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Dowling: Learning to Communicate

Vermont has a jobless rate that’s well below the national average and many businesses have trouble finding qualified employees. Some of the trouble comes from how the word ‘qualified’ is defined.

A colleague of mine, who teaches business at Community College of Vermont, defines it as something more than technical skills and book learning. He says employers want people who are excellent communicators - people who can blend into an existing workplace environment, intuit and adapt to the needs of customers, and project a positive corporate image. Yet many lack those interpersonal skills, and other more basic ones like shaking hands, and using appropriate tone of voice and body language.

Body language is perhaps the most important way in which we communicate, but we spend lots of our time gazing down at our cellphones. This impacts our posture - and most of us don’t realize what our body - with crossed arms, slumped shoulders or nervous ticks - is saying in subtle but potentially influential ways. Like it or not, good posture conveys self-confidence and competence, especially to an interviewer.

The art of speaking in a straightforward manner is in decline and vocabularies are shrinking too. But employees are still expected to speak politely and with focus on the telephone; to train their colleagues; prepare and deliver presentations; and attend social functions and conferences. Employers are looking for people who can do all these things - and more. They want people who know when to use the arts of tact or persuasion, and when to sit back and just listen. Plus they expect employees to be well dressed, well groomed and well-mannered.

We all want to work with people who have common sense and use common courtesy, who don’t gossip, boast or try to remain invisible. We want to be with people who are interesting, positive, and who have a desire to be and do their best. Unfortunately, these interpersonal and social skills aren’t necessarily taught or modeled at home nowadays, in primary and secondary school, or in the media.

Employers don’t have the time or the resources, so teaching these basic life skills now often falls to people like me. When I started teaching Effective Workplace Communication at CCV a few years ago I knew I’d be teaching personal communication skills - like how to write a succinct email and how to organize and deliver an effective speech. But I had no idea I’d be teaching things like self-esteem, posture, eye contact, active listening, and the value of words like “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you.” But I do.

It’s rewarding to see students become more conscious of the image they project, more confident in their social skills, more comfortable in their own skins – and better able to land a good job, satisfy a boss, get along with co-workers, and stay right here in Vermont.

Leora Dowling is a public speaking and communications teacher and consultant.
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