Best-selling author Stephen Covey outlined the eight principles of effective communication in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, published in 1989. The principles, which apply to personal and professional relationships alike, are timeless but can be especially helpful in the digital age we live in today when it seems like social media and technology have blurred the lines between personal and business relationships.
15 Principles of Effective Communication Skills
If you’re looking to improve your communication skills, take inspiration from these top 15 principles of effective communication as outlined by Covey and others.
1) Have a goal
The first step of Principles of Effective Communication is you have to set a goal for that. You must set a goal before you can achieve it. The things that you want to accomplish are useless if you don’t know where to start, so set some goals for yourself. If you don’t know what your goals are, get specific with your actions.
Instead of just saying, I want to make more money at work, specify exactly how much money per year by when. Without a goal, there is no way to know if you have been successful or unsuccessful in achieving that goal. That is why having a clear and focused goal is vital for communication success.
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2) Listen to Feedback
It can be uncomfortable to hear criticism about your communication style but don’t brush it off. Feedback is one of the best ways to learn how you come across and what adjustments you can make to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. If you’re looking for professional development, soliciting feedback from a superior, peer, or coach is a great way to get clear on areas for improvement. And don’t worry: It doesn’t mean you’re doing everything wrong!
Everyone has room to grow in their communication skills—it just takes knowing where to focus that growth. Keep an open mind when it comes to feedback—and do something with it once you receive it. In fact, a large portion of feedback will probably challenge things you believe or consider facts; while some truths might fall by the wayside, others might prove incredibly helpful (and even lead you down new paths). Either way, know that communicating effectively starts with listening. Listening to feedback is very useful for Principles of Effective Communication and if you continuously practice it then it will help you a lot.
3) Set up your environment
Good communication requires an environment where you’re focused and free from distractions. The best way to achieve that is to do your communication in a place that’s quiet, where you won’t be interrupted. It also helps to have notes or copies of important documents at hand, like emails or a report your team needs.
If you work with other people, check with them ahead of time and make sure they won’t interrupt while you’re communicating something important. There’s nothing worse than a colleague barging into your office during an important call or meeting (unless it’s necessary) and cutting things short. Make it clear which times are for business only so you don’t have to deal with interruptions.
4) Speak clearly
One of our Principles of Effective communication is to speak clearly and simply. No matter who you are communicating with, it’s important to have a clear message. If your intended recipient doesn’t understand what you’re saying, it could lead to all sorts of trouble.
Make sure that you don’t skip words or use jargon when speaking with anyone. Doing so will only confuse your audience and make you look unprofessional. If there’s one thing that can help professional relationships flourish, it’s good communication skills. Keep it simple!
The best way to master simplicity in communication is to practice direct and honest speech, with an eye toward eliminating unnecessary language. When we say something directly—with sincerity—it comes across as straightforward.
In addition, expressing yourself honestly comes across as more genuine than misleading statements or attempts at sugarcoating. Get rid of any vagueness in conversation by using I statements (not you). Instead of making accusations about someone else in an attempt to make your point, own up: I feel like you’re not listening to me when we talk about finances… I want us both to be happy going forward. How do we each need to change?
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5) Adjust To Your Medium
The most important element in Principles of Effective Communication is adjusting to your medium. If you’re writing a report, write it in a formal tone and format. If you’re speaking, look people in the eye and speak fluidly (don’t read word-for-word). Knowing how to adjust to your medium will help make you more effective regardless of what’s going on around you.
If there’s something you want someone to understand about something you’ve said or written (and their reaction wasn’t positive), take some time to figure out why they reacted that way. Ask yourself if it was because of something specific about them or because there was an adjustment issue.
Maybe your audience didn’t fully understand something or needed more information before they could get on board with what you were saying? Try adjusting in future situations by being clear at first, then breaking things down if necessary and providing additional detail only after clarity has been established.
6) Respond quickly
If someone says something to you, take immediate action. If it’s a good idea, you should be able to implement it immediately. If not, at least acknowledge that and tell them what you will do about it. Showing your immediate responses builds trust and your ability to move things forward quickly.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big project or just an email—respond quickly because people will appreciate how honest and open you are with them. People want to feel heard, so respond as quickly as possible. The sooner you do, people will know you mean business.
7) Stay Organized
It’s easy to get distracted or have too much going on in your life when you’re trying to communicate. If you know that one priority item is due that day, set aside time to work on it before checking email or taking a call.
