Communication is something we do 24/7. Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, that hackneyed phrase from a bygone era “first impressions are easy to make and hard to break” rings true today. During initial encounters, numerous forms of communication occur. Did we meet the challenge?
- When we meet someone – Did we make eye contact? Did we smile? Did we shake her hand and was it a firm handshake? Did we invade her personal space? Was our attire appropriate for the occasion?
- When we open our mouths – Did we engage the other person? Did we start with a friendly comment about the other person, or jump right into business? Worse yet, did we immediately start to talk about ourselves?
- When we listen – Did we actively listen? Did we show interest and really hear what the other party said, or were we thinking of our “very intelligent” response? Did we engage with related questions?
Research and stories abound on effective communication. Here are five actionable, and easy-to-implement steps you can take right now to improve your communication.
Tip #1 – Listen and Ask More, Talk Less.
The majority of executives achieve their positions by being smarter, working harder, learning the organization’s culture, and succeeding in each successive position. Often, this entails developing and communicating great ideas. Thus, most are accustomed to talking more and listening/ asking less. In short, they are superb individual contributors, yet many did not learn how to mentor, motivate and inspire others. Try turning the communication habit on its head: rather than do all the talking, try listening and asking more questions. But, how?
The Harvard Business Review seems to chide those of us who believe “listening is not talking while others are speaking.” On the contrary, among many vital points, listening means active listening, and the HBR states that active listening means:
- Asking questions that promote discovery and insight.
- Building the other persons’ self-esteem by creating a safe environment.
- Providing feedback by making good suggestions.
Tip #2 – Reframe the standard “Do You Have any Questions” to “What Questions do You Have?
Through that simple rephrasing the listener moves from “does she think I’m an idiot?” or, “I must be the only one in the room who doesn’t understand.” To “Oh, it’s expected I will ask a question?” “It’s safe to ask.”
A facilitator I know uses a warm-up exercise that involves teamwork (the goal is to win) by following specific steps. The facilitator enumerates the steps verbally, repeating them a second time, and then asks “what questions do you have?” Someone always asks a question – one that was enumerated, or a subsidiary question. Rephrasing the standard “do you have questions,” to “what questions do you have?” works every time.
Tip#3 – Check for Understanding.
In addition to repeating back, David Meier’s The Accelerated Learning Handbook discusses thinking back, teaching back, playing back and reporting back. Each method allows the listeners to take in the information and integrate it into their knowledge bank, which allows for owning and embracing the information – by making it their own.
Story: Boss Becky gave several instructions in quick succession to Ryan Receptionist as she walked out the door: “type up this letter, use my signature stamp, mail it FedEx with return-receipt requested, and make sure it goes out by 5:00. Do you have any questions?” Ryan was new on the job, and needed to impress Becky: he wanted to shine. Ryan wasn’t sure he got it all and didn’t want to appear “dumb,” so he responded, “no ma’am, I got it all.”
In fact, Ryan hadn’t gotten it all. He neglected to get the return-receipt requested detail. When this was discovered, Becky was beyond upset.
Becky could have checked for understanding: “Ryan, I’m in a hurry, and rattled off several instructions. I’m not sure I even got them all. Would you mind telling me what you heard? That way, I’ll know whether I was complete in my instructions.” Then, after Ryan repeated the instructions, leaving out the return-receipt requested, Becky could have said “oh, and I’d like you to send it with a return-receipt requested.”
Tip #4: Think First, Speak Second.
This may sound surprising; however, there are bosses who have no idea how much power their words have over their employees. A favorite story of mine is a client who is an extrovert – outgoing, gregarious, fun to be around — and a CPA. He enjoys thinking out loud by tossing around ideas and engaging in give-and-take. He toiled for years as a partner in a large CPA firm, where he felt stifled in a world of introverts, with little of the communication sparing he so desired. He had no fun at the water cooler.
Having landed his “perfect job,” as Audit VP for a large multinational firm, he hosted a three-day off-site filled with personality assessments, team building, meals at fine restaurants, and evenings full of social frivolity. He was in his element.
On the second day, while reviewing the teams’ collective communications styles, he learned that the majority were introverts, hanging on to every word he said. He was devastated when a brave soul asked him NOT to ask their opinions on various projects unless he intended to use them.
After a heartfelt conversation, the group agreed to three ground rules:
- If the boss were unclear on how to proceed, he would say “I am open to all suggestions, and am willing to adopt the best the group comes up with;”
- If he had ideas but wasn’t 100% sure he would say “I’m 50% of the way there thinking we should do . . . what do you think?”; or,
- I’m 99.9% of the way there and think we should do the following unless someone can see by our doing this, we will walk off a cliff.
The team responded by allocating time and effort spent accordingly. The team would work hard if any good idea could fly (ground rule #1); it would put in less work if there was a 50/50 chance (ground rule #2); and, little to no work if the boss’s mind were pretty much made up (ground rule #3). Everyone was happy with these agreements.
Tip #5: Give Feedback – Positive and Negative.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman compiled data – worldwide – on employee feedback. It was no great surprise to learn that most of us love getting feedback – positive or negative – while we hate giving it. The aversion to giving negative/constructive feedback was driven home to me as a facilitator of the top 500 leaders in one of the nation’s largest municipal utilities.
The reasons cited by those leaders undoubtedly will ring true for you:
- I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
- I’ll have to work with them after they get the bad news.
- I’m just chicken.
Yet, when these same leaders were asked why they wanted to receive (negative/constructive) feedback, they said:
- I want to know where I stand.
- I want to know what works so I can keep on doing that.
- I want to know what isn’t working and how to improve.
Assuming our team members would want the same, I have found that starting with the positive feedback allows the employee to better accept the negative, or constructive. So, without being phony or fake, surely the individual will have done something above and beyond that deserves a “thank you;” and has earned an “attaboy” or “attagirl.” Simply stated, acknowledge it! (Research confirms that feedback must come from trustworthy sources: be sincere.) Once the individual is listening to the positive feedback, and feeling comfortable, time to discuss the areas of improvement.
To Recap: Five Steps You Can Take Right Now to Improve your Communication:
- Tip #1 – Listen and Ask More, Talk Less.
- Tip #2 – Reframe the standard “Do You Have any Questions” to “What Questions do You Have?’
- Tip#3 – Check for Understanding.
- Tip #4: Think First, Speak Second.
- Tip #5: Give Feedback – Positive and Negative.