The answer to life
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a super-computer built to find the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, gives the disappointing simple answer of ‘42’. After a hitch-hiking adventure through outer space encountering life-threatening obstacles, it seems very disappointing and simple. “All the trouble for 42?”
There’s an important lesson in this story. Life is simpler than we tend to make it. The solution to the problem is often easier than we make it out to be.
In the corporate world, we also tend to overcomplicate things. We work hard to find complicated answers to All the Problems of the organization, while the simple, disappointing answer to this question is “communication”. It doesn’t matter which tool or what organizational structure you choose, without effective communication, it’s bound to fail. It’s not the system or the process. It’s not even the message. It’s the communication.
Cause and effect
The effects of not communicating, or not communicating effectively, includes – to name but a few – unnecessary and costly errors, duplicate work, things falling through the cracks, ambiguity or confusion which in turn results in delays, misunderstandings, frustration, unhappy customers and unhappy employees. The list is endless.
Analyzing the fault root cause of any problem in your organization, chances are good that at the source lies some form of miscommunication.
When your employees are unhappy, it’s because they feel their opinion doesn’t count. This means you’re not listening to their needs. If your customers are unhappy, it’s because their expectations are not in line with yours. There’s a gap between what they think they’re getting and what they are actually getting. If your team fails to implement your big vision – or small one for that matter – it’s either because they don’t understand your expectations or don’t agree with it. Regardless what the problem, it always involves a gap in communication.
So here’s a rough guide with 10 ways to improve communication at work, even though a book might be more fitting:
1. Communication is a two-way street
Communication is the art of being understood, and trying to understand a different viewpoint than your own.
Listening is as important as speaking. If there are not equal parts of each, there is most likely not effective communication.
Listening without speaking is as harmful as speaking without listening.
To build effective teams, you have to balance the amount of listening and speaking by both the team members and the team lead.
When you start off a conversation believing that you are right, you close yourself up to other possibilities and opportunities. Realize that you could be wrong, or at least have a limited perspective.
Two heads are better than one.
Communication is not a competition to be seen as right. Communication is more like a co-creation where you can do and make more than what you could do on your own. Two people know more than one person, and the more you know, the better decisions you make.
3. Be direct
Directness in communication has two aspects, firstly who you talk to, and secondly what you say. To be a great communicator, both needs to be direct. Don’t use a messenger, and don’t beat around the bush.
The most effective communication is face-to-face communication.
With an estimated 80% of communication being non-verbal, it’s not surprising that companies that rely on technology and email to communicate get information misinterpreted. Not only is face-to-face communication less prone to being misunderstood, it’s also much faster.
Metaphors are great in stories, but if you want results, you need to be direct. Ask for what you need, say what you think, admit what you don’t know. Don’t try to be diplomatic and hope the other person will get what you are trying to say.
4. Be honest
Honesty is indeed the best policy. I’ve never regretted being honest, and I’ve always regretted not being fully honest. It’s always better to bite the bullet and tell the truth as you see it than try to cover up issues in the hope that no-one will notice. Eventually, they always get noticed.
Whether people say it or not, they know when you’re lying or withholding information. How many times have you phoned someone to follow up on an overdue task when they responded that they were just about to do it? How many times did you believe them?
In my experience as quality manager being responsible for customer satisfaction, all you need to do to keep a customer happy is firstly to keep your promises, and secondly, if you’re really unable to, proactively communicate with them, offering a reason for the delay and a new promised delivery date.
5. Talk simply
During my earlier career, I often refrained from speaking or asking questions in a meeting, fearing that people might think I don’t know what I’m talking about. At least 95% of the time when, after the meeting, I asked other people about what I was uncertain about, they responded saying they too didn’t understand.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. – Einstein
Drop the buzzwords and acronyms and speak in street language that everyone can understand. Even better, draw a picture. You already understand what you are thinking. Your goal is for other people to understand.
Most people, both natives, and non-natives can’t explain all the grammar rules of the English language, yet they are perfectly able to speak and be understood. Just because you don’t know the rules, doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to play the game.
Each person interprets words according to their background and their emotional filters. What you say might not be what is heard. Be aware of this as you speak, and make sure that you paraphrase to confirm understanding.
When a lot has been discussed, a follow-up email to summarize the decisions is a great tool for confirming understanding while serving as reminder or record of the spoken conversation.
We learn by linking, and the easiest way to learn something new is to compare it with something we already know. The use of metaphors is especially useful to explain something, provided that the recipient can relate to the metaphor used.
7. Mind your language
Be careful of the choice of words you use. Don’t use ‘we’ if you want someone to take responsibility and action a task. Using ‘we’ will most probably result in no-one doing anything, thinking that someone else will do it. Including everyone is necessary in some cases, harmful in others.
Another word that I’m trying to eliminate from my vocabulary is ‘but’. Using ‘but’ always implies that there is something wrong, which is perceived as negative feedback.
Rather try to use positive language. ‘Don’t forget to buy bread’ means roughly the same as ‘Remember to buy bread’, but one is negative, the other positive.
Subtle changes in the words you use result in big changes in behavior.
8. Ask, rather than tell
Sometimes it is necessary to tell someone to do something. However, if you are looking for engagement, ownership or commitment, it is much better to ask, rather than tell.
When you tell someone to do something, it is a one-sided order, whereas a question invites an answer. Only by asking questions can you balance the input from both parties in the conversation.
Spending a year and a bit in Asia, one of the most useful things I learned was not to use closed questions, but rather open-ended ones. In the Asian culture, disagreeing is seen as disrespectful, so you will very rarely find people saying no. That doesn’t mean they agree, so if you’re interested in finding a truthful answer or opinion, refrain from asking yes-no questions.
9. Be congruent
Say what you do, and do what you say. People will listen to what you say, but they will behave in the way that you behave, so not being congruent causes confusion. Keep things simple and avoid double standards. If there has to be a rule, make sure that it is relevant in most situations.
Congruency and consistency are the fastest and easiest way to build trust, the foundation of a healthy organization. It’s also a necessary ingredient if you want to avoid any confusion.
Be careful not to use paradoxes in your speech, or anything that can be interpreted as a paradox. Rather say one think clearly and within context than five things that can be misunderstood.
10. Don’t let me guess what you’re thinking
Gossip is the silent killer of culture. One of the reasons why people gossip is because the leader doesn’t speak to them directly.
Be sure to openly communicate to your teams and always leave room for questions. When you are transparent, there is no need for gossip. It also means that your team will feel more safe and willing to speak openly about how they think and feel.
Communication is free, and the most effective tool to solve problems. Before you look for expensive tools or a new methodology to solve your problems, first spend some time improving the communication within your organization.