I recently attended a Zoom roundtable where our reactions to pandemic-caused changes was the topic. The facilitator started by asking how we were all coping and handling our mental state. No-one spoke so I offered that for me one sign of increasing difficulties was when normal stuff started really bothering me visually. Before I even finished, I was being told to scan all my papers into my computer and go paperless so I could search them easily, to watch some videos on one’s ‘clutter personality’, and so on. I thought I had been clear about one sign that was a warning to me that I needed some self-care and could be a suggestion to everyone to pay attention to their own triggers. Obviously I had failed in my communications. And worse, I found myself blaming the responders for not listening to me.

Yet such failures, on both sides, are common. With the impact of the pandemic, clear communications are even more important. And if you work in any virtual or remote work situations, communication problems are magnified. Thus each of us:

  • needs to be very clear in both verbal and written communications, and
  • must learn to improve our listening habits.

Sounds easy. Usually it is not. And that is when the difficulties begin.

Here are some basic ideas. Some are obvious yet few people do them well. In fact, most people think that they communicate far more effectively than they actually do. So brush up your skills. Create some new habits.

Communicating Clearly

If you are communicating something important, take the time to prepare. A new company service, a new policy or procedure, or changes in company direction or organization all take considerable thought in advance.

  • What is your objective? Are you communicating for information? Action?
  • Is it good news or bad?
  • What do people need to know?
  • When do they need to know what?
  • How much background or detail is needed for understanding?
  • What action do you want each person to take, if any?

Important communications are best done in several formats. A new product or service is rolled out to everyone with why it is being added and what you want both employees and potential customers to understand. Here you might have an all-employee kickoff meeting, followed by written materials as well as the links on your website for them to use. Copies of marketing materials being sent to customers and links to publicity efforts would be sent to employees first. If you want employees to publicize this using their personal social media, provide scripts or information they can use directly. Keep the communications flowing over the entire roll-out and beyond.

That may seem obvious to you yet I have seen many executives fail in such attempts. They ‘winged’ the announcement and were not clear or could not answer questions or drowned everyone in irrelevant detail.

I worked for a founder who thought of himself as brilliant. He acquired a competitor and, despite my direct advice and others’ input, he said early in his first speech to the new employees, on the day the deal was announced to them, that there would be no lay-offs. Less than a month later, 95% were let go because he had basically bought the company to get their product and customer list. How many lawsuits and state charges do you think that false promise triggered? How complicated did it make every following issue we had related to the acquisition?

Clarity of communications is especially important when dealing with employees individually or in teams. Too many of us fluctuate between micro-management and dumping a project/task with almost no information or direction. This is often even worse if the issue is an employee’s performance. Managers keep the issue in their minds too long before addressing it and then tend to do an emotional dump of ‘you’re always X’. The employee feels ambushed and defensive. Neither side accepts their responsibility. Failure ensues.

Some basic communications tips:

1. Be prepared before you communicate. Define your information or ideas as concisely and clearly as you can. Give yourself time to review and revise them.

2. Think before you write an email, give a presentation, or talk to your team. What do you want the person to know and do? What do they already know? What information do you need to provide to get the results you want?

3. Use an agenda for meetings and put it out in advance. Is it an informational meeting? One to define or solve a problem? Or a routine updating on a project?  Who is involved and why? What are you telling them? What discussions are included and what do they focus on? What results do you want from the meeting? Take notes and assign actions needed. Never mistake agreement for the whole story. For Zoom meetings, cut them to about 50-60% of the length you would have for an in-person meeting. (And yes, that might be good advice for all meetings.)

4. Counsel an employee using open-ended questions to be sure you understand the situation. Verify your assumptions and check theirs before discussing goals or expected changes. Stick to specifics – what actually happened, how, and what needs to change. Be aware that you may not know it all or have the right problem identified.

5.  Assume responsibility for your own actions and mistakes. Be humble and empathetic. Your ideas are not the only ones that matter or even the best ones. Be open and trustworthy so that others can trust you.

Listening is Tough but Critical

Far too often we listen only partially while thinking of our own next question or comment or response or what’s for lunch. Then we wonder why people do not do what we want. Listening effectively is hard work.

You need to hear both what is specifically said and understand what is behind what is being said. So the first tip is to just shut up and focus on listening to the person. Can you tell the person what you thought you heard and confirm if you are right or not? In important discussions that is a vital skill. If you have not understood what the person is saying, you cannot effectively respond or take action.

Next is identifying any issues behind what is being said. I recently was talking with a potential client who had been referred to me because they ‘need to understand benefits options’. When we talked, they first said they wanted a ‘checklist on how to set up a partnership’. As we talked, they indicated they needed a partnership because they were talking with some independent consultants who wanted to join them but ‘don’t want a boss.’ I asked more questions and they recognized they had not thought about the differences among forms of organizing a business and the impact on managing it. Or the legal and tax aspects of the choice.

Whether you are leading the organization or a team, the ability to identify the questions and issues behind whatever you are presented with is vital to your success. Solving the problem presented is not effective if it is not the real issue that needs to be addressed.

Validate people when they are talking – show that you are paying attention by your behavior. Ask for more details. Verify any assumptions. Making yourself ‘easy to talk to’ means you will get more help, earlier warnings of problems, and better solutions from your team.

Learn to listen to feedback and ideas fully. Do not be defensive or all-knowing if you want useful information and clear actions. Don’t mistake public agreement for actual consensus or effective actions.

Once I worked for a crusty old commander who was explosive when one of his staff brought him an issue, a complaint, or an idea. I realized early that if you sat calmly through those 60-70 seconds, he became quite reasonable. He caught me one day and thundered a ‘why are you looking at your watch?” I said I was just checking and it was about 15 more seconds till he would listen to me. He fumed, then actually grinned and forbid me to tell anyone his secret. He never did it to me again but had found that this worked well to ensure his staff did everything they could before bringing anything to him to address. That worked for him then and I have certainly seen many variants on it since. But it is not effective if you think the consequences through.

While you need to be your authentic self, you also need to consider how your communications style supports your business goals and the attraction and retention of the talent you need.

There are excellent blogs, books, Ted talks and articles on every aspect of communication. I have taught seminars and small employee groups various aspects of communication skills and can help address your issues too. Here are some useful resources to start growing.  

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” by Alan Alda. He has worked with a lot of science communicators and wrote this book based on what he learned. Especially good for STEM folks but interestingly written and useful for all.

TED talk on leading and communications:  listen_learn_then_lead
Some interesting examples and tips from a leadership and communications company founder and veteran.

Basecamps’ Guide to Internal Communications is full of useful ideas to improve your organization’s communications in many ways.
Basecamp guide -how-we-communicate