Communication is one of the most critical skills to have in any professional setting. I was in a planning session one day when the key speaker mentioned that “Ninety-eight percent of all problems in the world come from miscommunication.” I’ve never been able to validate this statistic, but I also would never argue it, because there is truth to it. We could probably reassess many of our past issues and identify some root factor that came down to ineffective communication, whether it was due to poor listening skills, communication channel ineffectiveness, or over complication of directions. I got the point.
I thought I would share a true story as to why communication is important, as expressed by one of my daughters who was eight years old at the time. Please note that the names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.
My daughter was given a note from a little boy named Adam asking her to “go out with him.” The teacher saw the note and asked my daughter about it. She said she thought it came from Adam and that it had just been sitting on her desk. The teacher went to Adam and said, “Did you write this note?” He replied, “No.” She asked Chris, a little boy who sat across from Adam, “Is this note from you?” Chris replied, “No.” Now the teacher was confused. She said to Chris, “You don’t know anything about this note?” Chris said, “I know about it.” Now the teacher was a little annoyed and she said, “But I just asked if you wrote it and you said no.” Chris said, “No, you asked if it was from me and it’s not—it’s from Adam.” So the teacher said, “Adam, I asked if the note was from you and you said no.” Adam said, “No, you asked if I wrote it. My handwriting isn’t very good, so I had Chris write it for me.”
Miscommunication is the root of too many problems. I cringed every six months when I read the communication sections of my performance appraisals. I lost confidence over time with my own communication ability, whether it was written, verbal, interpersonal, small group, or business communications. I struggled managing up, managing down, and simply having effective conversations with peers. I knew I had the skills, but always seemed to struggle. I had difficulty in finding my communication style, and with determining who I wanted to be as a communicator and how I most effectively wanted to communicate. When I lost my confidence in communication, I had difficulty in believing I could ever succeed at my company. I couldn’t identify a true communication style because I lacked the confidence to truly know myself or my capabilities. Let me share a performance appraisal quote relating to my own communication.
“Tom needs to be more concise with his communication style. He needs to ensure that he understands his audience and his ability to adapt based on who he is interacting with.”
I did not adapt my communication style regardless of whether I was talking to a peer in the hall or whether I was communicating with senior management. I had significant opportunities to also be more clear and concise. I could have provided executive higher level overview, as opposed to stuffing every little detail into a presentation, including speaking notes directly in the main bullets on the slides. I now ask the following questions of myself ahead of time, “Who is the audience?,” “What is the intended outcome of the meeting?,” and “How much information do I think they will need?” These questions allow me to understand how much information to have on hand and what kind of preparation will be needed. For example, will I need to be surrounded by numbers and statistics, or will the audience trust the numbers on the page and want a directional recommendation? When asked questions, will the audience want a high level overview or a detailed storyline? I found that the feedback wasn’t specific to making my responses shorter, the feedback was directed to having me be clear and succinct based on what a particular audience wanted. My ability to adapt to the audience needs won over many critics as I improved.
In another evaluation, it was recommended that I, “Ask questions to ensure a full understanding.”
I wanted to be the person with all of the details and all of the answers. I was the first to answer questions, or the first to speak up. Often, if I was leading a conversation I would exhaust everything I knew prior to opening up the meeting for questions. I typically didn’t even pause long enough to ensure that everyone understood what I was talking about. I often lost my audiences and they became frustrated. They frequently did not have a chance to speak, or lost interest because they could not follow the path I was taking them down. I also lost credibility because I could not generate buy-in to the ideas and concepts because they came across as my ideas alone. I now use silence as a tool. I generate conversation up front by asking open-ended questions to ensure that the audience understands and is engaged. I use pauses to create enough time for people to ask questions. If I am leading the conversation, I often stop to ensure clarity and elicit opinions along the way. I try to ensure that participation and buy-in is an ongoing part of the process versus a question at the end of, “Do you agree?” I found this style suits me better and has enabled me to be more effective. This way, I have found that I have to explain less and do not force myself into a position that inundates the audience with unnecessary details, because they are now an active part of the conversation.
“Position ideas with your audience in mind…need to be more confident in presentations to senior management; don’t second guess self.”
That feedback was a mouthful. Apparently, I didn’t grasp the audience feedback when previously given and I needed it reinforced. As stated in the original piece of feedback, “Understand his audience,” I needed to ask the right questions of myself ahead of time in order to formulate my ideas and learn how to most effectively get them across to the audience. These questions allowed me to better position my ideas based on who I was speaking to and allowed me to get creative in how to do that. As I became better accustomed to understanding audience needs, I gained confidence in my own abilities.
