Any woman in leadership in today's business world knows first-hand what it's like to swim upstream. This is especially true for the 23 women CEOs among Fortune 500 companies.

Of all the skills a good leader should have, communication is among the most important. The strength of any relationship is based on effective communication, and what is leadership if not an interrelation between people working together toward a common goal? In fact, much of what works to enhance your personal relationships: empathy, honesty and confidence will do the same for your professional ones.

Why Communication Skills Are Important

Knowing how to speak with your team and elicit a mutually positive response is crucial to running a business. As a leader, it's your responsibility to effectively communicate company culture, processes, and product knowledge. Your ability to do so could make or break a project's success. Since great communication trickles down an organization from top to bottom, the way you communicate these things will be the standard for how your team managers communicate them as well.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

Soft skills such as emotional intelligence also play a role in effective communication because it involves being aware of emotions around you, including your own. Moving away from your own ego and taking in the other emotions in the room will help you handle professional relationships with empathy.

Social media has opened the opportunity for everyone to have a voice, resulting in an increasingly people-centric economy. Responding to that in the right way isn't always easy, and leaders need emotional intelligence to know when it's wise to watch words carefully instead of reacting. Leadership with high emotional intelligence will also inspire your millennial and Generation Z employees since 2 in 5 say they have rejected a job based on their personal ethics.

Essential Communication Skills for Female Leaders

If your number one goal is to become a better leader — regardless of your gender — the path is through building your communication skills. Here are seven practical steps you can take starting now to be a better communicator in your everyday professional interaction.

1. Actively Listen

Wise communicators let others speak, gather their thoughts, and then share their insight. Deborah Tannen, an author and linguistics professor at Georgetown University, once said, "To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued."

Active listening is not only an excellent way to truly understand and parse what others are saying, but also a great way to pick up on tone and other verbal cues that could indicate how a person is feeling. Listening is a nonverbal way of showing confidence, just like over-talking shows a lack of it. Learning how to balance the input you receive from others with your own carefully considered output will make you a stronger communicator and better leader.

2. Be Assertive

It's important to understand that being assertive is not the same as being a bully. An important factor of communication is being able to let others know exactly what is expected of them. If you're in a leadership position of any level, being assertive with your requests will ensure that there is no confusion among your team. They'll know exactly what they need to do for you, as you'll have made it clear. As always, politeness plays a big part here. Keep things professional and ensure that you aren't being disrespectful to those you're asking things of.

3. Politeness Goes a Long Way

While this applies to all social interactions, politely communicating with coworkers is key to making others comfortable. When you're friendly, you open others up to continue engaging with you. In turn, this encourages honest conversations where each participant is comfortable enough to tackle many issues, even uncomfortable ones. Politeness manifests itself in different ways, including:

  • Allow everyone to have a voice: Let others have their thoughts heard without cutting them off.
  • Be courteous: Give your team the opportunity for small wins

4. Let Your Confidence Shine

As a woman in a leadership position, you need to let your confidence show. Let your tone show that you are knowledgeable about what you're discussing. Directing others to success with a firm and polite tone is one of the best ways to encourage trust. The next time there's a problem, your team will feel safer with you at the helm and be less inclined to doubt your expertise or your ability to lead the team.

5. Avoid Unnecessary Information

The most efficient leaders know how to get a point across quickly and clearly. When communicating with others, it's important to be as clear and concise as possible. This can be a difficult skill to master, as it's easy to say too little and leave out important information.

Before important meetings or discussions, it can be worthwhile to note key points for issues you want to tackle. Prepare that list by focusing on the overall issue and specific information everyone needs to know, then refer to it during the conversation.

6. Empathy is Important

The easiest way to connect with someone is to show empathy. When you give someone a voice, you learn what makes them tick. You can use this knowledge to adapt your approach based on what you've learned about their personal strengths and weaknesses, resulting in better communication and fewer misunderstandings.

7. Encourage Collaboration

A collaborative model makes employees more engaged and helps them take ownership of their work, according to Harvard Business Review. It also moves managers and executives out of a traditional "command and control" approach, creating employees who feel empowered and managers who encourage it.

If you've made the right hiring decisions, that empowerment will strengthen your team and, ultimately, the company's success. It will build an inclusive environment that's energized and creative while cultivating a more productive work culture.

Adaptation and Authenticity Are the Key

Finally, as you follow these steps to build your communication skills as a leader, do all you can to remain in the mindset of adaptation and authenticity. Being rigid and unreasonable are the quickest way to lose the respect and engagement of your team.

Ultimately, all leaders can grow by increasing their communication skills, and it will take a lot of adaptation to make that happen. As Virginia Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, once said, "I learned to always take on things I'd never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist." Staying rigid in your communication style will only hinder your success as a leader.