Effective Communication Takes Two

April 26, 2022

In my work as an executive coach, one of the most common goals my clients choose to work on is to become a better communicator. This is usually not about public speaking, presentations or even writing better emails. It’s about learning to actively listen, interacting back-and-forth and understanding it’s not about what you say, but what others hear.

Ironically, the plethora of tools created to help us communicate has not increased effective communication. In fact, I would argue it has gotten much worse. Look no further than the negative impacts of social media.

Effective communication requires back and forth exchange, otherwise it’s just talking at people. Sending and receiving messages requires active participation on both sides to enable accurate understanding. This is especially important in the workplace to ensure the results management wants is what employees can deliver.

“We have been working at communications downward from management to the employees, from the superior to the subordinate,” writes management consultant and author Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. “But communications are practically impossible if they are based on the downward relationship. The harder the superior tries to say something to his subordinate, the more likely is it that the subordinate will mis-hear. He will hear what he expects to hear rather than what is being said.”

This back and forth is all too often missing and leads to managers upset when they repeatedly tell their direct reports what they want, yet the employee fails to deliver. Perhaps it’s less about telling and more about asking.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of doing the right things rather than simply doing things right. When those on the front lines (closest to the problem or opportunity) are consulted on what’s the right thing to do, leaders are likely to make better decisions. This involves two-way communication that balances listening with speaking.   

Drucker suggests effective executives should ask their knowledge workers the following:

  • What should we at the head of this organization know about your work?
  • What do you want to tell me regarding this organization?
  • Where do you see opportunities we do not exploit?
  • Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind?
  • What do you want to know from me about the organization?

“In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems,” writes Drucker. “Nowhere is this more important than in respect to people. The effective executive looks upon people including himself as an opportunity.”

Apple’s Steve Jobs once said “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This advice should be followed by all executives as an organization can only be as effective as its people.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Ensure that your communication includes active listening, back-and-forth interaction, and that what you say is what they hear. Then it won’t be an illusion.

Social Media’s Impact on Workplace Communication

March 24, 2017

The Internet age has led to enormous changes in the way we communicate in virtually every aspect of our lives. Social media lets us connect with others in a way that was previously unheard of. With a smart phone in hand, we can now access anyone and anything around the world at any time.

But do these technology innovations mean we are experiencing improved communication?

Wael Ghonim, aka the “Google guy,” who used Facebook to help launch the revolution against the Egyptian government in 2011, said that “if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.” Years later he explained that while the Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”

In his TED Talk, Ghonim discussed five critical challenges facing today’s social media in the political arena. He explained the most critical of these is that our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posting over discussions, and shallow comments over deep conversations.

“It’s as if we agreed to talk at each other instead of talking with each other,” Ghonim said.

While emailing, texting, posting, blogging, and tweeting enable us to send out messages, they don’t necessarily enable the opportunity for give-and-take conversations. Today’s social media doesn’t encourage meaningful dialogue where we engage enough to bring about greater understanding. It’s still, for the most part, one-way communication: sender to receiver.

Not that this is necessarily bad in and of itself, but it is limited and may undermine our ability to truly connect and understand one another.

Workplace Communication

Today’s social media experiences can’t help but spill over from our personal and political lives into the workplace, and this is where I am concerned. Without the exchange of meaningful dialogue, we are unable to maximize our ability to collaboratively solve problems and innovate with new products and services. Sending messages only in one direction isn’t effective communication.

This degradation in communicating can show up every aspect of our lives, including the workplace. Examples include:

  • Failure to actively listening when the other person is speaking
  • Being too concerned with what we want to say rather than fully hearing and understanding what the other person says, and what is left unspoken
  • Not ensuring our overall physical behavior that includes tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. are congruent with and supportive of our message
  • Not making our intention clear so there is no misunderstanding in what we say
  • Using the wrong medium to communicate our message (e.g., using email instead of face-to-face; using the phone when video conferencing would be better; using text messaging instead of a phone call, etc.)
  • Demonstrating that we are listening, yet not ensuring the other person is feeling heard

Some research suggests that only 7 percent of communication is conveyed by the spoken words. The other 93 percent is conveyed by tone, inflexion, and other elements of voice as well as by body language, movements, eye contact, etc. When communicating is conducted by any other method than face-to-face, a serious drop-off in understanding and learning will result.

Knowing how little the words alone can enable true communication should be a warning sign that the medium really does impact the effectiveness of the message.

Workgroup Effectiveness

Researchers from Google’s Project Aristotle concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google teams. They determined that the right norms could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if all the individual members were exceptionally bright.

The two behaviors all good teams generally shared were: 1) members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” and 2) members had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ or they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

This means the group norms of taking turns speaking and listening with empathy were the most important factors for improving team outcomes. These are also fundamental to successful communication.

While social media continues to influence every aspect of our lives, it’s important to remember the limitations of it with regard to effective communication. In the workplace, this means choosing the right medium to convey the message, ensuring there is an appropriate feedback loop, and responding to the feedback in a way that results in true understanding.

