Five communication fails sabotaging your professional reputation and relationships

I attended a training session last year and was appalled to hear a facilitator proudly announce that he “didn’t read emails”. He got them, occasionally skimmed them, but never responded. He claimed that he was far too ‘busy’ to sift through the pile of emails in his inbox, and suggested that no one worth their salt bothered to respond to emails either. I can certainly confirm that he did not read emails: I had sent him two enquiries about the course and its requirements after a few phone calls to his office went unanswered, only to be met with no response. The lesson I took away from his pompous assertion was this: be very careful about how you brand and represent yourself, both directly and indirectly. You are, after all, branding and representing yourself in every piece of communication you send out (see my article ‘How to write well’ for more on this topic). Written communication is just as powerful as verbal communication, and it can reveal more about a person than they intend. If you want to be a successful communicator, avoid making these five mistakes:

1) Claiming you’re too busy to respond. What does being ‘too busy’ mean? For some people it translates into inefficiency. Claiming to be ‘busy’ is an empty excuse that effectively signals to the person you’re corresponding with that they’re simply not worth your time. It’s a flashing neon sign that says you’re inept at managing your duties and carving up your day. That’s fine if you’re planning never to work with a colleague, stakeholder, or client again, but if you’re hoping for future collaboration can you afford to damage these relationships?

2) Offering ‘half-measure’ responses. Have you ever sent an email or text to someone asking very specific questions only to receive a reply with less than half of them answered? If someone needs answers from you, make an effort to respond to them properly. If you don’t understand their question, ask for clarification. If you really can’t decipher an email or text, call your correspondent and talk it through. These are key relationship-building strategies, and show the person, or people, you’re communicating with that you are investing in them and in their abilities, and that you are fully committed to seeing a project through. It speaks volumes about your work and personal ethic.

3) Sending unedited responses. Newsflash: that badly-punctuated and sloppily-worded email you sent out is a reflection of how you think (or don’t think) about what you’re saying or doing. You’re leaving the person on the other end with the distinct impression that your judgment can’t be trusted, and that they are going to have to muddle through the mess you’ve left them on their own.

4) Not responding because you think someone’s questions are stupid. We all remember our teachers telling us that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but our own experiences have demonstrated otherwise. Yes, you may be asked the occasional ‘stupid’ question, and you may resent having to answer it, but you should anyway. Besides, what seems stupid to you may be an issue that someone else is really struggling with, and perhaps a language barrier prevents them from communicating well. How good are you at speaking or writing in your second, third, or fourth language? A little compassion goes a long way in your own character building and growth, and fosters better relationships with everyone you deal with.

5) Not apologising when you make a mistake. As clichéd as it sounds, everyone makes mistakes (yes, even editors) – and how people respond to your mistakes is largely determined by how you own up to them. Blaming other parties or lashing out at the person you’re communicating with is a good way to permanently sour a relationship. The key to apologising is to actually mean it when you say ‘sorry’ for an error, however small. For example, I once misspelled a supplier’s name: hers is spelled ‘Lynne’, and I had been corresponding with an author, ‘Lyn’, all day – I slipped into autopilot and, even though I had checked the body of the email for spelling and grammatical errors, I forgot to check the name. Too late to recall the original mail, I sent a follow-up apologising profusely for my mistake, and was met with a gracious and kind response. I had managed to get across the fact that I was truly sorry because people misspell my name all the time, and I know how it feels when someone finally takes the time to check and spell it correctly. No one is infallible. Smile like you mean it (bonus points if you do), thank the person for their understanding, make a mental (or physical) note about the error so you don’t repeat it, and move on.

It may seem innocuous enough to ignore the occasional email or text, but in a professional setting it is best to respond to every communication. If you have to attend a meeting, draft a quick apology and get back to the person when you can devote your time to dealing with their queries and concerns satisfactorily. Not only will you seem more professional, but you’ll also be able to track your projects properly by keeping on top of progress. If you pay attention to problems that present themselves in a project’s infancy, you’ll be able to manage or circumvent any potentially serious issues timeously. The art of good communication is one that will serve you well in many spheres of both your personal and professional life. It’s a crucial tool, and simply observing and maintaining good etiquette allows you to better your management and people skills. Isn’t it time you started communicating properly?