, you need to practise. The top challenge people have with learning soft skills is making time for practice. If you can master the habit of practising and learning, your soft skills will improve.
But you can’t do it alone. You need someone there to help you. And the most effective method I’ve found to get that support is via peer coaching. This is where two people support each other through the learning process.
It could be a colleague, a friend or a family member. Schedule regular sessions where you spend time discussing:
- where you are
- where you want to be
- how you’re doing
- what to do next
Share resources you’ve found and try out exercises or role plays. Take turns to discuss each other’s goals, blockers and progress. Encourage your buddy. Use your active listening and coaching skills during your sessions.
Ask colleagues for feedback
If you’re working on a conference talk, ask your colleagues for feedback. Although it can feel scary to ask, most people will be happy to help. As long as you’re clear about what you want to learn, you’re likely to get helpful insights.
For example, you could write the following email to some trusted colleagues:
As you know I’m working on a presentation for <big conference>. I’d like to do the best job possible for the audience there.
I’m currently figuring out my main points and rehearsing the talk. I could do with some help with this—would you be willing to watch a version of my talk and give me some feedback? I’ll provide prompts so you know what feedback I’m looking for. If so, let me know what times would suit.
Thanks, <your name>
Once you have some people to listen to your rehearsal, come up with a list of questions for them to answer. You want feedback that’s useful and actionable. Think about what you don’t know, and what they can help you find out. Often this comes down to structure, clarity, your delivery style, and the relevance of the talk. For example, your list of questions could include:
- What are the main points you took from my talk?
- What questions did it raise for you?
- Do you think my talk addresses a current concern of the conference audience?
- Are there any areas you would like to see added to the talk?
- Are there any parts you think I could remove?
- Could you offer 1-3 suggestions about how I could improve my delivery? For example, was I too fast/slow, did anything I say or do distract or confuse you, were my slides clear and useful, etc.?
The process of rehearsing your talk in front of a live audience will help to build your confidence. The more times you do this, the better the final talk will be.
Some companies arrange a “dress rehearsal” before someone presents at a conference. The person rehearses their talk in front of their colleagues and then asks for feedback. If you can arrange this, you will improve the final presentation at the conference. And it’s completely free!
Set up a soft skills group
I’ll let you in on a secret about the soft skills training industry.
When you enrol on a course, you’re paying for two separate things. First, the expertise and knowledge of the trainer. Second, the group setting which helps you to learn and practise new techniques. The first part is difficult to replicate without a trainer. But you can create the second part yourself, without any budget or training.
Here’s the secret. If you:
- gather a group of colleagues, and
- meet regularly to work on your people skills together
…you can achieve a similar result to taking a training course. Or sometimes a better result.
It will take work and commitment. And most people won’t follow through with that. But if you’re serious about improving your skills, and you don’t have a training budget, it can work wonders.
Here’s what you need:
- a group of colleagues who are willing to invest time into developing their soft skills
- a regular time and space (in-person or virtual) for sessions
- someone to lead each session, bring a technique to try, and run group discussions (you can take turns)
- a coaching framework to help people set goals and tackle blockers
If you’re not sure how to replicate the skills of a trainer, here are a few ideas:
- get people to take turns running a session by sharing a technique
- send one person on a training course and get them to share learnings with the group
- ask a communication skills trainer to help you write a curriculum
Good luck and remember to have fun!