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The Trick to Effective Communication

No matter how careful you are with choosing your words or how shielded you try to be from confrontations, it’s inevitable that you will face personal conflict in your professional life that requires effective communication. That’s simply the product of relationships. They require effective communication to flourish and move forward.

But, how do you achieve that relationship-nurturing communication if you feel frustrated and have no idea what to say?

At GovLoop’s recent GovUp, a new series of after-work career and leadership development workshops, we heard from Leadership Coach Andy Gingrich. He explained how “the secret sauce of requests” can help transform communication, even in the most intense situations. He also walked us through an exercise to prove it.

The Exercise

Think about your week, or even just today. Chances are you have something you can complain about, something that dissatisfied you or made you upset. An email, a conversation or even a small brush in the hallway that gave you a sense of frustration.

Now tell someone what you’re thinking about, acting as if that person is the object of your complaint. Tell them what happened and the emotions you felt from the occurrence. But don’t explain anything. Just tell them how you’re feeling. Let it all out.

How did it go?

It might have been liberating. It might have made you even more frustrated. Either way, it probably made your partner uncomfortable and defensive. Who wants to only be told what they did wrong?

While you got something off your chest, you likely didn’t come to a common understanding with your partner that would allow either of you to move forward from the complaint. One or both of you is probably disgruntled, and with good reason.

Now, reframe that complaint as a request. Tell your partner what you want to come from this conversation, including specifically what actions they could take that would prevent you from having a similar complaint in the future.

Most likely, that request led to a productive – even satisfying – conversation and a path forward.

The Request

In the exercise, the complaint is addressed twice but with very different results. That’s because the second interaction was focused on positive action. “By verbalizing your issues, you’re committing a speech act,” Gingrich said. “You might think you’re just talking but you’re actually taking an action.”

There are multiple types of speech acts, including assertions (facts), assessments (subjective opinions), or simply declarations of new possibilities. But while some of these are just acts to put in the world (like a complaint), for many actions there is a reaction. Specifically by making requests and offers you take a creative speech act, putting in motion new actions and commitments.

Complaints can be transformed into positive conversations when they include what Gingrich calls “the secret sauce of requests.” That involves:

  • Saying exactly what you want
  • Saying exactly when you want it
  • Saying exactly from whom you want it
  • Saying exactly how you want it

Instead of focusing on what went wrong, focus on what could go right if your request for action is met. By clearly identifying what you want, as well as the conditions to meet your expectation, you can start creating a shared understanding that leads to shared commitment.

That’s the trick to effective communication. Even if your partner decides to decline your request or counters it with different terms, you’ve come to a place of mutual understanding about what you want and how they feel about the situation.

Of course, communication is a two-way street. What happens when you’re the one who aggravated a colleague?

“Not only can you use this framework to present requests; you can also use it to listen for the requests of others and tease out additional information so that you can move toward understanding and commitment,” Gingrich explained. Even if you’re receiving a complaint, you can work to reframe the conversation in terms of requests, expectations and future actions.

And as a leader, you can encourage your peers and employees to do the same. Embrace and foster a culture of collaborative communication based in requests and reactions, rather than complaints. “Make the commitment to consistently form and encourage requests that create connection and align expectations,” encouraged Gingrich.

That’s the secret to effective communication, even when Becky jams the printer again and Ron takes three days to respond to your email.

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