I had a key learning moment when I worked for a manager who emphasized taking the emotion out of discussions and stressed sticking to the facts. I tried to become more level headed as I answered questions and presented ideas. I was open to expanding on my ideas, but sold the merits of those ideas based on solid facts I’d gleaned from information I gathered from customers or people I worked with. I made my positions more holistic based on a collaboration of facts that allowed me to confidently present them to all types of audiences, based on the needs. My confidence went through the roof. I had the backing and support of actual results and verbatim information that solidified my overall position. I figured it out based on the obvious clues my audience was presenting to me, such as, “I would not have thought of that until you presented the customers’ point of view,” or subtle clues like, “I think this is interesting information I would not have thought about until you mentioned it.” I learned to not only present with facts, I learned how to read the audience to determine the appropriate amount of facts.
“Avoid shutting down when others don’t agree with you.”
I had another manager who told me it was all right to be challenged and to have a debate during these discussions. I was not the biggest fan of confrontation. I had not realized that “shutting down” was a form of communication until I realized it was my way of dealing with more difficult situations. I was providing my audience with details relating to non-verbal cues I was giving off in times when I did not agree. The silence was deafening when I did not agree with a point of view. I typically got defensive in my short and terse responses until I had exhausted all avenues, and then sat in silence fuming while others offered their dissenting opinions. I took their critical positions personally. I had to learn that they were not personal vendettas; it was just an attempt to hear all sides and make the subject palatable to as many people as possible, and more importantly, come up with the best solutions—even if they weren’t mine. In some cases, I was simply being asked to clarify, but had stopped truly listening enough to be an active part of the conversation. I had to be a more engaged listener and ensure that I truly understood the other point of view. My root issue was not shutting down; my root issue was the listening. As soon as I became a better listener, I could formulate and articulate my thoughts and opinions more effectively.
I had several obstacles in accepting the communication feedback that I needed to get into my thick head before I would readily accept it. First, I didn’t truly believe it early in my career. I was convinced that my communication diploma made me an effective communicator and that it did not have to be nurtured. Apparently, I missed the day of class that said learning communication is progressive and constantly evolving. Second, I was detail oriented. I convinced myself that my messaging was clear because of all the information and details I was providing. I felt the need to constantly repeat my points and inundate the audience with information until I felt they got it.
As stated previously, I talked myself into believing that many of my managers just read my past reviews and they were not accurately assessing me regarding my communication ability. I was not cocky or overconfident in my communication. I was losing whatever confidence I had every time I had to read my performance appraisals. I did something that was more difficult than waiting every six months to read it: I started to pull them out every two weeks. I knew I had a weakness, whether it was real or perceived, and I knew I had to address it head on. If someone thought it, I eventually convinced myself that I had to do something to improve it, and communication was the constant string that was being pulled through.
My turnaround came when I slowly started to be more active in the review process. I had managers who invested their time in building a relationship with me, who gave me the confidence to ask questions. I started to finally believe I could improve, if I just decided to take action. I started asking the question of anyone providing me communication feedback, “How?” I actively sought specifics and almost treated the feedback as a research project. I sought role models who exhibited skills and styles that worked, and I grew to enjoy the challenge of making myself a better communicator.
“How” to fix your communication woes will vary based on the individual. However, anytime feedback is given, the recipient has the right, and I would say obligation, to ask for an explanation and further detail of “how” to fix it if the individual providing the feedback fails to address it. What tangible actions can an individual take if they read feedback that simply starts with “You need to adapt…,” or, “avoid…,” or “position…”? The employee needs to make it a two-way conversation and get examples and explanations that give the context necessary to take action based on that feedback.
I had realized that the simplicity of asking the question, “How?” during a feedback session would make a significant difference in my ability to grasp hold of something to work with. For example, I wish someone could have told me twenty years ago that I could improve my communication confidence by joining Toastmasters International. My first year-end performance appraisal after I joined Toastmasters read, “Tom’s organizational and communication skills are his key strengths.” It was the first time I was not asked to improve something regarding my communication. I was learning the value of proactively taking a role in the feedback process and was beginning to understand that communication is a learned trait that needs to be nurtured. I was gaining confidence in my own communication ability. I started to realize the clear connection between confidence and communication. The combination equaled communication effectiveness. The communication effectiveness turned into greater credibility and success.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
MP3 Downloads of “From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide” are available at Apple iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Emusic, Nokia, Xbox Music, Spotify, Omnifone, Google Music Store, Rdio, Muve Music, Bloom.fm, Slacker Radio, MediaNet, 7digital, 24-7, Rumblefish, and Shazam “From Fear to Success” MP3 on CD Baby