By Steve Czerniak, Subject Matter Expert, SCORE of Southeast Michigan
COVID-19 has driven us to use electronic media. Zoom usage has exploded. Unfortunately, many companies cannot even operate during this time. The smart ones are keeping their employees and customers informed using email, texts, social media, videos and phone calls. Some business leaders had to execute a layoff. Let’s remember that one day the pandemic will end and the business will re-open. You will need those talented people back. The need to communicate between supervisor and employees will remain the same.
No matter with whom you are communicating, or how you are communicating, a number of things can get in the way. It’s important that we recognize, deal with or avoid those causes of difficulty. In addition, professional discussions have to remain just that. . . professional. They have to be based in mutual respect. My mentoring advice has always been:
“Reasonable people speaking in reasonable tones arrive at reasonable conclusions.”
Good judgment and wisdom are required to know where, when and how to talk about what with whom. There are seven elements of “right” that come into play. I’ve offered things that help communications and hurt it.
WITH THE RIGHT PERSON (Who)
Comprehensive - The most basic rule is Communicate, communicate, communicate. That means downward, upward, and with peers.
Messenger - The right person has to bring the message. We all have had experience with others that get us to the emotional spot where we can’t hear anything they say.
Receiver - We need to talk to the right person. Who’s the best person to receive the message?
Stakeholders - Sometimes, more than one person “has skin in the game” on a particular subject. Make sure that all the right people are included in such conversations.
Prejudice - We all like to think that we’re more evolved than this. Truth is, every human has prejudices. We need to work to get past them. Clearly, this is an issue of trust and would certainly taint any attempt at communications.
Assumptions and Preconceived Notions - Many of us think we know who a person is by how they dress, what they drive, where they live, how they wear their hair, etc. This can affect our ability to listen or pay others the respect they deserve.
Class Distinctions - This is a specific form of preconceived notion but very relevant in many world cultures. Even here in the United States, many high-brow individuals have a difficult time communicating with those of a lesser economic standing (and vice versa).
Affiliation - Communication attempts between rival groups can produce problems. So, I’m a Michigan fan and you’re from Ohio State. Gosh, we might have a hard time communicating using anything more than one finger.
ABOUT THE RIGHT SUBJECT (What)
Communicate what you DISCOVER - The DISCOVER Model provides a structure to help identify topics for the message of communications.
D - Decision; Dissatisfaction with the current situation
I - Interest (personal or organizational); Information
S - Steps in the right direction; Success achieved
C - Change coming or needed
O - Outputs; Outcomes
V - Vision
E - Encouragement; Expectations
R - Results
The Big Thing - We all have a lot of things to talk about. Some are more important and timely than others. We need to address the topic best served at that point. “The current big thing stays the big thing until the next big thing comes along.”
Charged Topics - In every workplace, there are subjects that are sure to get a strong response. Just bringing them up is enough.
Off-Topic - So, you’re sitting next to the person to whom you need to speak in a meeting. They’re paying attention to the topic at hand. You lean over and try to whisper your message. Unless you’ve just told them that they’re on fire, or that their boss is calling, it’s probably the wrong time. It would be better to pass a note requesting a time to talk.
Be Specific - Specifically describe what was done; why the person is getting feedback. Be descriptive not evaluative. Stick to the facts. Be clear, not vague; NOT “you did a good job on that” as you walk by or “you’ve been doing a good job.” Get to the point and avoid beating around the bush.
IN THE RIGHT PLACE (Where)
Comfortable - Whether it’s a good or bad news situation, make sure that people are comfortable. Creating a stressful environment is a definite power thing but it doesn’t help with the work at hand.
Appropriate - When you’re at someone’s home, there are things you just don’t bring up because they cause controversy (e.g. Religion, Politics, etc.). Same goes for the workplace.
Convenient - Standing next to the boss at the urinals is not a good time to talk about your favorite subject. Embarrassing them in a group is also not OK.
Setting - If the decor of your office is all “Guns and Ammo,” it’s difficult to talk to you about “Violence in the Workplace.” One should never talk about private matters in a public setting. “Praise in public, Chastise in private.”
AT THE RIGHT TIME (When)
Promptly - Take action and communicate as soon as you find out about a situation. “Bad news doesn’t get any better with age.” Good subjects need to be celebrated.
Information Overload - So you come back from vacation. There to greet you is an email box filled with hundreds of pieces of message traffic. You start skimming through them to cull out the important ones. Ever miss anything? Goodness knows I sure have. In the face of an overload of information, it’s easy to miss things.
Avoid Distractions - 1) Everybody thinks that they can “multi-task.” News flash! No, you can’t! If you are paying attention to one activity, you can’t be focusing on someone trying to communicate with you. Many people lose the ability to drive if you are talking to them from the passenger’s seat (or a cell phone). 2) Talking a phone call, text or email while you’re trying to communicate with a person is just plain rude. Clear the deck. Let the person you’re talking to (face-to-face) is important.
History - Our past relationship or that our of our cultures many get in the way of us communicating. The Hatfields and McCoys heard each other and did not trust anything the other said.
Previous Communications - Whether we have been success in previous communications, or not, may set expectations for current communications. If you know how another person communicates effectively or clumsily, you enter the most current incident with an expectation.
