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How to improve communication skills

· 4 min read
Yiyang Hibner

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Co-authors: Joyce Kim and Rohan Shah

If you are a product manager, you will definitely receive feedback to “improve your communication skills” at some point in your career. You’re probably thinking: what could that possibly mean? How can I get any product features shipped at all, without having strong written/verbal communication skills already?

I was accustomed to that mindset until I got some surprising feedback from my peers at Pinterest. I was told that I really needed to improve my communication skills, but I wasn’t sure how. I thought I was doing a fairly good job - preparing meeting agendas, checking progress over Slack, and following up when something was falling behind. What more was I supposed to do? It turns out that I could have done a lot more in both my professional and personal life. While I am still in the process of improving my communication skills, here are 3 things that have worked well for me:

1. Send out a quick meeting summary

My former skip manager Marco Matos told me an incredible tip during a 1-on-1: always send out a quick meeting summary after major stakeholder meetings. He has seen extraordinary communicators follow this habit for years. It doesn’t have to be an extensive summary (and almost certainly shouldn’t be a wall of text!); a high level overview with key points and action items is sufficient. This strategy is both straightforward and effective. By doing this, you will demonstrate your skills of getting things organized, having communication clarity, and also a solid documented record for everyone involved. As a bonus, you now have a shareable artifact that helps your extended team feel more involved in the communication and establishes trust.

2. Seek to understand then to be understood

“Seek to understand then to be understood” is part of Stephen Covey’s best-selling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and has always struck a chord with me. As depicted in the picture below, people can often feel frustrated communicating when it appears that the other side doesn’t understand what is being said – for PMs, this can often happen with your cross-functional partners, especially in deep engineering, design, or marketing conversations. There is also a Chinese saying “Play Strings to the Cow” 对牛弹琴 (English equivalent is “Cast pearls before the swine”). In my opinion, if your audience doesn’t understand you very well, it is likely due to the fact you don’t understand them from their perspective either. To effectively communicate with a “win” in mind, consider what winning means for others and how you can work together to achieve a common goal. Listening and interpreting are crucial parts of communication as well.

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Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

3. Reiterate and confirm alignments

My toddler has frequently gotten frustrated with me to the point of tears whenever he has wanted to go out to play – even if I tell him “let’s go.” In the past few months, I’ve come to realize that it’s a small matter of misaligned communication. He thinks that my confirmation means that we will leave “right at this moment,” but I often have to finish up some small task like changing clothes or wrapping up a quick work message. To improve this, I’ve recently started saying “we will go out in XXX minutes after we finish YYY things. Here, let’s put your snacks and water bottle in the backpack first. Now let’s put on your shoes …. etc.” To my surprise, he has been able to grasp this concept quickly and has become a lot more patient.

Applying the same methodology at work, when we have major interactions with cross-functional teams, we need to ensure everyone is on the same page as mental models can easily differ. A great way to achieve this is to summarize meeting progress periodically (e.g. take a pause and conclude what’s been agreed on) and confirm alignment towards the end of the meeting, with an email to close any gaps or continue further discussions (see what I did there? Reiterating point 1!).

Communication is an extremely valuable and transferable skill. Being an effective communicator can also help you become a better partner/parent. I always have room to improve my communication skills and would love to learn from you in the comments too!