Effective communication can be a complicated task

The other day I was visiting with a client, Cliff, who shared with me a story about a relationship challenge he had been having with his business partner, Susan.  They run a small tour company together, crafting wellness trips for higher end clientele to Mexico and Central America.

On a recent trip, Cliff found himself in a predicament that ended up devastating Susan’s feelings.

As Cliff relates the story, tensions were high as they neared the end of their trip to Central Mexico last Fall.  The van that they had rented began suffering brake issues, which ultimately prevented the group from returning to Mexico City on time.  Fortunately, the two had found a solution: Susan would return back to Mexico City in a hired replacement van with most of their passengers, while Cliff would stay in the town where they found themselves, San Miguel de Allende, and repair the van.  Since San Miguel is a charming place, two guests decided to stay with Cliff.  While he got the van fixed, they would spend the extra time shopping.

A few hours passed, and without too much fanfare the van’s brakes were repaired and before long, Cliff and his two guests got on the road and headed to Mexico City.

As Cliff was nearing Mexico City, he prepared herself for a very challenging interchange that was unmarked but of vital importance.  Miss this exchange and not only would he be on a road he didn’t know, but he would add at least another hour onto their 4-hour trip.

As semi trucks passed Cliff on either side, on roads with no lighting at 10 in the evening, being vigilant for the wayward pothole or street dog, Susan called Cliff.  Later he would learn that she had arrived at the hotel and wanted to let him know that her van and the group had arrived safely.

With the stresses of the road and the vital interchange coming up, Cliff did not pick up.

Susan called again. Then, she sent a text. Followed by another one.  And then a call to What’s App.

After the third call to What’s App, Cliff picked up the phone and said sharply, “Susan, I can’t talk to you right now.  I will have to call you back.”

Then he hung up. 

In the midst of the distractions, Cliff missed his turn and ended up spending the following hours lost in the outskirts of Mexico City. When he finally did arrive at the hotel some hours later, he looked down at his phone to a string of emotionally charged texts from Susan. The most glaring read:  “[I] deserve to be treated better. There are no excuses for how you spoke to me on the phone.”

Cliff knew that he would need to connect with Susan, and given the circumstances, knew that he would need to handle the situation as carefully as possible.

How to achieve effective communicate in three simple steps

After a needed rest, Cliff met with Susan the next morning and employed a method of effective communication  I had taught  him some weeks before.

Entire libraries could be filled on the topic of effective communication skills, so it might seem superfluous to write one more article to the volumes that have already been written. 

Unless, of course, this method — because of its glaring simplicity — really works (hint: it does)

Step 1: Really listen

Over coffee in the hotel lobby, Cliff asked Susan to share with him her frustrations.  And she did.  For nearly 10 minutes Susan shared with him her frustrations.  And for the nearly 10 minutes that she spoke, Cliff paid attention to what she said.

Step 2: Don’t interrupt

If you are really listening, there isn’t room to interject your opinions.  And that’s exactly what Cliff did.  He listened intently, without interrupting, until Susan was finished.

Step 3: Repeat back what you have heard

When Susan had finished explaining her feelings, Cliff asked if she had shared everything that she needed to.  Then he repeated back to Susan what he had learned.  This piece is very important, because it gives the listening party the opportunity to confirm if what they had heard was indeed correct, and the speaking party the opportunity to clarify anything.


In the end, Susan and Cliff decided not to continue working with one another, but not on account of this disagreement.  For a while, they knew that their work styles often clashed, and this argument simply added to that fire.

Still, how Cliff approached the conflict left both parties in a much stronger place. Cliff was proud of himself for allowing Susan to express herself without a need to interject, while Susan was pleased that she could communicate her feelings known without them being squashed or dismissed.

Effective communication can be a complicated task.  However, the next time you find yourself in a situation, follow these 3 simple steps.  I guarantee you everyone involved will appreciate it.

Casey A. Miller, President of 6 ½ Consulting, is on a mission: to help create environments where people value one another. In his consultancy, this means teaching business owners and executives how to build workplaces that inspire. In return, their organizations see positive returns on their time, teams, and profits.