“Everybody is talking, but no one is communicating.” This is a direct quote from a client about communications in his organization. One of the most frequently mentioned issues in organizational evaluations is “communication.” Most of us have gone through school; many even have college, and most are fluent in English. How can communicating be so difficult?”
Admittedly, no one is perfect. When we mentioned that we were writing an article on communication to our families, they howled! All of them wanted to have editorial privilege over our article. They assured us that our communication skills were not exactly a “thing of legend.” It is safe to say that we can all improve our communications, and we should want to.
Communication is a massive topic to tackle in life and especially in an article. What to communicate, how, how often, what media to use, timing, organizational communications versus communications between individuals — the list of possibilities is extensive. Communicating is paramount to getting projects built properly (technical applications) but also key to motivating, inspiring and managing the people working for you. Great managers are great communicators.
The focus of the article is to discuss communication between individuals in organizations. Here are our top-10 communication challenges we see in the workplace and suggestions for solutions.
People lack the skills and are not in an environment with high levels of trust to have candid conversations concerning problems and issues that potentially have negative consequences. Frequently, an intimidating leadership style is the root cause of a culture that is communication-impaired. In this environment, trust is low and drama is high, which does not allow for candid conversations. Shutting down lines of communication is never a desirable outcome, particularly the lines to the CEO, who, being the person at the top, may need to take immediate action on significant operating issues. Eventually, problems become apparent, but valuable time has been lost and options to mitigate the negative consequences are diminished. Building an environment with high levels of trust is one of the foundations for candid conversations and superior communications.
Procrastination and avoidance for difficult conversations do not improve the situation. Project teams deal with massive amounts of information and variables in the project delivery process. The three Cs —Communication, Cooperation and Collaboration —drive project performance. Delaying important conversations does not improve outcomes and typically prolongs and deepens the problem. Motivation and morale suffer, further eroding performance. Timeliness adds significant value to the communication process in environments demanding so much information and contributes to successful results. Quit procrastinating and jump on the opportunity to share your concerns and gain feedback that will enhance outcomes.
Silent resistance is a favorite for those prone to introversion and shyness. During an active discussion and debate, these people are sitting quietly taking in all the information. These people seldom volunteer or express their opinion during the discussion. They rarely offer other facts and circumstances. Presenting multiple resolutions or a path forward provides the opportunity for open disagreement or working towards consensus. The quiet resisters do not say a word and leave the impression that there is consensus. In reality, these individuals do not support the direction and undermine the entire communication process. “Speak now or forever hold your peace” is only a partial solution. Discussion and consensus building are important in managing a company and require a unified front from the management team. Participating in the conversation is required to support the outcome. The effective manager will draw out the timid.
Messages with passion and emotions are motivating. The issue is not about this type of communications but about those out-of-control situations when cooler heads do not prevail and communications go off unfettered with tempers fully engaged. Shoutfests seldom involve empathetic listening. Allowing time for emotions to calm down will enhance the communication process and avoid regrets for communicating with our feelings instead of our minds. We seldom win “arguments.” We all know this, but this situation occurs more often than we might like. Cool off and then have the conversation.
The adage “timing is everything” applies here. Have you ever had someone sit in your office when you are under the gun to meet a deadline and start small talking with you? How often does someone ask you, “Is this a good time to talk?” More than likely, not often enough. It is not just about being considerate and polite, but it also positively affects quality communications. Scheduling conversations in advance to gain the proper environment and audience for receiving the message is desirable. Just because you are sitting in an empty room, staring off into space, does not mean it is a good time to talk. You might be grieving the loss of a loved one, thinking through a project detail or brainstorming how best to broach a subject with a difficult owner. Plan your message and the timing of it for maximum outcomes.
This is a significant communication challenge, especially for detailed-oriented people. Gathering more information is always better, right? Some people love to talk about the issues and their concerns, but often are unable to move a decision across the finish line. The conversation appears to go on forever, with the introduction of more and more information. It is similar to quantitative easing, and there never seems to be a great time to quit. Sometimes it is better to make a decision instead of weighing the pros and cons of every alternative. If building consensus requires concessions, then make them. Moving forward with a blended solution is far better than an unsolved problem.
This is a behavior-shaping skill in organizations. What you acknowledge and reinforce will drive more of that type of behavior. In a seminar with 75 project personnel, the overwhelming response to the question, “Other than money, what is the one thing you would like more of?” was “Feedback that they were doing a great job.” Mistakes in this industry happen, and managers all too quickly provide instant feedback on the shortcomings and problems. The same cannot be said about successes. Authentic positive feedback is free. Communicate expectations of roles and responsibilities to ensure people understand their jobs. Reinforcing positive behavior effectively helps drive desirable outcomes.
Difficult conversations do not have to be unpleasant. Proper preparation and structure of the message can prevent emotional and negative reactions by the recipient. Providing workshops on how to handle these difficult communications is a valuable and profitable idea. People are your No. 1 asset. You want them properly trained in how to communicate difficult messages so that great performances occur. Providing all managers with effective communication skills training is invaluable.
Effective communication skills involve great listening skills. And yes, pounding away on your cell phone is not listening! Multitasking tells the speaker, “Your message is unimportant.” Listening is focusing on the sender’s meaning and not just hearing the words and adding your own spin or meaning. Go to parties, gatherings and anywhere people congregate and you will find those that love to fill the air with words, oblivious to the receiver’s thoughts and ideas. People dominate conversations and seldom think to ask questions and get others to talk. Why should you ask others questions? There is a saying that “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Asking others questions says you care! Are you busy now or is this a good time to talk? Be prepared with your message if the answer is yes.
10. TOE-TO-TOE CONFRONTATION.
Toe-to-toe confrontations are successful if you are 6’6” and weigh 275 pounds. You may get your way most of the time by intimidating people. But getting your way is not always the aim of good communication; rather, getting to the right conclusion is the goal. Therefore, intimidation through confrontation is not useful, but early identification of the problem is the first step to effective communication. Many difficult conversations require discussion. Performance issues, project problems, owner disputes, money issues, quality or warranty issues and numerous other unpleasant subjects all require addressing. Problems only get worse when you avoid confronting them. Developing confrontational skills, primarily preparation, and structuring difficult communication is a skill you can learn. Avoiding delaying these meetings is a highly recommended activity.
Improving your skills and learning techniques to enhance success at communicating is a valuable activity worthy of investment. How do you rate your communication skills? Do you recognize any of the issues above? When are you going to do something to improve your communication skills?
Successful managers motive and inspire their people and are effective communicators. Are you as effective as you should be?
Ethan Cowles is a senior consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 303.398.7276 or via email at email@example.com. Ken Roper is a principal with FMI. He can be reached at 303.398.7218 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.