The most important communication skill

So much has changed about the workplace, so many of our social interactions take place in new ways. Clearly our old communication skills are going to be less important, and we’ve got to learn new ones, right? What’s the most important communication skill you can develop these days?

What if I told you it’s the same one it was a hundred years ago?


Hearing (or reading) comes naturally, but listening requires active investment.  Active listening, empathic listening, listening with intent … these do not come naturally.

Recently a colleague and friend of mine, Gina, wrote about her experiences at a conference.  She shared a fascinating story about how a group of women self-organized at the conference and had a discussion about the sociological factors which impacted them in the workplace and beyond, and how that connected to so few women deciding to present at the conference (and others like it).

What’s interesting to me is what people heard when they read her post. I had a chat with Gina about the subject, and did my best to really listen and understand what she was trying to say.  I then tried my best to listen to what other people were saying about the subject … and there have been no shortage of bloggers offering their opinions.  I won’t link them all here, but so much discussion went on that further follow-up posts were needed, and it all led to even more confusion about what was originally being said.

I found something agreeable in every post I read about the subject, but what stood out most to me was that none of them really seemed to be approaching the subject from the same starting point. If I put myself in each of the writers’ shoes, I could understand what they were trying to say — people in general aren’t inherently unreasonable.

It’s not a leap in logic to apply that same principle to the original discussion.  Each participant in the conversation was hearing something different, because they began the conversation in a different place.

It’s hard enough to empathize and actively listen when you’re directly present in a conversation, witness to all the body language and able to ask clarifying questions.  Imagine how hard it is when all you have to go by is a couple paragraphs of a blog post … or worse, 140 characters on a microblogging site?

If you really want to make the most out of the new technologies and norms that make up the 21st-century workplace, you’ve got to push your listening skills beyond the last century’s limitations.  The skills are the same, but the fine details of using them?  Lots of changes.  We spend so much time talking about how to blog, how to update your twitter feed, how to promote yourself … but at the core there’s something so much more important we should be nurturing.


#1 Malini on 08.17.09 at 11:11 am

Effective communication is such a difficult skill. Different people hear the same message differently because everyone has unique filters.

On the flip side of the point you make, I wonder how social media interactions require us to project ourselves differently in order to be understood.

There’s a big plus: I know plenty of folk who would struggle (but should learn) to express themselves in a concise and direct way 🙂


#2 Jamie Pappas on 08.17.09 at 12:44 pm

Hey Dave,

Good post! You’re right – listening is a key success factor that we all need to be aware of and tune into, especially since it works both ways. Unfortunately, I’m no longer able to comment on Gina’s blog, so I’ll share my further thoughts here.

I think the debate around Gina’s post, and the discussion in general arose because PodCamp is not a conventional conference (in fact, it’s dubbed an “unconference”) because no one picks who speaks other than the people interested in speaking who have the option to volunteer to do so…so, it couldn’t have been easier to sign up for the sessions in a lot of people’s minds, mine included.

We have the power to choose how we listen, how we interpret information, how we react and the decisions we as individuals make based on the information we have. We also have the power to either continue to move forward in our attempts to make things better, or stop moving and blame someone else. All too often, the second path seems to be the easiest.

Being one who believes for myself that I am the only one who can limit me and my potential (and just said so in a recent blog post), I wanted to share my perspective on what I mean by that for myself. As a point of clarification, I don’t tell other people that this is true for them, as I do not know their situations. But I do believe they have the potential to try to step back and see things through a different lens by not holding on to the past, but embracing reality and striving for change in a positive way using the resources and people we have around us, and probably even some we don’t even know are out there yet.

What I mean when I say that “the only one who can limit me is me” is that I alone have the power to choose to be satisfied with how things currently operate (and I fully agree there are oppresive systems that still exist) and allow that to become my excuse for not striving to reach my goals. In this example, I am limiting myself by not trying to reach my goals, rather than just “settling” for “how it is.”

By the same token, I alone have the power to decide that I will not settle for anything less than what I want, and that I will strive to overcome whatever my obstacles are in an ongoing effort to reach my goals. Realistically, of course my choices have to fit into the constructs of our society and laws, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to figure out ways to get where I need to be, or let the frustrating of the uphill battle in front of me stop me from trying to get up that hill.

This is, after all, how change happens. People like all of us in this discussion see problems with how things are today, and we strive to make them better, not only for ourselves, but for those that will come after us. In the course of doing so, we win some, and we lose some, as they say, but we also learn a lot along the way.

