There should be no doubt in any contractor’s mind that he or she is in one of the biggest “people businesses” in the world. You should also have no doubt that one of the most important things in working with people is the ability to communicate. Here are some practical ways you can develop communication skills in yourself and in your staff.

Before working on individual skills you need to sit down with your people and sell them on how important good communication is to your company. Tell them about the things you’d like to do to improve communication. Make a plan, with their help, so that everyone knows what you are going to be doing to improve communication.

Be active and responsive

Active listening. With those thoughts in mind, let’s consider some important principles you need to keep in mind at all times in developing good communication. First, help yourself and your employees to practice “active listening.”

More problems and mistakes have happened in this business, which never should have happened, simply because people misunderstood what was said. Actually, it is not important what was said but, what the other person perceives you said.

Work—and help your people work—to listen well. One of the major problems in business is that everybody is talking, but too few are listening. True listening requires us to hear another’s words and register them in our minds. Too often we appear to be listening to a person, but we are only waiting for them to stop talking so that we can present our argument. Or, we are looking for “ammunition” to use against them. This kind of practice will soon cause the other person to become very careful and evasive in what they say, and destroy your ability to communicate with them.

One of the basic practices of active listening is to repeat back to the person exactly what you have perceived they said. It may seem too elemental, but this simple practice can save you thousands upon thousands of dollars a year. Talk about this practice with your employees when you are setting up your communication plan so they will understand why you want them to do this.

Taking notes. Make it a part of your communication plan to write down all important communications—after having decided what will constitute important communications. So many times important things are forgotten or misunderstood because they are not down in writing. In addition, when they are in writing, your mind is free to do more important things, such as creative thinking and planning. Also, everyone else has a resource they can go back to read and reread if they need to without being embarrassed.

Once you get a reputation for being a listener, you will be amazed at what people will tell you. This knowledge gives you a much better ability to run your business. Some of the greatest ideas, which will make you lots of money, often come from your employees. New techniques and ways to perform better on jobs will begin to surface through the words of those who work for your firm. An important part of any communication plan is to establish a way for ideas, crazy or not, to be heard.

Read between the lines. Learn to read between the lines. Good communication involves a lot more than just words. It’s often the feelings, emotions, body language, and thoughts behind the words that reveal what is actually being spoken. The key to being a good communicator is in learning to read people. This means listening to what they have to say. Then continue to talk with them as you search for a complete understanding of what they are feeling and thinking. Take their nonverbal communication into consideration.

Don’t just react. Often, as I watch two people communicate, they remind me of two bare electrical wires being rubbed together creating sparks that are flying everywhere. One person says something, to which the other reacts negatively, to which the other one reacts negatively, and it goes on and on like that until both become very sorry for the things they said. Carefully think through what you want to say.

I have learned a little trick that I want to pass on to you. It has helped me in this area. Before I say something very important to someone else, something that could be misunderstood, I say it to myself, I ask myself, as if I am rehearsing it to myself, “How would I feel if the other person said this to me?” What would I think I meant? If it does not pass by me as understandable, if I would not feel good if it was said to me, then I do not say it to the other person—or, I reword it until it is acceptable.

Think about your actions

Your attitude guides theirs. Whenever, and as much as possible, be as positive as you can be in all that you say. I am not going to get into a long dissertation about “positive thinking,” or of being positive. Others have done a good job of writing books and articles about these principles. However, I do feel that very little has ever been accomplished by negative talk. Most of your employees will respond much better to words of encouragement and to positive words than they will to bad-mouthing and negative words. I fully recognize that there are times when it is impossible to be positive, but even in those times, there is a way to present the negative in a constructive and positive manner.

Power of consensus. Use the power of consensus to come up with solutions that will motivate people to produce. Some people seem to think that the best way to settle disagreements is to get into a room, and yell and shout and argue, until one person gives in, thus making the other person the winner. Sad to say, they do not understand that in that type of conversation, there are no winners.

I have often found that decisions made in consensus are better decisions because you have used the good ideas of someone else to temper your own ideas. You are now getting the best of both ideas.

Too many owners feel that this kind of approach will call their authority into question. If you are going to take this approach, you must reserve for yourself the first authority to override any decision. However, nothing should stand in the way of allowing your people from being a part of fine-tuning your ideas through consensus.

Open dialogue. Nothing should be too small to discuss. I find that there are many big problems that come up in a company that did not start out that way. They started out as small, apparently insignificant problems, but were not addressed when they were small. Because the owner (or management) did not know them and did not deal with them while they were small, they began to get bigger. Soon they became massive problems that cost thousands of dollars to correct. And the sad thing is, they could have been corrected for just a few dollars if they would have been handled when they were small. Nothing is too minor to discuss in a good communication plan. It is better to have to listen to a lot of little things that do not matter, than to overlook that one little thing that later becomes a big problem.

Be flexible

Finally, the success of any communication plan is to make sure that you—and it—are flexible. Nothing should be carved in granite. Everyone should remain open to any new or better way of communicating. Also, everyone should realize that you will never attain perfection. Everyone must continue to strive towards improving the communication in your company. Too many people give up too quickly because they expect perfect results at once. Your goal should not be perfection, but rather the continual improvement of the communication in your company.

This article has been adapted from Management Principles for Concrete Contractors. Charles Vander Kooi will host a seminar, Employee Problems—Not on my Watch, at the World of Concrete 2013.