I was doing some coaching work with a client last week and we got to talking about the value of clear communication. So it prompted me to share this article on the subject I wrote a few years back. Seemed to strike a chord then, and I don’t think much has changed.
Who said “It’s good to talk”? They might have been on to something
I’ve been around a bit, worked in organisations big and small in a variety of sectors, and on my travels one thing has always struck me – just how little real emphasis gets placed on great communication when it comes to building an effective, efficient organisation. I don’t mean formal corporate communication – that gets plenty of attention – I mean day-to-day the way we interact with our colleagues. In my opinion this is not a good thing. Let me explain why.
Busy busy busy
Most businesses are busy making things happen, dealing with a seemingly endless stream of tasks just to survive let alone grow. In simple terms, they have a lot to ‘get done’. And getting stuff done, making things happen however big or small, usually requires people to come together, to cooperate and work towards a common goal.
So, where’s the problem?
Simple; how well we communicate with each other, not just what we do, can have a big impact on our success. Success depends upon a common understanding of goals and outcomes, of what we are trying to achieve and how we’ll achieve it. And this in turn relies on good, clear, regular day-to-day communication.
In my experience failure to communicate well is where things often start to go wrong. Here are a couple of simple, perhaps obvious but often overlooked watch-outs I’d like to share.
Choosing the right language
First is the language we choose to use. It seems to me that at some point on the morning commute our ‘business speak’ button is mysteriously pressed, upon which we stop talking like normal human beings and slip into a world of convoluted, jargon-filled sentences peppered with our particular industry’s unique and obscure TLA’s (three letter acronyms!). Whilst this might bring the apparent comfort of being part of the crowd, does it bring common understanding? All too often I’d say it does not.
Be honest, upon joining a new business in the short window of opportunity you get to ask daft questions how often have you stopped someone in full flow to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand all of that, would you mind explaining it please”? Chances are not very often. We don’t ask because we’re new, we don’t like to appear to lack knowledge or be incompetent. Instead we nod sagely. Then after a few weeks when it’s too late to ask we just carry on regardless and hope we’ll work out what everyone’s talking about along the way. Worst of all, because no-one ever stops to say “what do you really mean?” the speaker assumes everyone else understands what they’re saying, so they carry on saying it – it’s a vicious circle which perpetuates misunderstanding.
Let me give an example. I’ll bet we’ve all been in one of those meetings where the air is full of fancy dan terminology and business-babble; everyone has a point to make, and they’re going to make it! Happily though, at the end everyone is in complete agreement. But are they? There is a significant risk that everyone thinks they understand and agree, but in actual fact everyone has agreed on their own unique and slightly different interpretation of what was said, based on their personal lexicon of business terms. This is what I call being in ‘confused agreement’ which is worse than being in open disagreement when it comes to getting things done. And remember, to get things done is why we’re all at work in the first place.
Keep language simple. Use language that doesn’t exclude people but that brings people together, language that doesn’t assume a level of understanding on the part of the audience. Try it, it can be like switching a light on in the room.
Choosing simple clear words will help, but we must also think about our choice of communication channel. Email dominates these days, it’s become the default setting for many people. It seems we’ve all adopted this quick and easy mechanic not least because it’s what everyone else does – not ‘doing email’ would be akin to entering the corporate isolation tent – but also because the 24/7 nature of the channel allows us to ‘get more things done’. But does it? Hmnnn, I’m not so sure.
Choose the right channel
For me, used judiciously email is a blessing, but used liberally as the communication channel of choice, it is a curse to business. Email is a double-edged sword. Just because an email has been sent, it does not mean it’s been read, or understood, or acted upon. I believe that email can create a false sense of security that things are happening when they are not, ultimately slowing a business down.
What’s more I believe email can be quite adversarial. I’ll bet you’ve all received an email you didn’t agree with, so you quickly responded to explain your position (i.e. why you are right and the other person is wrong!) whereupon the recipient emailed back to explain why, having considered and understood your position, they were in fact right and you were in fact wrong. And so it goes on – email wiff-waff, dragging cc’d allies into each camp along the way, taking up time and energy, creating division not agreement and ultimately… not getting stuff done.
Email is the example here. Clearly it has its place as does instant messaging, texting, Yammer and the like. The point is to choose the right medium for the message. Get it right and whatever message you’re trying to get across stands a good chance of a) being received and b) being understood. Get it wrong, and whilst you might feel better for having done something, the impact could be well below par.
Prioritise talking whenever possible
Finally let’s not forget good old fashioned talking! For me in the way email can drive divisions between individuals, talking can quickly build consensus, agreement and lasting, positive working relationships. The most successful people I have come across are the ones who get out there, talk and engage with others. It allows them to be authentic which in turn builds trust – I doubt many people ever built trust using Outlook alone.
Clearly there’s more to great communication than just choosing simple language, not emailing as much and talking more often; it’s about a two-way dialogue, active listening, telling stories that will be remembered and repeated… the list goes on. But we can all make the choice today to drop some of the business babble in favour of good old fashioned plain speaking. And before hitting send on the next email I challenge you to pick up the phone or go and talk to your colleagues instead.
It’d be a start.