Skill sets

Communicating effectively

Effective communication can help build trust and open doors, but it can be truly difficult to achieve. Engaging people in innovation and co-design adds a few unique challenges to communication. When issues arise in relationships, we are often advised, ‘communication, communication, communication’. But what does it mean? It can depend on the individual and their personality. One thing we do know: effective communication often begins with listening. 

The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 30 October 2018.

Quick Summary

What does it mean

  • Practices for effective communication 

What helps

  • Building relationships and trust
  • Creating a convincing argument
  • Using visuals
  • Compassionate communication when people feel wronged
  • Creating agreements for feedback on work
  • Providing compassionate feedback on behaviour

What hinders

  • Lack of safety and trust


What does it mean?

Practices for effective communication

There are some fundamental practices that support effective communication, whether verbal or written:

    • Listening – Demonstrating that you have heard what’s been said (or not said), and acknowledging what is important to people. This is also referred to as ‘active listening’.
    • Openness – Being open to hearing what others share, being willing to see things differently and to change your mind.
    • Respect – Acting in a way that empathises, validates and respects others’ perspectives.
    • Clarity – Being clear, concise, concrete, correct, complete, and avoiding ambiguity. People need clarity about: intention, the message, the urgency, the relevance to them, the benefits to them and what’s asked of them.
    • Reciprocity – Creating space in communication for two-way exchange, and checking that your audience has what they need from you. 
    • Intentionality – Being clear with yourself and others about your intention in what you’re saying or doing. Sometimes others may not be able to hear us because they have concerns about our intentions. 
    • Knowing your audience – Knowing what is and is not important to your audience and their preferences about communication style. Shape the content and style of messaging so they can hear it. Communication styles can vary by culture and personality. Not to be confusing, but sometimes being too direct and clear can be ineffective. 
    • Knowing yourself – Knowing when and where your natural style and personality are really effective and when they needed to be adjusted. 


What helps?

Building relationships and trust

When relationships are strong and trust has been built, misunderstandings are easier to clear up and less likely to escalate. When something important needs to be communicated, consider the relationships and levels of trust. You may need to work extra hard to communicate if the relationships and trust aren’t there, or you may need to build relationships and trust before sharing your message. 

Creating a convincing argument

There are times when you need to provide a convincing argument. Writing, rhetoric and academic courses often teach how to put your thoughts together in a way that will get people to pay attention. Here is one common structure:

  • Hook – Get the audience’s attention. Answer the questions: Why is this important? Why is it needed? Who is it for?
  • Assertion – Make it punchy and concise. What are you trying to convince people of? What is your hypothesis, or theory of change, in a nutshell?
  • Rationale – Take time to step through this. What is the vision that you see? Why is this desirable? How will that vision come to life? What makes your argument believable? How will you address counter-arguments?
  • Call to action – Summarise and reinforce what has been said. Be sure the benefits are clear. Name the action that you want the audience to take.

An argument is also more likely to be convincing if it appeals to all three of these:  

  • Reason – statistics, facts and conclusions from these
  • Ethics – a sense of what’s right and fair
  • Emotion – empathy, hopes, dreams and ‘wishes of the heart’




Using visuals

Visual information can be easier to engage with, understand and remember than written or verbal communication. Visual and experiential communication can be more culturally appropriate when working with Indigenous people. Visuals are critical when working with people with low levels of literacy. 

There are many ways to make things visual. As a starting point, playing with colour, size, pattern, texture and arrangement of text can make words easier to absorb. Imagery or photos of people, places and landscapes can bring life and context to work. Symbols and diagrams can help explain abstract concepts. Handwritten and hand-drawn visuals are often friendlier, with the added benefit that they convey “work in progress” and an openness to input. More produced work tends to convey “I’m finished” and that the time for feedback is over. 

If you commission artwork to support your communication, be sure you have approval to use the artwork wherever it will be applied. Cite the artist and share the story of the artwork and how it relates to the topic.  

Compassionate communication when people feel wronged

When stakes are high and emotions run strong, communicating effectively becomes more important than ever. In these situations it’s easy for people to feel wronged, misunderstood, criticised, judged or dismissed. If that happens it’s important to act before relationships and trust are damaged. 

There are a number of strategies to help work through difficult conversations. In the book ‘Crucial Conversations’, Kerry Patterson suggests the STATE method, which is one way to get to a shared picture of what is happening from different perspectives, and to create the possibility of seeing things and understanding one another differently. 

