You Keep Using That Word – Communicating Effectively
Resolving communication problems can appear to be simplistic when written as a five-step action plan. In the real world, the causes for miscommunication between yourself and another, or your entire team, may be a much more difficult issue to tackle. Depending on your emotional IQ, or your teams, no one may be even willing to step up and ask the obvious – “Dude – say what?”.
There are a number of root causes for your message being returned to sender. Being unaware of non-verbal cues can misrepresent or cause your team to misconstrue your intentions. Over 90% of personal communication revolves around something other than what you are saying – namely how you say it, and how you look when it is coming out. These communication “signals” can undermine, contradict, or overwhelm your message. Moderation and tone is the difference, for example between the adult speaker (usually) and the child speaker who is just learning the sound of their own voice.
Interpretive frameworks are another manner in which the message gets received. These are the assumptions that people make about you to help them understand what your signals mean. These are driven by what they think their experience with you has been to date, or what their experience with people like you has been. Try almost getting run over by a facially pierced skateboarder with blue hair as you exit your car in the parking lot, only to find a young person with pink hair and piercings behind the counter asking you about your mocha frappe order. Will you tip the same as if the person looked like your child? In the workplace, these frameworks may drive their comprehension of your words during specific moments in time (“Bob is a good guy, unless his ‘Boss hat’ is on”.)
These frameworks can be valuable tools when viewed as “experience”, which is a generally a positive description in the workplace. They can also be dangerously wrong since they are viewed by the listener’s reality and not yours. Imagine having worked for 20 of the past 24 hours, exhausted but proud, as you describe to your co-worker, “I am so tired.” Without the context, or your lens, the listener (either the person you are talking to or someone else joining the conversation late) may hear from you instead, “I am looking for an excuse to not do my job.”
So, how to avoid crippling yourself with mixed messages or plain error? The good news, is that it is a manageable problem. It does require a bit of emotional intelligence but leaders have that in abundance, right!?
Here are a few strategies. First, give people the benefit of the doubt. Doing something stupid isn’t a sign they are stupid. When someone hurts you, it is possible that they are not cruel, and didn’t mean to hurt you. Putting yourself in another’s place is one manner in trying to understand and perhaps suggest the way forward in resolving the issue. We spend a lot of time thinking about our side of the exchange and less about the other. When people clutch up when you arrive, instead of asking “what is their problem?”, consider “what am I doing that is causing this?”. From a statement analysis perspective, try explaining why it is in someone else’s interest to give you what you need rather than trying to convince them of how much it is in YOUR interest.
Another strategy is to make a good first impression, and DO IT EVERY DAY. The first four minutes of a conversation are critical. We will make long-lasting judgments based on those first minutes. There are no guarantees that you can change an existing judgment but it is your decision to START EACH NEW INTERACTION LIKE ITS YOUR FIRST. Look directly at the person, smile and gesture, speak at a moderate pace and invite them to speak early. As I have said earlier, it is your choice as whether you will be having a critical conversation, but as a leader, all conversations are critical, whether you designate them such or not.
In order to be a powerful communicator, you must avoid communicating that you are powerless. Suggesting that you are powerless is, in the workplace, fatal. Much research identifies several signals of powerlessness:
- Tag questions (‘that’s how it happened, isn’t it?”
- hedges (“I guess”, “sort of”
- verbal hesitations (“you know”, “like”)
- unwarranted apologies (“I am so sorry your car wouldn’t start”)
If you recognize yourself here, one simple change can make huge improvements. Stop using these signals. That may not be easy, but take it in small steps. Recognize a pet phrase you use to distance yourself from what you are saying and resolve, one week at a time, to banish it from your vocabulary.
Be assertive. This is a way of caring for yourself and others, but not the same as aggression. Assertiveness is the ability to express expectations or preferences when they matter. It is not the same as forcing your opinions on others by force or by relationship. Research on this manner of behavior is consistently positive. It provides energy, often to you, improves relationships, and allows you to get things done. For example telling your kids “put your trash in the basket and your dinner plate in the sink” is more assertive than saying “quit being a pig”. Consider how that might work in the office. Avoid emotional presentations, deal with one issue at a time, don’t insist on getting your own way every time but don’t give in immediately on everything that opposes you. Admit when you are wrong, but only when you are wrong. If you are not going to win the decision, a good leader fights for their idea until the decision is made, and then makes the alternative as good as it can be.
Lastly, when communicating in the office, focus on what you know, rather than what you suspect. You should be using “I” rather than “you” when you explain your issues to people. You can be sure of what you feel, but telling someone “you tried to…etc” is a guess or a hunch. Let them explain it, with their words.