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Leadership: Bridging communication barriers

Shift officers or supervisors in the workplace today must have superior communication skills in order to lead effectively.  Being able to communicate with others is largely dependent upon how well we can listen to what others are communicating to us.

December 13, 2007
By Barry Bouwsema

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Shift officers or supervisors in the workplace today must have superior communication skills in order to lead effectively.  Being able to communicate with others is largely dependent upon how well we can listen to what others are communicating to us.  Reducing communication barriers is one step in the process of facilitating better communication in the workplace.

While at work, you may have heard this before: “Sorry … I just have to take this call.”  No one likes to be put on hold, yet it is a daily occurrence in most workplaces.  When the supervisor or co-worker takes the phone call, he or she is effectively putting others and the meeting on hold.  In a Canada-wide poll of 270 chief information officers, 80 per cent said that someone answering a cell phone during a business meeting was considered a worst offence.  Seventy-nine per cent said leaving a cell phone ringer on is a definite “don’t” during business meetings, and three-quarters of those polled frowned on the act of sending and replying to e-mail when business meetings were being held (2004, Edge@Work Magazine, pg. 33). 

The supervisor may find it difficult to properly deal with the employee if he or she is taking calls or answering e-mails while meeting.  The supervisor’s attention is divided and thus not focused on the issue at hand.  It displays poor manners and poor business etiquette. When attempting to communicate with co-workers, it becomes imperative that the supervisor remove distractions from the workspace and give full attention to the employee.  Ignore the phone and turn off the computer screen, make a conscious effort to be present in the room while focusing on the employee and the message being communicated.  Science has speculated that words only make up seven per cent of the intended message and that body language (55 per cent) and verbal tone (38 per cent) make up the remainder.  By staying aware of the sender’s non-verbal cues, the receiver is in a better position to interpret the intended message.

Some suggestions for becoming a better listener include:
• get rid of the distractions or putting the distractions on hold,
• make a commitment to “be there” mentally and physically,
• listen not only to what is being said, but also listen to what is being omitted,
• tune into the subtleties of the speaker’s body language.

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The pay off for being “fully engaged” in the conversation is the listener begins to hear the speaker’s intentions and also the meaning behind what is being presented.  The listener can then comprehend the content and the context of the intended message.  The current reality is that in today’s workplace leaders are often in a position of relying on those who are being led and being able to communicate is key.  At no time in workplace history has good listening skills been more important.  As John Burdett once said; “If you don’t listen, you can’t lead.”

Barry Bouwsema is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and works as a company officer/paramedic for Strathcona County Emergency Services in Sherwood Park, Alberta.


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