With that, I encourage your thoughts on social media’s impact in your workplace.

Listening Into Others to Gain Influence

January 30, 2013

No matter what line of work you are in, you are likely seeking ways to be more productive and successful. And, regardless of the profession, how effective you interact with and influence other people can greatly determine your fate.

That’s because it is all about relationship, and relationships should always be about the long term.

We now live in a world that no longer tolerates disconnected forms of influence. Spam filters help block emails that are unrelated to our wants and needs. The stereotypical used car salesman is seen as merely comical and not taken seriously by anyone. Shotgun approaches to marketing are considered a waste of money.

Social networking, among other things, seeks ways to connect people and then influence them based on their connectedness. This connectedness means having your virtual friends’ influence what you do, where and when you do it, and especially how you spend your money.

Whether this is good or bad is not my concern. What I am interested in is how important this connectedness is with regard to our ability to influence others.

In a new book titled, “Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In,” authors Mark Goulston and John Ullmen discuss how, in this post-pushing and post-selling world, influence should no longer be seen as something you do to someone else to get what you want.

Real influence isn’t even about what you want. Instead it’s about forging strong connections by focusing on other people’s viewpoints and giving something away before asking for anything in return. And always seeking win-win outcomes.

This seems to be a new paradigm that’s sustainable and good for everyone.

Goulston and Ullmen offer many tactics to learn how to do this, but the one I think most important—regardless of whether you’re trying to influence someone or not—is by improving your ability to listen to others. Easier said than done.

According to the authors, there are four levels of listening:

  1. Avoidance Listening – Listening Over
    This type of listening is when you may be nodding or even saying “Uh huh,” but you’re not really paying attention. Your mind is elsewhere and the other person is feeling ignored despite your best efforts at appearing to be listening.
  2. Defensive Listening – Listening At
    When you listen defensively you are taking things personally and are too quick to react. You listen at others by taking issue with everything they say without taking the time to consider what is being said.
  3. Problem Solving Listening – Listening To
    Listening in this way is about getting something accomplished, which is a perfectly valid way to listen when the situation demands it. However, when the subject is especially complex or emotionally charged, this can leave far too much room for misunderstanding. You are separating the subject from the speaker and losing that perspective, which is so important to consider.
  4. Connective Listening – Listening Into
    This is the type of listening all speakers crave. It is about listening with the intention to fully understand the speaker and also strengthen the connection. Connective listening is listening from their there instead of your here. It means listening without an agenda focused entirely on responding or helping.

I can think of many examples when I engage in the first three levels of listening. The first two I am not proud of and still struggle to avoid. Problem solving listening I do perhaps most often because I am so anxious to be productive and get something done.

But I know that when I listen in a connective manner is when I truly understand what is being said. I am giving my full attention and listening not only with my ears, but with my eyes, my heart and my body. I am also strengthening the relationship because I can feel the connection being forged.

To gain influence requires a continual focus on the long term, on the relationship, and on giving away something first. More often than not, this begins with your ability to engage in connective listening so you can truly understand their perspective and needs.

Influence should no longer begin with a self-centered perspective focusing only on the immediate opportunity. Instead, look at gaining influence in a positive and authentic manner that strengthens your connections with others for the long term.

Six Tips for Better Listening

July 28, 2010

Most of us take for granted or don’t really think about our ability to listen well, and few of us are very good at it. Ironically, I suspect many of us believe we are actually pretty good listeners while other people we know are not.

All of us could improve our ability to listen better and this could make a huge difference in improving both our personal lives as well as our work lives.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Turn Signals and Talk Signals and 5 Tips for Workplace Communication, effective workplace communication is extremely important for a healthy organization.

There are basically four communication skills: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) speaking, and (4) listening. The concentration of most communication training throughout our lives is, for the most part, in this particular order. In the workplace, however, one could argue that the order should be reversed based on the amount of time used in each of these areas.

Listening and speaking are much more widely used and valuable capabilities in the workplace than reading and writing. Sadly, listening skills get more lip service than actual attention by both the employee and employer.

It’s not very often where we see a job posting that requires “great listening skills.” Nevertheless, this should be a requirement and one that should be given a lot more attention and respect.

Research in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian determined that there are three elements of face-to-face communication: words (verbal), tone of voice (vocal) and body language (visual).

According to Mehradbian, these verbal, vocal and visual elements account differently for our liking of the speaker of the message. Words account for a mere 7%, tone of voice 38%, and body language a full 55% of this liking. And our liking of the speaker can greatly affect our ability to trust and continue following the message being conveyed.

Furthermore, nonverbal elements (including feelings and attitudes) are particularly important, especially if they are incongruent with the words. If words and body language disagree, we tend to believe the body language.

Understanding how these nonverbal elements can affect our ability to understand and trust a message is vital to effective communication.

Being on the receiving end of a conversation means more than simply preparing for when it is your turn to speak. In order to really understand a message being presented, you need to actively listen with all your senses. You need to stay present and fully tune in to understand.

