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Escape the Mindreading Trap – Communicate Effectively

If we’ll admit it, most of us struggle with communicating clearly, setting expectations, holding people accountable, giving course correction, and in general being misunderstood. This pervasive and problematic issue thwarts productivity, leads to costly miscommunications and missed opportunities, creates tremendous stress and can sometimes lead to “divorce” from otherwise good employees. This article will focus on tips for communicating when you are in a position of authority (i.e. manager to employee).

5 Steps to Effective Communication:
1. Make your expectations and boundaries clear. If you’re giving direction, be very clear about your intentions, expectations and boundaries. Think first about what information the other party will need to make a good decision, comply with your request or perform to your expectations. If you are unclear you leave room for the other party to interpret what they think you mean using their personal filters and to set their own boundaries.

2. Use direct language. The words you choose are critical. If you mean something is a requirement, say so. A common mistake is trying to “soft pedal” or use passive aggressive language because it seems nicer, softer or less like conflict. Ambiguity will only lead to misinterpretation. The other person can’t read your mind and shouldn’t have to guess what you mean. However, being direct doesn’t mean you have to use threatening, rude, harsh or aggressive language to get your point across.

3. Confirm understanding. Don’t assume. Ask the other party if they understand what you want. This is especially true in the case of a more complicated expectation or important task. Repeating back to confirm understanding is good practice. Use active listening to ensure both parties are on the same page. (More about Active Listening in the third series installment.)

“Is there any reason you can’t meet that deadline?”

“Can you tell me what you believe I’m saying so I can be certain we are on the same page?”

4. Course correct. When the inevitable happens and something does not go according to plan, circle back to debrief and course correct. Address the situation as soon as practical in a non-emotional way. Let them know that you want to clarify what happened so you can avoid it happening again, and are not finding fault. But this does not mean you back down from your boundary or expectation.

Ask open-ended questions to gain clarity on what caused the problem; were you unclear, were they not listening, did the situation change? You might find you have misunderstood the situation and can take the opportunity to clear up any confusion.

I cannot stress this enough: course correction is not conflict, it’s good communication. If done well, problems will be minimized. (More about Constructive Feedback in the fourth series installment.)

“I’d like to understand what happened here so we can improve upon this next time.”

“You were expected to participate in that training session. Was there some reason you were disengaged?

5. Don’t correct by examples. When giving feedback, identify the underlying issue, problem or behavior and focus only on that. If instead, you talk in examples, the listener will focus on defending that specific situation and miss the primary point of your message. For instance, if you are having a problem with an employee who does sloppy work, don’t talk to them about the five errors you see in the report they just handed you. Instead explain that you need them to be more detailed in their work and focused on reducing mistakes, and that turning in poor work product will keep them from advancing in your organization. If they are unclear as to what you mean, you can then use examples to illustrate your point.

“Communication” is such a small word for a hugely important concept that has the ability to positively or negatively affect every aspect of our world. If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with communication, the likely culprit is your delivery and style.

Using these tips will save countless hours of stress and frustration, improve productivity and performance at the office, and provide much smoother relationships in your personal life.

Look for my next article which will address general communication between peers, clients, friends or family.