As commenters on Gina’s post that you referenced point out – this is a limited time offer where we have a huge window of opportunity to go beyond and position ourselves as thought leaders in this space because no one has it all figured out yet. So it’s the perfect opportunity to level the playing field, so to speak, and make it what we want it to be for the future, not focus on the past.

I think, even though we have different ways of approaching the topic, we all want the same things – for those that are qualified, men or women, to stand up for their qualifications and opt in to share their experience and expertise with people. I think the challenge in it is that some of us are just more comfortable doing that than others, both men and women.


#3 Hiren Doshi on 08.17.09 at 2:50 pm

True and what makes effective listening even more challenging is everyone communicates differently and with varying details. Some have tendency to come right to point while others tend to add lots of details and words. To have effective communication presenter needs to access his audience before message is delivered as each receiver has different attention span.

#4 Dave on 08.17.09 at 8:23 pm

Thanks all, for such great comments.

Jamie, you make some great points, and like I said when I read what people wrote (your post included!) I saw truth and reason in all of them. What I think is difficult is understanding the context each person brings to the dialog.

When I read Gina’s post, and discussed it with her later, I realized the background of Sociology she was bringing to the game. When I read another person’s post, I realized she was talking about the experiences of one individual. These are incompatible approaches to the conversation — it’s like saying “85% of people will have a reaction to poison ivy” versus “I’m not allergic to poison ivy.” Those two people are both talking about reactions to poison ivy, but other than that they have little in common.

Basically, what’s happening on a macro level in society versus how one woman (or even one demographic of women!) reacts to that are different discussions. And yet I can easily see how a group of people supposedly discussing an observation (“so few women signed up”) could easily think they were having the same conversation when they were really talking about different things.

I’ll follow up in private but I will say this in public for everyone — I didn’t intend to call out your post, Jamie, or those of anyone else. I was just inspired by them :).

#5 gminks on 08.17.09 at 8:34 pm

Whoa Jamie: you have not been blocked from commenting on my blog. I told you edublogs eats posts sometimes, and truly it does. If you are still having issues please let me know and I’ll put in a help ticket. But please don’t post in a public forum that you are now “unable to comment on my blog” because that is categorically untrue.

#6 Dave on 08.17.09 at 8:49 pm

I think responses to a third party’s blog make a difficult conversation medium. I’m sure you guys will work this out.

#7 gminks on 08.17.09 at 8:56 pm

Jaime I checked, your comments and one by stu had been marked as spam by askimet. You should be all set now.

#8 Jamie Pappas on 08.17.09 at 9:03 pm

I’m not saying, nor did I ever say, that you blocked me. I said I’m not able to post on your blog now (but have been able to before). Please don’t take it in any spirit other than exactly what it says – I cannot post on your blog any longer for reasons I don’t understand, on any post.

I did let you know back on the day it happened, and you responded promptly and let me know that this does happen sometimes, so I kept trying, but no success.

As Dave shared with me tonight, it’s likely the length of the post coupled with the URL at the end. I’ve tried a shorter post and no URL at the end on your blog, so if you’d like to submit a ticket, that would be awesome and I’ll gladly post over there, too.


#9 Jamie Pappas on 08.17.09 at 9:10 pm

Hi Dave,

You’re so right – it’s so hard to compare things when we all come from such different experiences. And we often think we’re comparing apples to apples when it’s never really quite that easy. I’m certainly guilty of this, as well.

It’s hard not to put your own experiences into the mix when reacting to something and sharing thoughts or opinions. In fact, I haven’t found a good way to do that yet 😉

As we’ve all said, Gina and I included – it’s great that we’ve all had different experiences so that we can share them – and in the end, hopefully help one another to come to a meaningful and helpful conclusion by sharing different experiences, and hopefully maybe even inspire some women or men along the way to reach outside of their comfort zone and challenge something that seems to be holding them back.

My tendency tends to be to focus on what I can do and challenge what I cannot because of perceived societal constraints, which I certainly understand is not always the way others would approach something, especially given our different experiences and backgrounds.

To be honest, I feel like it’s a really sad thing that clearly many women (and I’m sure men, as well) still feel like they are not fully free to be themselves and/or explore all the opportunities that are available in the world because we have such opportunities before us. I hate the thought of anyone at all feeling like they’re out of reach for them.

No worries on calling out my post 🙂 I didn’t take it that way at all. Rather saw an opportunity to share some of my own perspective in a conversation with you and hopefully others.


#10 Jamie Pappas on 08.17.09 at 9:10 pm

Thanks, Gina!