FOR THE RIGHT REASON (Why)
Rationale - When you’re going to talk to somebody, know why you are doing so. Make sure it’s for a good reason. Be knowledgeable on the subject so you can answer questions.
Self Serving - Most people can sense when you’ve only got yourself, and something that will only benefit you, in mind. If the other person knows that you’re only bringing up a topic to benefit yourself, they might not be warm to listen.
USING THE RIGHT APPROACH OR METHOD (How)
Personal - Whenever possible, communicate directly with an employee. One-on-one can illustrate that you’re serious but bring.
Tailored - What is motivating to one employee is annoying to another. The action should mean something to the individual. For example, some people are put-off by public displays. For others, nothing’s enough. Use “I” statements, not “we.” Own the feedback. Provide what you know not what you’ve heard or interpretations (attribute to others).
Medium - Use a medium of communications that is appropriate for the Receiver. Depending on the age of the receiver, social media might be the right answer. A paper copy might be preferred by some. Be ready to use several.
Be Sincere - Sincerity says that you mean what you say with care and respect; well-intended not hurtful. Give feedback that people can use to either improve or reinforce behavior. Avoid “need to” statements. Avoid mixed messages; “You did great, but …”
Threatening - Don’t use the hard sell when simple persuasion will work. Physical violations, like getting up in someone’s face or pointing a finger, will destroy most communication. Unfortunately, I don’t respond well to threats.
Productive - Communication should result in conclusions. Conclusions should be articulated as activities, outputs, and outcomes in a constructive, win-win manner.
Proportional - Make sure that the action fits the results. Big contributions deserve big recognition (and reward). Big errors demand big consequences. Little contributions or errors deserve little actions. If you want big things to happen, take big motivating actions.
Don’t Bury the Headline - If you’ve got a point to make, get to it. You don’t want to be known as “if you ask him a question, he’ll tell you how to make a watch.” Think the three B’s … Be bright, Be brief and Be gone.
Emotions - Strong emotions like anger can get in the way of communications by clouding our ability to listen to the other person. When one is starting from a position of anger, it’s hard to see or hear anything else.
Fatigue - When you’re tired, it’s difficult to pay attention to what anyone else is saying. Our comprehension falls to non-existent.
Illness - Pain or discomfort caused by illness is a tremendous distraction. Fever alters our entire perception of the world going on around us.
Media Richness - An example of a media richness issue is using a telephone. Much of interpersonal communications comes from non-verbal communications like facial expressions or gestures. This is missing using a telephone. Other communications media can also reduce the richness of the message. In addition, the telephone is a very impersonal medium.
Listening Habits - Many people never learned how to listen. They begin crafting an answer while the other person is talking. Without letting the other person finish their sentence, they force their voice over the top of the first speaker. Clearly neither of the parties get their full message across.
Tone - Use a tone that is not coercive, maintains trust-based relationships, and supports working as a cooperative team.
Language (including Dialects, Jargon, Acronyms, Spelling) - 1) If one of the participants speaks “broken (pick a language),” this can cause an immediate problem. Dialects of a common language can also cause issues. Even translators frequently have trouble including the subtleties of language from one to another. 2) Technical or specialty jargon may mean something in a specific business or technical environment, but it causes anyone not from that environment to become confused. This does not help communications. 3) Acronyms (spells a word) and initialisms (just first letters) frequently form a code that specialists in a technical area use as a form of shorthand. I once heard an engineer speak a sentence that was acronyms and initialisms connected with a verb, a conjunction, and some prepositions and articles. I had to stop him and ask him to translate that into English. 4) Spelling can get in the way. There are people who, when faced with a spelling error, cannot read past it. Spell checkers certainly make this easy enough to fix, but sometimes things sneak through. The following example illustrates how easy it is to read through spelling errors:
I rezaile taht you can slitl raed a pgrarapah eevn if asmolt erevy wrod is misspelled as lnog as the fsirt and lsat lertets are in the crocert pclae.
WITH THE RIGHT FREQUENCY (How Much)
Occurrence - Think about this. Is the communications topic a regularly occurring thing (e.g. monthly)? Or is it an event-driven topic?
Once - People do not normally get things the first time. They need to be reminded.
Cost - Think about how much communications bang you will get for the buck. For example, calling an all-hands meeting distracts everybody from doing value-adding activities and they are still getting paid.\
Nagging - Defined as “Constantly harassing someone to do something.” One of two things will happen: 1) You will irritate the other person and there is no chance of you ever getting what you want or 2) They will do something (maybe not exactly what you want) just to shut you up. That’s a risky set of alternatives.
FOR MORE HELP WITH TELE-CONFERENCES: https://detroit.score.org/blog/improving-tele-and-video-conferencing
About the Author
Steve Czerniak retired after a successful 37-year career as a leader and innovator. The last 15 years were a series of opportunities that honed his skills as an internal consultant and “change agent.” In retirement, he is a volunteer consultant and a SCORE Subject Matter Expert for the Southeast Michigan chapter. His personal volunteer objective is to “derive personal satisfaction from helping others, and the organizations they operate, to develop and prosper.” Visit his site: spczgivingback.org.