This can help improve your productivity and let others know what you’re working on and when you plan to be available for calls. Staying organized is key for managing your time effectively and making sure people don’t waste their own valuable time with unclear communication! So staying organized is one of the good Principles of Effective Communication skills.
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8) Don’t interrupt
Interrupting is a sign that you’re not listening—you’re waiting for your turn to talk. The easiest way to fix it is by really listening: when someone is talking, focus on what they are saying and let them finish before you say anything. Learn how to avoid interrupting in meetings. Remember names: If you don’t remember names, people will notice and it will make them feel like they’re being ignored or disrespected.
Also, their name is a key part of understanding who they are as an individual. So next time you meet someone new, ask them what their name means (bonus points if it’s an unusual name). Use body language: People rarely pay attention to their body language; instead, we tend to read each other’s emotions from our facial expressions alone.
But there’s much more going on—our posture and gestures also indicate our moods and feelings. To send signals that support your spoken words, use open body language (unfold arms, uncross legs) during conversations.
9) Use Stories
Any time you’re trying to get a point across, it helps to use stories. Stories have an organic way of getting people excited about a message; just ask any politician. If you can draw connections between your audience and your story—and make them feel understood—they’ll be more willing to listen to what you have to say.
And there are two ways to do that: 1) Make sure they can relate directly (share their pain points or emotional state), or 2) Make sure they feel like they’re learning from someone they want to listen to (share your experience). The trick is figuring out how you can tailor whatever message you’re trying to deliver around either one (or both). When in doubt, talk less and share more!
10) Listen actively
Active listening is very important in the sense of Principles of Effective Communication skills. Listening is one of those things that seems simple enough, but so many people do it wrong. We often engage in what we might call surface listening–we hear someone speaking, but we don’t pay close attention to what they’re saying.
To be an effective communicator, however, you need to listen actively and fully. That means letting go of distractions (turn off your phone), thinking about what you’re hearing (not just how you’ll respond), and giving your full attention to whoever is talking (no daydreaming). Active listening isn’t just about good manners; it’s also a valuable way to understand others’ points of view and make sure everyone feels heard.
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11) Use appropriate body language
It might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many people forget that their body language can be just as important as what they say. When speaking with someone, make sure you give them eye contact and smile. It shows you are paying attention to what they’re saying and it comes across as warm and approachable.
Whether you’re giving a presentation or pitching an idea, don’t let your hands flap around or your eyes dart everywhere—it could come across as nervousness or even dishonesty. And remember to stand up straight! Slouching is generally perceived to be a sign of insecurity or low self-esteem.
12) Be Curious
Communication is a two-way street, and at its core, it’s about understanding other people. It’s easy to get caught up in our own world when we talk—we assume that everyone else thinks exactly like us. But that couldn’t be further from reality! We can become more effective communicators by keeping an open mind, actively listening, and being curious about how other people see things.
When you start a conversation with let me ask you something… or you mentioned…, or my perspective is…but I don’t know if you see it that way…what do you think? then you are communicating effectively and making space for others to talk and answer questions as well.
13) Avoid distractions
It’s hard to communicate clearly if you’re constantly interrupted or distracted by others. Avoid distractions by turning off notifications or putting your phone on airplane mode. What’s more, try to make communication a priority; block out time in your schedule and keep any conversation as distraction-free as possible. If you can speak face-to-face, do it—it’ll be much easier for you to focus on what someone is saying and give them your full attention.
In addition, practice active listening when you do communicate with others; try repeating key points back so that everyone knows they were heard properly, and always strive to understand what someone is trying to tell you before speaking yourself.
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14) Create an environment where you can make mistakes and learn from them
There’s a caveat to setting yourself up for success: You have to be willing to make mistakes. An effective communicator is prepared to put herself out there in front of people, confident that if she makes a mistake, she’ll learn from it and come back stronger.
If you’re too afraid to make mistakes, take chances or speak up, you might benefit from creating an environment where it’s safe for you to do so. It may mean setting some personal boundaries (for example, you might set office hours or refuse certain tasks). The more you work on your communication skills (both spoken and written), the easier it will be for others—and yourself—to understand your goals and motives.
15) Don’t underestimate the importance of gratitude
Of all my ten principles, I think gratitude is one of the most powerful—and overlooked. It’s a simple concept: Say thank you and sincerely mean it.
The mere act of showing appreciation for someone else goes a long way in solidifying your relationships and making them strong. Studies show that people who say thank you are more likable, trustworthy, and popular than those who don’t.