How many times have you had to explain something to someone over and over again and they still just don’t seem to get it? You become frustrated. They become frustrated. Tensions rise and nothing gets accomplished. Why does this happen – and what can you do about it?
Not long ago, I was working with some executives who were struggling with mixed meanings and expectations of empowerment. The executives wanted their managers to become more empowered, to take control of more situations, to handle issues and make more decisions at the managerial level. The executives had well-trained and competent managers who followed policies and procedures, but when things fell outside those written parameters, the managers turned to the executives. The executives had stated time and again that they were empowering the managers. From the executives’ perspective, the managers needed to step up their game.
The managers, however, had a different perspective. They heard the executives saying they needed to take on additional responsibilities. However, the responsibilities they were being asked to take on conflicted with the company’s written procedures and with how the managers’ performance was being evaluated. Not only was there no incentive for the managers to accept this empowerment, but there were also potential negative repercussions if they did.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw
It took separate facilitated discussions with each audience—executives and managers—to identify the issues at play. We could chalk it up to miscommunication, but in truth, it was the misalignment of the messages being communicated. Pinpointing where the messages did not align and making corrections to match meaning, expectation, and impact was required before we could see improvements. You cannot make someone else empowered. Empowerment is a tool and, as with any tool, it’s best utilized when it comes with instructions and delivers rewards.
Simply giving words to a corporate culture or just stating company values is not enough. If employees are to truly embrace those values, the words must be clearly defined, and their meaning fully understood. Employees need to know what those ideas look like in practice, and they must have benchmarks established to measure if those practices are being implemented as desired. Expectations must be clear and measurable. It is the only way to ensure that your initiatives are being treated as you intend.
This experience highlighted my need to clearly express my thoughts and to seek clarity from others. We cannot assume that others know what we truly mean when we say something. It is our responsibility to be specific and to use examples to illustrate our meaning. It is also our responsibility to ask questions of others and request examples when needed. Miscommunication happens all the time. If we each took a little more time in our fast-paced world to really listen to each other, much of this miscommunication could be avoided. And what an opportunity that could be for less confusion, less frustration, and less wasted time.
It all comes down to our ability to communicate. We all think we have the ability to communicate effectively because we are doing it all day every day. But just because we do something frequently doesn’t mean we are an expert at it. Just because I know how to boil pre-made pasta doesn’t mean I’m great cook. The fact that I am able to prepare food to keep myself fed doesn’t mean I am skilled in the kitchen. The same goes for communication. Just because we do it, doesn’t mean we are good at it. Here are four tips to help you improve your communication skills.
- You’ve probably heard this before, but you have to know your audience – and they have to know you. You have to articulate what your role is and what your purpose is for each specific communication. You also need clarity on the roles of those you are communicating with and what their purpose is in participating in this communication with you. For you message to be successful, you need to make sure you are giving the right message to the right people. Your message needs to be important and/or useful to those you are delivering it to. If it’s not, then frustration is sure to follow.
- If you haven’t taken a training in active listening, or haven’t taken one lately, I recommend you do so. While it is easy to understand the principles of active listening, it takes a lot of practice to become effective and natural sounding. Active listening needs to become a habit. Habits take a long time to develop and hone so constant and intentional practice is needed. Learning how to listen, without judgement, and process what you’ve heard before speaking is not something that comes naturally to most of us. But it is critical for communication to be successful.
- Put some thought into how you are going to communicate. Think about your strengths and your audiences’ preferences and find the middle ground if they are different. If your preference is writing but your audience prefers to hear you speak, use written talking points or a full script when you talk to them. Or consider recording your message on video. These options may need to be followed by a question and answer segment, but at least your initial message was from your place of comfort and received in your audiences’ place of comfort. Use the most direct and simple method of communication available and use a process that is meaningful to your audience.
- Think of a few different examples in which to describe your message. Try to eliminate any jargon and come up with multiple phrases that all express your message clearly. Your preferred way of describing things may not resonate with everyone. Will everyone understand the sports analogy or cooking analogy or (fill in the blank) analogy that is your go to? It is also important to think about diversity. Recognize and understand that because we all come from different places and perspectives, we have may different understandings of the same word. Your ability to communicate a consistent message in multiple ways, will allow you to provide clarity to the majority – if not all – of your audience, rather than just a few. The more people who can understand and internalize your message, the lower the frustration and the higher success you will enjoy.
Putting It All Together
The purpose of communication is to convey meaning from one person to another. This can only be done in a circular process. Too many of us get trapped on a one-way street. It is easy to deliver a message. It is harder to have a conversation and receive feedback about our message. Yet, without actively listening to feedback we don’t know if our meaning has been understood. Frustration in communication usually comes because we only think about ourselves – what our message is, how we want to say it, and how we want to deliver it. When we add in thinking about others and their needs in the communication process, that is when we can turn the corner from frustration to success.
What are the things that are most important to you? Are you clear about what they mean to you? Do others understand what they mean to you? Are they able to respect your views in a way that resonates with you? If not, how can you better articulate what your views are and how you would like them to be honored or acted upon?
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