If you’re looking for someone who has mastered the art of communication—I’m sorry, but you should keep looking. Almost anyone in my circle can cite multiple examples of me communicating in, let’s just say, less than ideal ways. That being said, I’ve been on this journey for 45 years, so if some of the nuggets I’ve picked up along the way can help you avoid the foot-in-mouth syndrome I’ve often had, then that’s great!
Communication is hard. The older I get, the more I realize how difficult it is to communicate clearly what’s in my head to others. It’s hard with my wife. It’s hard with my children. It’s hard with my clients, employees, neighbors, and friends.
One episode of Silicon Valley was spot on with its take on the challenges of communication, especially in an office setting. The founder in the show had made a simple statement to his marketing and sales team on his way out of the office one day. He said, “The bear is sticky with honey,” assuming his staff would know what he meant. This sent the team into a series of meetings to discern what the statement meant. Then followed a flurry of activity around making his “requested changes,” only to find out that what he had been telling them was the honey bear near the coffee machine…WAS…STICKY!!!
Now, this may seem hilarious to most people, but wow, it hit way too close to home for me. Unfortunately, I have been on both sides of this parody more times than I can say.
Over the years, I’ve often confused my employees by saying something they have taken in a way I did not mean. I’ve had many meetings to discuss what a person meant when they said something our team did not understand.
The simple fact is that if we’re going to do this communication thing well, we have to put in the work.
Here at Integrity, we have several core values that drive our conduct in regard to our communication. Love, safety, and humility are especially important to us, and hopefully everyone we come into contact with experiences these virtues. Here are some simple things we emphasize in our practice.
Empathize with others
Developing and exercising your empathy muscle is the best way to conquer this whole communication thing. Understanding what is important to a person is key to having a great line of communication with someone. What is more common in our culture is to assume everyone thinks exactly like you. This ignorance towards others' way of thinking—intentional or otherwise—leads to the worst possible outcomes in terms of successful communication.
Build a dictionary
At almost every engagement, our consultants know they have to work hard to understand the words a business uses and what those words mean to them. Oftentimes in these early conversations, we realize the same word or acronym for a system means many different things. And even worse, that it means completely different things to different people within an organization. Spending the time to clearly identify what a word or statement means to all parties involved in a conversation is key to successful communication.
“Can you repeat that, please?”
Repeating what you heard or asking the speaker to repeat their point is a terrific technique that I can’t take credit for. Shout out to our colleague Alissa Newman, B/A extraordinaire, for cementing this in one of our consulting teams she was engaged with. Alissa would often pause in a conversation and summarize back what she had heard before moving on. This allowed both the speaker and the rest of the audience in the room to verify they had the same understanding of what was being said and to either affirm that understanding or correct it at that time. For those who were a bit more dense about certain things (i.e. me), she’d often ask them to repeat back what she had just said to affirm their understanding of what they had heard. It was a great technique to keep everyone engaged and to confirm that everyone would leave with the same understanding.
Be explicit, please
I know you could argue that I covered this in the last point, but it can’t be said enough. Don’t assume people understand what is going on in your head. Spending the time to build a proper context before delving into a topic is essential to multiple people coming away with similar understandings. If each person is keeping their thoughts to themselves with the assumption that everyone else sees things their way, then the people in the room could (and likely will) have variations of the idea that they leave with. This can have a spider webbing effect throughout the organization as each individual leaves with their own understanding, passing that on to the rest of the organization and sewing seeds of chaos. Is my statement too strong? Well, maybe. But for those of us who have experienced it, I’m not sure it can be said strongly enough.
Give the benefit of the doubt
Generally speaking, people are not intending to harm you with what they say. They are likely working to help you understand something they know well. Sometimes, in their zeal for helping you understand, they may use words or language that makes you feel attacked or provoked. If you can plant it somewhere near the front of your mind that this person is not evil and perhaps is even a good person, it will allow you to look beyond how something is said and stay engaged in the conversation. Now, does this let the speaker off the hook to try to communicate in healthy ways? Of course not. But good people will still say things wrong sometimes. After all, they are human, and I haven’t met a perfect one yet.
Own the unintended consequences of your words
If we say something that offends another person EVEN without intending to, it’s okay (and even encouraged at Integrity) to apologize. In our culture, it is so terribly difficult for a person to accept responsibility if they feel like they did nothing wrong. Many believe that “not meaning it that way” lets them off the hook for whatever ugly thing they might say. Regardless of what you had in your head when you communicated something in an offensive way, you are responsible for those words and their impact. Failing to take responsibility for the way your words are taken by others may feel right, but it will be a substantial limiter for solid relationships (working or otherwise) with those you are unintentionally harming.
If you don’t know, say something
Don’t be shy, people. What can take your communication game to a new level and set you apart from so many people is simply being willing to say you don’t understand something. Not only does this help you, but it also assists your entire team. I guarantee there are others in the room who have the same question but are unwilling to risk asking a question and showing their ignorance. The quote, “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt of it” IS. THE. WORST. Throw off those shackles of silence and ask away! Having a common understanding is key to team success.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully some of the things I’ve shared might help you as you continue in your efforts to do this communication thing well. It’s not an easy road. And by all means, if you have other tips and tricks that have worked for you, please share as we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not.