Communication is both a conduit of action and a barrier to success, and by recognising and correcting bad communication you will quickly discover that your working life can be a lot more effective and enjoyable.
So how do you develop super communication skills?
1. Give more than a simple message
When communication breakdowns occur the person delivering the message usually finds it really difficult to understand why. They pass on the message exactly as they would like to hear it – but they forget that they have a different vantage point, a different set of knowledge and experiences, which means they absorb instruction and messages differently.
When talking to your team you need to make sure you understand their reference point. If they’re not privy to your framework, your project, your priorities, your reference point or your managerial requirements they will need a context created for them. For example, a lot of ground-level team members get frustrated when they have invested exorbitant levels of time and effort on a project and it is suddenly abandoned. This is disappointing, and at times demoralising. Simply telling them the project has been cancelled isn’t enough – they need to know why, and it needs to make sense.
2. Reiterate the basics – goals, key tasks, mutual expectations
Most misunderstandings happen at a fundamental level, when people have different assumptions about a task. The assumptions lead to expectations of what other people will and should be doing. It is rare for people to be deliberately obtuse and difficult, in fact most people want to put in effort and see outcomes. If you make sure that everyone involved in a team, or in a project, has a strong understanding of the basics: what the purpose is, what is expected of them, what they can do if they encounter problems, etc, then when things become more hectic and difficult (perhaps closing in on a deadline) contingencies are in place.
3. Always communicate in both directions
Communication is about so much more than delivering effective orders. Actually taking the time to listen to concerns, feedback, ideas and challenges from people around you is significant. There is a delicate balance between opening your mind to the influences around you and staying strong and focused on a particular path, but the important thing is to know that communicating in both directions is important for avoiding disaster. Not only does it build trust with your team and colleagues, but it also means you create a constant feedback loop that allows for constant improvement.
Steven Covey’s fifth habit of highly successful people is “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. It is amazing how often people drive strongly towards being understood but don’t take the time to acknowledge or understand those around them. Ask yourself which team is more effective – the one in which all members are pushing an agenda at the expense of others, or the one in which all members are examining each other’s positions in order to discover the collective priorities.
4. How well are we being received? Read the responses!
Although we all set out to be good communicators, and most of us would consider ourselves to be good communicators, we need to be constantly vigilant of how others receive what we say. If we find that people just don’t respond to us well, or we are being told that certain people refuse or can’t work with us, then it is definitely time to start investing in some skill building.
The great news is that communication is a skill, so effective practice can dramatically improve our output in this area. There are certain bad communication habits we build up: interrupting others, ignoring someone else’s demands and placing our work as a priority without notice, thinking of our next comment rather than listening to what someone else is saying, etc. These are all things that can be unlearnt with practice.
For the next 24 hours try and note how often you interrupt or override someone. You might be surprised how often you do it, and this self-awareness is the first step to improving.
Consider why mistakes happen after you have given instructions. Instead of leaping to blame look at yourself and the way you brief others.
Try it with other skills.
5. Use feedback to improve – be open to change
Whether we know it or not we are constantly engaged in feedback loops about our behaviour. The problem is that unless we are mindfully examining what is happening we will discard uncomfortable outcomes and only see reinforcement of our current actions. How often have you heard a blunt, rude person tell you that people like the way they ‘tell it like it is’? Or a timid person who never gets to the point who thinks that their politeness is an asset but can’t understand why people walk all over them.
When you are thinking about influencing others you need to put your perceptions aside and deal with facts. Do people often ignore your requests for help? Do people often act irritated when you ask them to do something? These are signs that your communication has some flaws. Don’t ignore these signs that something needs to change. If you start to remove the barriers of bad communication you will quickly discover that working life can be a lot more effective and enjoyable.
Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.