5 Strategies To Conquer Communication Gaps at Work

5 Ways To Improve Workplace Communication Skills
by Lulu Xiao
November 23, 2016
Regardless of experience level, there's a lot to learn about workplace communication skills. Here are five strategies to confront ambiguity at work and accomplish your goals.
When I graduated from college, I had been in school for seventeen years. I knew what it meant to write a paper or take a multiple choice test. For almost two decades, I had been surrounded by teachers willing to instruct me whenever I didn’t know how to do something. “School” was a familiar and comfortable world to me.

But then I entered the real world.

Suddenly, I was a novice again, trying to make it in a world that was unfamiliar and unknown. Yes,school had prepared me in many ways, but—as a new, less experienced employee—there was still so much that I didn’t know, so much that I didn’t understand. Additionally, I no longer had teachers around to make sure that assignments or guidelines were clear.
Yes, school had prepared me in many ways, but—as a new, less experienced employee—there was still so much that I didn’t know, so much that I didn’t understand.
After two years, I’ve definitely learned a lot about my industry as well as my job responsibilities. Yet I still struggle with ambiguity—or not knowing exactly how to accomplish a task—on the job. Sometimes the ambiguity is due to my inexperience, but other times it’s due to unclear directions, undefined goals, lack of guidance, or other factors. Either way, I’m still learning how to slice through the ambiguity on a daily basis.

In the meantime, I’ve learned to employ five strategies for conquering ambiguous situations:

CONDUCT PRELIMINARY RESEARCH ONLINE WHEN WORKPLACE COMMUNICATION IS CONFUSING

I was recently asked to create a dashboard to track potential deals and signed contracts for a client account. It was something I had never done before and a new endeavor for our team. There were many unknowns around its format, content, design and much more.

So I started with a Google search. It sounds simple, but I found resources on how dashboards for tracking business metrics often look, and templates that other people have used. While the results didn’t outline exactly what I should do, it at least provided me with background information and the confidence to appropriately pursue and refine my plan of action.

RAMP UP THOSE COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS AND JUST ASK QUESTIONS

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck with taking initiative and being resourceful, but sometimes it’s better to just ask questions if it’ll save you from wasting time going down the wrong path. Before I even started creating the dashboard, for instance, I asked about whether the data analysis should be in PowerPoint or Excel—a minor but important detail that wasn’t communicated until I asked. Knowing the parameters upfront saved me time that I might’ve spent transferring my data analysis and graphs to the appropriate format. A little confidence and communication skills saved me.

Similarly, I will ask my boss and colleagues if they have helpful documents or information before I start on assignments. In this case, my question prompted my boss to provide me with target signing goals and connect me with the right people for other data sources—both of which were essential. Additionally, I solicit feedback, advice, and input from others on a periodic basis; responses always provide me with new perspectives, ideas and a gut check for whether or not I’m on the right track. (And if it’s not given, asking about the expected deadline is a smart move, too!)

BE OPEN TO EXPLORING DIFFERENT OPTIONS

I often wish I knew exactly what the final deliverable should look like. But sometimes, no one knows the best way to structure something and it takes some exploring—usually by trial and error—to come to the final product. Even my boss, for example, didn’t know exactly how to display the information on the dashboard, so I tried and proposed a few different types of graphs and layouts. When I feel frustrated, I just remember that the process is helping me get one step closer to figuring it out; patience always pays off in the end.

TAKE ACTION 

Earlier this year, I came across a great article which explained that confidence and success can come by way of just taking action. The article was primarily in regards to the confidence gap between men and women, but I believe the lesson applies regardless of gender: in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty, sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and take action. To take your best guess and run with it. Each time I presented my dashboard, for instance, I knew that parts of it could be rejected or wrong, but my attempts allowed for the possibility of progress and success.
Sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and take action.
Besides, many things on the job are inevitably an iterative process for everyone. Every deliverable, presentation and report goes through many drafts and revisions. Procedures only get better through time and experimentation. Ambiguity on the job is unavoidable, and the only thing we can do is try our best to work through it.

Be okay with not knowing

I know this is much easier said than done. In the office (and especially when you’re a newbie!) you don’t want to appear incompetent; it can be embarrassing to admit that you don’t know how to do something that’s seemingly basic for others. I’ve realized, however, that those more senior than me had to learn all the things that I’m learning at some point, too. In fact, there are still things that they are learning how to do.

So, it’s important to recognize—and accept—that not knowing is just a part of typical career growth. It doesn’t mean that you're incompetent or not cut out for the job. It’s just a part of the natural on-the-job growth that everyone experiences. We all have to start somewhere.

Are there strategies that have worked well for you in confronting communication gaps and workplace ambiguity? Tell us about it in the the comments!