Barriers to communication.

Stop Talking! Why Everything You Know About Communication Is Wrong

As one becomes more senior in any organization – be it government agency or private sector company – the implicit expectation is that one’s ability to communicate and communicate effectively will become increasingly critical to overall job success.

When distilled to its core, most “management” in the workplace is largely a function of communication. After all, explaining what needs to get done to others who will do the actual work is management. It involves sometimes sharing why that something needs to happen to inspire action. And it usually involves persuading others to share your perspective when it comes to decision making.

Unfortunately, much of what we have been taught about effective communication in the workplace is wrong. Or at least, it is incomplete. And this incomplete understanding of what it means to communicate effectively is creating a glut of poor communicators across the highest levels of our organizations.  In turn, younger workers are learning how to communicate (ineffectively) from those more senior than them and the cycle repeats.

Putting the “U” back in Communicate

Don’t worry – it really isn’t your fault! When it comes to communicating, we have been taught to be self-centered. We habitually focus on how, I as the communicator, best send the message to you as the listener. Be concise. Use numbers carefully. Tell stories. Paint a picture with your words. While all of this guidance makes sense and generally works, it undervalues the listener. The intent of communicating is just not to be heard, but to be listened to and importantly, understood. As such, we forget to be other-centered. Too little emphasis is given to how, you as the receiver, best perceive and process my message.  After all, communication is a two-way street, not a one lane highway.

As humans, we are not naturally wired to communicate in a style that is aligned with the listener’s communication style. Instead, we are inclined to speak in the way we like to be spoken to. For example, if you tend to speak directly and in a matter of fact manner, there is a high probability you prefer others to speak that way too. How many times have you sat in a meeting thinking to yourself “Stop wasting my time and get to the point.” If you tend to start your chats with minutiae and detail and work your way up to the conclusion, you likely listen better when others talk to you that way.  Indeed, you are probably turned off when others start with the answer and then provide the justification afterwards. Even though the detail may be quite compelling, you leave the meeting unconvinced. Cultural, gender-related, and generational differences – the reality of today’s modern workplace – only serve to exacerbate our gap in perceptions.

So, what should the enlightened communicator do to overcome this perception variance in the workplace? Three recommendations:

1. Better define success

The next time you walk into a meeting with a colleague or group of co-workers, remind yourself that what you are about to say isn’t about you. At its core, effective communication is about the listener, not the speaker. As you pass through the doorway to your meeting, stand up a little straighter and gently shift your mindset from self-centered to other-centered. Ask yourself “how do I need to communicate in this moment based on those in the room so that I clearly convey my ideas to others?” Define your success in the meeting – be it a one-on-one, team, or mass meeting – as not just saying what you need to say but by making sure that others walk out of the meeting understanding to what you said so that there is clarity, if not complete agreement.

2. Observe others

The most effective communicators can adapt their styles based upon who they are speaking with. Picture the most brilliant speaker you know. Would they engage with an audience of their colleagues in the same way they would speak before a classroom of high schoolers? Of course not. They adapt their styles to their audience.

And you can too. It all starts by carefully watching how your colleagues themselves speak. Remember, by default we listen the way we speak. Monitor their natural communication styles and then mirror them. If a colleague is a take-charge kind of person, adjust your communication approach to be more direct. Try speaking a bit faster. Cut out anything that isn’t critical to your point. Similarly, if a colleague is lively and extroverted, try being more physically open, more expressive (smile), and even a bit less serious in tone when communicating. If a colleague is shier and more circumspect, pause longer between your thoughts to provide them the chance to jump in. Ask more questions to drive the conversation forward. Offer to reconnect after they have had a chance to reflect on your discussion.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Adjusting one’s communication style based on the audience is not natural. It will seem awkward to intentionally change your speech cadence or style based on the individual or individuals in front of you. However, it can be developed through mindfulness (good communication is about the listener, not the speaker) and lots of practice. Watching how others react to you – are they nodding, are they leaning forward, did they just grimace or squint – while you are speaking may appear to be like doing calculus while swimming, but with practice, it is possible.

If you are so bold, you may even ask others to give you feedback as you run your own personal experiment. What is more, you need not modify your style for the entirety of a meeting or conversation. You can choose a 5- or 10-minute window and gauge the listeners’ reaction.

Effective communication is one of the most – if not the most – prized skills in the workplace today. Those who can engage, persuade, and inspire through their words find themselves rapidly scaling the organizational ladder.  However, with the rise of shorthand electronic communications like text messages and Twitter, many of us are forgetting the criticality of successfully engaging with our peers, our teams, and our customers through our words.  Being cognizant of the perception variance that exists all around us and taking steps to bridge this gap is paramount for tomorrow’s burgeoning leaders.

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across State, local, Federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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Kaitlin Moller

I think I definitely struggle with telling stories the way that makes sense in my head without thinking about the listener, so I especially enjoyed this quote: “At its core, effective communication is about the listener, not the speaker.”

Thanks for such a great article!

Avatar photo Blake Martin

I really appreciated your connecting management with effective communication. It is pivotal to getting buy-in across different areas of an org, plus the emphasis on listening really does help break that cycle of bad communication like you noted. Great piece, Wagish! Can’t wait to read more.