Communications – A Short List of “Must Dos” for Change Agents
“The single biggest problem in communication is the mistaken notion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
How we communicate, the conversations we have with others, is a key factor in our successes (or failures) as leaders—particularly when it’s time to promote, lead, or influence change. Conversations that create misunderstandings or hurt feelings will inevitably create mistakes, lower productivity, and damage team morale. In fact, miscommunications are one of the leading causes of “stress” amongst both employees and their leaders. It’s often not the change itself that is the challenge—it’s all the failed conversations that go on around and about the change that are most impactful to a leader’s effectiveness.
Here are FIVE THINGS leaders can do to make the conversations we have with others, particularly during times of change, will produce the results we intend.
1. Be Concise. Think about what you want to say and say it clearly and directly—with ordinary language, not big words or long sentences. If something is hard to communicate, it’s probably equally hard to hear. Take the time to make your message simple.
And don’t beat around the bush! Focus on a handful of key points and state them clearly. If you use examples, make sure they are relevant to your message. Communicate to learn something about people and situations; to clarify and inform—not to impress.
2. Be Redundant. Start and end your message with the most important thing you want others to hear:
“I am concerned about __________________ and want to make sure we think of all angles.”
“While I’m still concerned about __________________, I think we have done a good job of exploring all angles for addressing this issue.”
In this particular case, your message is about your concerns and your need to invite and reinforce the team getting involved in finding a solution. At the end of the conversation, you still have concerns, but you also want to reinforce the team’s engagement. Make sure they know what they accomplished!
Frame your communications with conversational book ends. Open your message with an announcement of what you will be talking about. Close your conversation with what you did talk about. “What I want to talk about today is your role on the team and how it’s changing.” “What we talked about today is your role on the team and all the ways it has changed.”
3. Listen More. Tell Less. To engage people in the work it takes to change, it is never enough just to tell people what you want them to do or know and then give feedback when they don’t do as you say, or know what you taught. (Sound familiar?)
To be an influential agent for change, the first step is to see the situation through the eyes of others, not just your own. Telling others what they should do (or worse yet “should have done”) is a tactic that while quick and easy to execute, doesn’t reliably get you the results you need. A frequent outcome is misunderstandings, hurt feelings and confusion. Telling assumes your listeners see the same things you do, which is never the case! Entering into genuine conversations about what others are thinking or feeling about the change, allows for learning—all parties.
“I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this situation. I have been going over what happened and think I have some ideas, but don’t want to get stuck behind some information that you might have that I don’t.”
And when it’s time for feedback, make it quick and to the point. Long lectures about the what’s and whys of “doing it right” are more likely to annoy than inform.
4. Clarify. Clarify. Clarify. Expecting others to “get the message, or make quick and lasting changes” after one message, is a huge mistake and leads to many dysfunctions not only in our communications with others, but ultimately your relationships as well. Replace “I thought we had already discussed that,” with “my bad, I wasn’t as clear as I could have been.”
When it comes to communications, lower your expectations of what’s possible. Keep communicating. Observe behavior to see just how much of your message has been turned into action, and what of your message needs more work. Confront those who are openly ignoring what you have to say. Gently guide those who you know are trying, but aren’t quite where you are—yet.
When time is short, and you need to change behavior quickly, follow up your conversations with the request that they summarize what they just heard and the 3-4 things they want to do differently on the go forward. Discuss their plan until you reach agreement, and then follow up to ensure it is executed.
While it is possible for ONE GREAT conversation to produce significant change, in most cases, one conversation lays the groundwork for better, easier conversations to follow! The best communicators are often people with simple messages, repeated often.
5. Check Your Filters… those nasty assumptions about the motives and beliefs of others that keep you from hearing what they have to say or discounting what you are hearing because it doesn’t align with your beliefs and assumptions. If you have a filter about others that just won’t go, away address it openly and always with a willingness to learn and/or “be wrong.”
The best relationships often grow out of situations where there is conflict between very different points of view; where two people genuinely see and/or believe something very different about a particular situation or event. Digging deep to find those places of agreement—either on facts or goals—can become a powerful base for shared respect and understandings.
As leaders, taking the time to improve the quality of conversations we have with our key stakeholders—our boss, our team, our peers and coworkers, will have direct impact on our results—particularly during periods where our real job is to help others change, either their behavior or their perspective.