Effective Communications

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

–          George Bernard Shaw

Some time ago I delivered a lunch ‘n learn on how our project and team communications could be made more effective.  This is a broad topic, and I only gave a light overview.  What I wanted to emphasize was an awareness of the incredible risks both personal and professional when communications fall apart.

They may be regrettable but amusing miscommunications.

“Our enemies … never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

–          George W. Bush

They may be incredibly costly like the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter crash where assumptions were made around the units of measure being employed by different groups.

Recognizing I’m only scratching the surface I present to you 10 aspects for making communications more effective with your customers and your teammates.

#1 – Write Effectively

Take the time to consider the quality of the message and the writing.  When writing anything, consider the following:

  • What is your purpose?  Be sure you deliver the message you intended.
  • Who is your audience?  Consider who that is, and will they be able to receive the message you give them.
  • How is your content?   Check tone, use of jargon, coherence, structure, readability, gender, etc…

Simple punctuation mistakes can make all the difference in the world.  E.g.  “Let’s eat Grandma” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma”.

#2 – Create Trust

This could easily be #1.  When you trust the people you work or do business with, you can work together far more seamlessly.  Consider sensitivity and vulnerability in your communications, they shouldn’t be regrettable afterthoughts.  Work at building a healthy atmosphere and avoid messages that destroy trust.

e.g.  “You’re just a <insert job title>”

Remember the following:

  • Be a role model.  Set an example for mature and respectful communications to everyone.
  • Be honest & transparent.  Avoid communications that would embarrass or hurt anyone.
  • Take the time.  Don’t rush a reply, don’t ignore or brush someone off.  This takes commitment but is an investment in people.

#3 – Choose the Right Medium

A colleague once shared a matrix that assessed a suitability scoring at the junction point between a medium of communication and the type of communication being delivered.  For example, reprimanding an employee on a public newsgroup would be inappropriate, that is better handled in person.

All too often we see an ironic statement in an email causing all sorts of inflamed reactions.  And yet for reaching a large audience or creating a permanent record email is better than a phone call.

The simple tip here is consider if the medium you select is the most suitable or effective for the type of communication you want to send.

#4 – Meetings

I heard recently a great metaphor about 5 frogs sitting on a log, and 3 decide to jump off.  How many are left?

Unfortunately still 5, since there’s a big difference between deciding to do something and actually doing it.  In some cases you might feel that attending a meeting that even manages a decision was a rare thing.

To keep meeting effective try to keep the following in mind:

  • Set clear objectives, manage the time, and follow through with real action.
  • Consider peoples schedule when planning a meeting.
  • Minimize distractions (smartphones, laptops, etc…) and participate.

#5 – Phones

How many conference calls have you been on when someone answered with “sorry I didn’t catch that question” they were so busy multitasking?  Or that animated or awkwardly personal conversation in your “open concept” office while one of you was on a call?

If you’re on the phone consider your neighbors and whether you should find some place private or discrete for your call.  And sit up and pretend you’re in a room with the other people on the call.  Smile while you talk, people can actually pick up positive vibes from your voice.

#6 – Emails

Emails have bailed me out and bailed me in to trouble on many occasions.  They can be one the worst mediums for communication, but remain very convenient and can be very effective.

When sending an email do the following:

  • Treat your subject line like a headline.
  • Make 1 single point per email.
  • Specify the response you want.

When receiving an email do the following:

  • Be a good correspondent.  Someone took the time to email you, don’t ignore them.
  • Limit the threads.  After 2 or 3 replies schedule a meeting or pick up the phone.
  • Do NOT overreact!!  It’s almost always a misunderstanding.

#7 – Messaging

Messaging and chat software are great for project teams to work together.  But they aren’t carte blanche to interrupt someone in their work and are easily abused.

When sending a message:

  • Ask for permission to chat, the other person may be in a meeting or very busy.
  • Keep it short and sweet.   If you have a lot to discuss a phone call might be easier.
  • Avoid sensitive messages.  You don’t know who’s watching and some people log everything.

When receiving a message:

  • Use your status.  If you’re busy mark yourself so.  Just don’t abuse this or people will start to ignore it.
  • Learn to say no.  If you have something that needs to get done and can’t chat then say so.

#8 – Non Verbal Communications

I’ve heard 65% of our communications are nonverbal, though it may be even higher than that.  Facial movements, tone of voice, appearance, eye contact, gestures, posture they all affect your verbal communications.  Try glaring and yelling nice compliments at your dog and see how they react.

When planning your communications with others keep in mind the more face time you can have the better for all involved.  And be aware of your own nonverbal communications when talking with others.

#9 – Active Listening

This is a well-known technique and incredibly effective.  Being in IT I found I was constantly solutioning and once I started doing that, I stopped listening.  Active Listening dramatically helped improve how well I understood client needs as well as how I managed conflict with others.

To grossly summarize this to a few tips, remember to show the other person you are listening to what they say without adding judgment or your own opinion.  Maintain good eye contact, encourage them to speak, and parrot back to them to confirm you heard what they had to say.

#10 – Stop Talking and Listen

This is also an aspect to Active Listening, but it’s such a common issue in meetings, phone calls, email threads I had to highlight it on its own.  We are generally so keen to express ourselves that we miss opportunities to better understand our clients and our teammates.

 “When people talk, listen completely.  Most people never listen.”

–          Ernest Hemingway

So stop talking, and listen.

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