Are You Being Understood?

Is your one-size-fits-all approach to communication impacting your effectiveness as a leader?

Six years ago I committed to improving the way I communicate with others, both written and verbally. The focus came after receiving feedback on my approach. I was seen as ?too direct? and came across as ?aggressive?. It would have been easy to justify my approach (e.g. I was in a hurry; I needed to get my point across; I was frustrated when I wrote it; etc) but it wouldn?t have improved the outcome.

And so, after a lot of patience and openness to feedback, I think I?m now reasonably adaptable in the way I communicate with others?but, an event that occurred last week has me thinking I may have become a little complacent.

?The persuasive style requires two qualities: clearness and simplicity. If it is lacking in either of these it fails to persuade? ~ Demetrius Phalereus

We were at my oldest son?s school concert. While waiting for the concert to begin my younger son goes off to play. I watch as he walks over to an unattended bottle of Pepsi sitting on the ground. He picks up the bottle, looks around to see if anyone is watching, takes off the lid and raises it to his lips. At this point I call out to him ?put the bottle down and come here?, which he does. The conversation then goes like this:

Me: ?Mate, you can?t drink out of a bottle that?s not yours ok?
Son: ?Ok Mum?
Me: ?It could have poison in it and make you really sick, please don?t do that again?
Son: ?Ok Mum? (Looking at the ground and nodding)
Me: ?Good boy?
Son: Runs off to play again

At this point I think ?good, message delivered ? responsible parent status maintained!?. A few minutes later I notice him back at the bottle, this time he has his back to me, shielding the bottle from my view.

He takes the lid off again but instead of raising it to his lips he pours the contents out on the ground. I feel a sense of relief (that he hasn?t disobeyed me) followed by a feeling of complete disbelief as he gets down on all fours and begins sucking it up!! After picking my chin up off the ground I consider what had gone wrong with the earlier conversation?

Neeli and Venkat Bendapudi convey a great message in their article How to Use Language that Employees Get. They say ?resonant messages involve audience-appropriate delivery? and highlight the importance of first stopping to think about your audience ? which allows you to use language in a way that?s credible and compelling to them.

I think, too often as leaders, we default to the easiest approach of communicating and then wonder why nothing changes. Often this is a brain dump of everything in our head with no attention given to the structure, language and flow. At other times it?s too short with a single line requesting information ? without greeting the reader of giving context around why it?s needed.

?I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead? ~ Mark Twain

Instead, what we need to do is assume 100% responsibility for communicating effectively to our staff. According to Marco Nink?s article, many managers don’t really own this task. ?Based on Gallup’s work with companies worldwide, only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work.?

Simply telling them what is expected and leaving them to work out the rest doesn?t set them up for success. Marco believes that ?to free employees to take initiative and inspire high performance, managers need to set clear expectations, hold employees accountable for meeting them and respond quickly when employees need support?.

Perhaps the outcome with my son would have been different if I?d taken an ?audience appropriate? approach. It might have gone like this:

Me: ?Mate, don?t touch that Pepsi bottle again! It belongs to someone else and you don?t know what?s in it, it?s dangerous?
Son: ?Ok Mum?
Me: ?What?s going to happen if you touch it again??
Son: ?You?ll send me to the laundry for ten minutes?
Me: ?That?s right, so stay away from it ok??
Son: ?Ok Mum?

?Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple ? awesomely simple ? that?s creativity? ~ Charlies Mingus

My learning is that communicating with others requires constant attention, refinement and flexibility. And when the message received isn?t the message intended then I am responsible for the outcome!

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