The STATE method:

  • Share your facts – Just the details of what happened – the facts, without any interpretation
  • Tell your story – Share how you interpreted what happened
  • Ask for other’s paths – Ask the other person to share their facts and story
  • Talk tentatively – Share your story as assumptions, possibilities – not certainty
  • Encourage testing – Encourage the other person – be your own devil’s advocate, mirror how they seem to be reacting

Patterson et al include a set of principles to come back to when you are working through a tough conversation:

  • Ask yourself: what do you want to be the outcome?
  • Look for shared purpose
  • Look for your own assumptions
  • Avoid silence (e.g. the ‘silent treatment’) or violence
  • Make it safe – including when either person is defensive
  • Apologise
  • Stay in conversation – even if you need to give it a rest

Source: ‘Crucial Conversations,’ by Kerry Patterson, et. al.

Creating agreements for feedback on work 

Giving someone feedback on their work, for example a report or a presentation, is another type of conversation that can really put our communication skills to the test. We find it helpful to create a dynamic where feedback is requested, and both parties take the following approach:

 The person requesting feedback: 

Sets the tone and frame 
Provides background and context where does this work come from, what was the task and what is the goal? What is the progress of the work?
Makes a clear ask identifying what the requestor wants feedback on specifically? What’s in scope and what’s out of scope for feedback?
Explains the work providing an orientation to the work, perhaps including a walk through (verbal or physical)
Allows time for processing giving people time to make sense of what has been shared and what has been asked
Avoids defensiveness  uses further questions to probe the responses and understand. It may be helpful to avoid responding immediately and summarise at the end


The person providing feedback:

Stays focused on what is needed and what is most important, without getting personal. 
Confirms the context and the ask e.g. by playing back the understanding of what is needed
Starts with the overall response is the work close to hitting the goals? Are the comments major or minor?
Provides appropriate feedback for the phase if it’s early stages, stick with high level guidance. If it’s late stage, jump into the details. Don’t go further than is necessary.
Provides guidance and strategies instead of answers unless there was an ask for answers, provide a description of the qualities of the work that could be changed to help the work achieve its goals. We find it is important to take the perspective that the person requesting feedback is capable and competent, and to leave it up to them to come up with the answers. This step empowers the person requesting feedback to keep working and learning how to meet the challenge. Later on, if the person isn’t able to take onboard the feedback (versus respectfully deciding not to take the feedback onboard), there may be barriers or complications to understand and support that may be needed.
Avoids criticising the person  talk about what the work needs in order to be effective

Providing compassionate feedback on behaviour

One of the most delicate communication tasks can be providing feedback to someone on their behaviour, as people may feel vulnerable and at risk. At worst, they may be triggered by past situations, fears and insecurities. Taking care in the approach can keep it positive and productive.


The person giving feedback on behaviour is often the one who initiates the conversation. The following may be helpful:

  • Make a request – Ask if the person is ok to hear feedback from you. Agree an appropriate time
  • Get clear on your intention – What do you hope will happen for this person? for your relationship with them?
  • Ensure there is enough trust to have the conversation
  • Create safety – avoid the fear that the relationship at risk
  • Tell your story – Use the STATE method (above) to explain how this concern has come about
  • Connect behaviours to outcomes – Explain how the behaviours are getting in the way of effectiveness 
  • Make it about the behaviours and not about the person
  • Suggest strategies to shift the behaviour – so that they can get better outcomes
  • Stay calm – Let go of any emotions around it
  • Stay positive and use humour if appropriate
  • Invite feedback – make it a two-way conversation  


The person receiving feedback on behaviour may or may not be aware of the situation. Either way, they may not know what to be prepared for and they may be very apprehensive. Looking for the positive intention and the opportunity can help, as well as the following:

  • Stay calm – manage the emotions. Notice and manage anxiety, panic, anger or other strong feelings
  • Be mindful of insecurities and vulnerabilities
  • Breathe.
  • Avoid defensiveness – probe the responses to understand and avoid responding immediately, summarise at the end
  • Explore what is happening – get to clarity about the situation and the feedback
  • Explore strategies to get different results
  • Explore what support is there to help experiment with strategies
  • Restate what was said and the actions were agreed
  • Don’t take it too personally – this is an opportunity to learn how to be more successful in certain situations

As a note, performance reviews can involve feedback on both work and behaviour. In this situation, be careful not to confuse the two. Take the time to look to see if there is an underlying reason behind work that is not hitting the mark or behaviour that is not in line with expectations. Consider opportunities to provide support or coaching in order to help someone.


What hinders

Lack of safety and trust

Communication shuts down when the trust is absent and people feel there will be consequences for sharing how they feel – when they don’t feel safe. If trust and/or safety are absent, a conscious effort needs to be taken to build this first and foremost. Sometimes issues are resolved ‘simply’ because trust has been built. 


Frameworks and resources:


Related Capabilities:

  • Developing relationships and connection
  • Bringing people along the journey
  • Facilitating meaningful and effective conversations