Communication skills: missing in action

Communication skills: missing in action

Are you one of the many executives despairing at the communication skills of your newly appointed staff? Can your trainees hold an intelligent conversation, or discuss the issues of the day with others in a civilized, yet assertive, way? Can they give and receive information in a number of different contexts and situations? Do they exhibit good listening skills and effective presentation skills in a variety of media? If so, you are very lucky and should save a lot of money on management training.

The reality is that many of the students who have completed their school education today, are just not equipped to communicate effectively in modern society. Many companies recognize and bemoan this state of affairs. Some, despairingly, have started training courses to provide new management trainees with the communication skills which top graduates are lacking.

Evidence of the lack of effective communication skills assails us every time we switch on the TV. Each night on TV, we witness examples of highly educated people who have not learnt that a conversation involves one person speaking and the other person listening, and then the first person responding, and so on. Instead, we get a cacophony of voices often talking about separate issues—all at the same time.

Even our TV professionals show an alarming lack of communication skills with several of the most senior commentators inflicting on us a shower of high-decibel newscasts.

From police chiefs and senior government officials who cannot deliver an effective press briefing, to on-the-spot reporters struggling with constructing a coherent sentence, to interviewers who ask questions that are longer than the answers—we are inundated with examples of poor communication from our government officials and media professionals.

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Even in the better schools, where officially we may have gotten rid of the “children being seen but not heard" syndrome—the mindset that once held this to be desirable is still with us. In schools with 50 students in a class, the opportunity for children to communicate anything is severely restricted.

There is also a problem of curriculum. In many schools, children are only taught how to regurgitate information and communicate in the language of past centuries. They spend an inordinate amount of time learning the language of dead poets and 19th century bureaucrats. Communication does not feature as an assessment tool and students are not encouraged to develop singular points of view—God forbid they should have an opinion!

We spend an undue amount of time teaching the rarely used skill of debating when necessary, everyday skills such as discussion, eliciting, researching, reporting and presenting information in a multitude of appropriate ways is barely touched upon.

Though the ability to express oneself with brevity and clarity in all sorts of circumstances is a basic requisite for any educated person, schools and colleges continue to churn out students who will not use one word when they can think of another 10. I think back to the old days when précis writing was a necessary part of learning the language. It taught us to consider, analyse and summarize. These qualities are missing in many of the young graduates I meet, who seek a career in education. Resumés are badly written, grammatically incorrect and spoken English and Hindi are equally poor.

Sadly, many families do not spend that much time talking to each other—working hours, TV and the demands of the nuclear family have played havoc with the traditional family evening meal and the accompanying conversations. Many a young mother has confessed that her child only eats when he is watching TV.

Modern youth culture, too, is having an effect. As they get older, children retreat into their own language—shutting out adults and developing adolescent speak—“yo", “like", “whatever" and several inexact slangs that they carry into their work life! The brevity of SMS, or short messaging service, text has curtailed the skill of being expressive when communicating; it is almost as if we don’t have the time for expressing ourselves.

Companies have to spend training their staff in communication because after 13 years of schooling some of the most educated of our children cannot be clear, concise and effective in their everyday environments. The plethora of adult communication courses and workshops should not be required. There is nothing that is taught in these courses that cannot be learnt in any senior high school class and many of the techniques should be a daily part of primary education. The American “Show and Tell" teaching technique is a classic example of this which many schools have adopted.

Surely it is time to bury many of the dead poets and do away with 19th century bureaucratic, formal ramblings and replace them with modern communication. But to do that—we will need to go back to school!

Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.Respond to this column at