What exactly are ‘communication skills'?

It has to be one of the most clichéd lines in job descriptions and hence, recruitment advertising - the request for ‘excellent communication skills'.

It is omnipresent in today's recruitment lexicon. Alternatively, substitute your favourite synonym such as ‘excellent', ‘good', ‘outstanding', ‘exceptional', ‘superior' or ‘high level'.

Unfortunately these phrases are of no help whatsoever to candidates, or recruiters.


To make an accurate assessment of a candidate's suitability for a job, it is necessary to compare the competencies required to succeed in the job with the competencies possessed by the candidate. ‘Communication skills' are not specific enough to be a competency.

The test you can use every time to find out whether you have specific competency or a broad competency (which I prefer to call a ‘concept') is to ask yourself ‘do I know the specific behavior the client is seeking in the candidate?'

‘Excellent communication skills' fails the test of a specific competency. There is a two step follow-up process I recommend you follow when the client requests ‘excellent communication skills'.

Step #1 - Identify the actual behavior. Ask the client ‘could you give me an example of what you mean by excellent communication skills?'

You might hear in response any of the following:
• can present effectively to a small group
• can write clear and concise management reports
• can negotiate effectively with key customers
• can win over difficult yet influential team members
• can hold their own at a board meeting
• can motivate an underperforming team
• can build relationships with key stakeholders
• can deliver honest feedback to individuals
• can speak clear and understandable English
• can build trust quickly over the telephone with prospects
• can communicate IT issues to non-IT people

Step# 2 -Understand the context within which the specific competency will be required. This will be gained by asking one or more of the following sorts of questions:
• what sort of information?
• to whom?
• how often?
• how many?
• for how long?

The recruiter is now on the way to having sufficient information to construct a behavioural interview question about the ‘communication skills' the client was referring to in the job brief. In other words, they have drilled down sufficiently from the broad concept (communication skills) to uncover both the specific competency and then the context within which the specific competency will be required.

This type of probing is a critical skill for a recruiter. It builds high credibility with the client, who now has clarity about the competency they are seeking (simply by having to provide an example).

It also builds greater credibility with candidates who now have a better chance of highlighting their suitability for the role because they know the specific competency being sought.

Interviewers who lack training on competencies or behavioural interviewing, will most likely assess a candidate's communication skills by how friendly and ‘nice' they are in the interview or worse, by how strong their (English-as-a-second-language) accent is. This is a huge mistake.

The importance of communication skills for success in an increasing array of jobs, means recruiters have a much greater responsibility to fully understand both the specific competency and the context of these communication skills.

How are you going to respond next time a client asks for a candidate with ‘excellent communication skills'?

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