Here are Six Tips for Better Listening:

  1. Don’t interrupt the speaker until he or she has finished. This sounds so obvious, yet it is amazing how often we talk over others. It’s not only rude, it can also cripple true communication. There is perhaps no greater gift you can give to another person than by paying attention and let them know they are being heard.
  2. Focus on what the speaker is saying both verbally and nonverbally. Listen to each and every word the speaker is saying instead of preparing for your response. Watch for body language that is congruent or in contrast to what is being said. Concentrate on the speaker’s tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions and feelings to aid your understanding of the message.
  3. Use active listening skills to demonstrate your attentiveness. Nonverbal cues such as maintaining eye contact, nodding and leaning forward all indicate you are paying attention. In addition, you can say things such as “I see” and “uh-huh” if the information you are hearing is clear.
  4. Be curious and not defensive. Sometimes we are hearing things we don’t agree with or are offended by and this is when it is hard to avoid becoming defensive and stop listening. Recognize when you are triggered by this and then try to stay calm and present so that you can continue to hear the entire message before responding. Keep an open mind and seek to fully understand the speaker’s perspective.
  5. Put aside your judgment in order to fully understand. Fact is, we can all absorb and process words spoken by other people much faster than they can verbalize the information. This leaves lots of time for us to analyze, evaluate and anticipate the speaker’s thoughts. This should be avoided as the ability to truly listen and reserve judgment is crucial for all ideas to be given full consideration.
  6. Use paraphrase to aid understanding and show you care. You can use a variation on “What I hear you saying is . . .” in order to reflect on what the speaker has said. The goal of paraphrasing is to 1) ensure you are clear about what has been said, and 2) let the speaker know that you care about what he or she is communicating. Both are equally important in communication.

When you are truly listening to someone, you not only hear the words but are fully paying attention. When you pay attention, you do more than simply take in facts and information; you also convey how seriously you consider the thoughts and feelings of the speaker and this helps build rapport and trust like nothing else.

These six tips will help you to become a better listener and this will pay dividends in both your personal and work life.

5 Tips for Workplace Communication

June 9, 2010

When listing one’s strengths during an interview or on a resume, most of us include “excellent communication skills” because we know this is valuable to employers. But how many of us are really capable of communicating effectively? For that matter, how many employers are excellent communicators?

I studied journalism in college, worked as a freelance writer for a while, and published some short fiction. Nevertheless, I still find writing to be one of the most challenging things I do.

At times I also find it difficult to speak effectively with clients, friends and my own family members. So much can be misinterpreted or misunderstood due to a lack of clarity when I am talking or not being careful enough when I am listening.

Ineffective communication skills in an organization can dramatically impact the bottom line. In fact, according to research by Watson Wyatt, Gallup Consulting and Towers Perrin, these costs can include:

  • increased employee turnover
  • increased absenteeism
  • dissatisfied customers from poor customer service
  • higher product defect rates
  • lack of focus on business objectives
  • stifled innovation

No wonder communication skills are so valued in the workplace. Whether it is the need to carefully compose an email, raise a sensitive issue in a staff meeting, or discuss poor performance with an employee, making our messages succinct and clear can dramatically help an organization run more effectively.

So much can be lost in translation—the coding and encoding that is done between sender and receiver. Jargon exists in every industry and this can often impede clear understanding. Acronyms enable quicker delivery, yet they also make deciphering a challenge for those who are unfamiliar with them. And do emoticons really aid our written information?

The ability to clearly convey our intention and message is extremely important at work. Just as important, yet rarely emphasized, is our ability to carefully listen to what is spoken and what is unsaid yet conveyed through body language. It is this combination of both clearly conveying and accurately receiving that makes up effective communication.

Here are five tips to improve communication in your workplace:

Be specific and clear. Get to the point regardless of whether you are speaking or writing. Don’t ramble or include needless details. If you’re giving instructions or issuing a directive, take special care to be accurate and precise.

Establish true dialogue. Encourage your listener to ask clarifying questions or to follow up to aid their understanding. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know an answer, and be sure to get back to them with the correct answer when you do know.

Carefully read and listen. So much can be read between the lines of what is spoken or written based on the tone or body language associated with a message. Therefore, when on the receiving end, it is important to take into account the overall context of the message and be on the lookout for a disconnect between words and subject matter.

Stay positive. Petty or passive-aggressive sniping should not be tolerated. Even the harshest feedback can and should be delivered in a positive, supportive, team-centric manner. Focus on behavior or performance and not character. When on the receiving end, it is equally important to avoid getting triggered by difficult messages.

Make a habit of on-the-spot communication. Nothing can be more destructive than waiting to deliver significant feedback, praise, criticism or complaints. If you’ve got something important to convey, don’t put it off until the next meeting or the next annual review. Make on-the-spot communication a priority.

Following these five tips in your workplace can take time and self-discipline to master, but they can help dramatically improve overall communication. And improving this so-called soft skill can deliver hard bottom line results.

Mark Craemer      www.craemerconsulting.com