Five Steps To Great Workplace Communication
By Jackie Insinger
Date Published: Apr 12, 2022
Have you ever driven to work or the grocery store and realized you had no memory of how you got there? All the turns you took, lanes you crossed, decisions you made to stop or go or merge or check your blind spot... they were so automatic, they disappeared.
Yet because of them, and only because of them, you arrived. For leaders, communication is like this—as easy to overlook as it is vital. Because if you don’t do it right, you and your team end up at the wrong destination or going in circles. So, it’s no coincidence that when I begin working with clients, the first thing we focus on is communication.
Here’s why: As a leader, it doesn’t really matter what you say. What matters is how what you said was received—if it was received at all. Focus on that and you’ll build a team with wonderful communication, stellar connection and incredible results. Your leadership begins with communication, and great communication requires attention, intention and practice.
To put this into practice, here are five actions I recommend.
1. Assume the best of intentions.
You’ll be well served to assume positive intent in any interaction. Conversely, assuming ill intent can harm your leadership in the long run by eroding the trust you’ve built with your team members. For example, if a client is irate over a mistake made by your team, don’t take their side of the story at face value. It might be the client’s mistake that doomed the project.
If you don’t assume your fellow team members are acting with the best intentions, it can come at the price of a loss of trust, and even well-intentioned conversations can develop an emotional charge. When you give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt by assuming the best of intentions, conversations immediately become much easier and far less complicated.
2. Be curious.
When you assume the best of intentions, you avoid defensiveness and distrust and are free to communicate, instead, with curiosity. You can ask questions without jumping to conclusions, minimizing someone else’s idea or getting defensive. You can understand their perspective much better—especially when they’re the ones asking you a challenging question.
I’ve coached dozens of leaders through defensiveness that often arises when they’re confronted in this way. Because most leaders have worked hard to achieve their position and have a high degree of confidence in their decisions, a simple question can often feel like a rebuke: Don’t you trust me? Why do I have to explain my decisions? Haven’t I shown that I won’t steer us wrong?
But, if we assume the best of intentions, a challenging question about a decision you’ve made is just that—a question. Someone isn’t clear on the why behind the decision, so they’re curiously seeking to understand. With this frame, you can respond with curiosity in kind: Tell me more about what’s not clear to you. I want to make sure I understand what you’re looking to know.
Understandably, people become defensive when they feel like they’re being unfairly criticized. But if you combine assuming the best of intentions and interacting with others from a place of curiosity, even emotionally charged situations can be quickly diffused.
3. Listen to understand.
This is the counterpart to action #2. Asking questions is important—but how you listen is just as crucial. The next time someone tells you what they think or how they feel, notice:
• Are you listening to understand?
• Or are you listening to decide if you agree or disagree?
We’ve all been there: We listen to respond nearly automatically, and not because we’re rude. Typically, it’s because we’re excited—we want to build on their comment, or it sparked a memory or new idea we want to share. Listening to understand requires taking yourself out of the equation and focusing entirely on the other person. What they’re saying is not about you.
It’s about them—what they think, what they feel, what they need.
So, pause. Digest what they’re saying. You can tell you’re listening to understand when every word the other person says inspires a new opportunity to understand them more deeply.
Asking follow-up questions that take the conversation deeper—and importantly, that keep it focused on them—lets the other person know that they’re being truly heard. And when you’re listening to understand, you might find that you need time to sit with their message before continuing the conversation. There’s no rush to respond; understanding takes time.
4. Use “I” statements.
In communication, the only thing you know for sure is what you received. By communicating this using “I” statements, you leave the assumptions off the table. You’re owning your perspective:
What I hear you saying is...
From what I understand, you’d like to...
“I” statements signal an openness that’s critical to good communication. It shows you understand that your perspective might be different from someone else’s. Communicating what you received moves the conversation forward and eliminates confusion. Often, following up with a question—“Is that right?” or “Am I understanding this correctly?”—can help, too.
5. Infuse positivity.
Your team’s outlook begins with you, and communicating an uplifting outlook has incredible individual and collective business results. Studies show that employees “who react in a positive manner in the workplace have stronger relationships, greater psychological safety, and enhanced learning, creativity, and motivation.”
When starting a conversation, Slack message or email with your team, be optimistic. Think about something that was fun or brought you joy, and share it. It will set the tone for the entire conversation—and positively impact the resulting thinking, perspectives and outcomes.
Can you hear me now?
Effective communication is saying what you want to say, right?
This is one of those things that sounds like it should be true, yet it’s not. In truth, communication is only effective when the message is received accurately.
With these five actions, you can ensure your message is received loud and clear.
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