As a project manager by trade and a staff leader by choice, I am well aware of the needs for effective communication both within a project team and also to assure that my peers and staff know what is expected of them and what is happening that might affect them either directly or indirectly. I am therefore flummoxed on a regular basis by the sheer number of other individuals that I run into, both at work and in my personal life, that do not understand the need or the benefits of communication. I have a bit of a motto that I have repeated on more than one occasion to those I mentor and at speaking engagements: “The communication is not effective if it’s not effective communication.” The number of blank stares I get tells me that many people have never been schooled in the art of effective communication so I pick up an erasable marker and head to the nearest whiteboard…
Effective communication is in theory very simple. After all, there are only four major components: the sender, the message, the receiver and the feedback loop. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
The sender is you and the receiver, logically, is whoever you are trying to get the information across to. These seem simple enough and there shouldn’t be much else to discuss here, right? Wrong!
You have to consider a number of things about both the sender and the receiver(s). One key component in the office environment is status. Are you peers or does one of you report to the other. That can certainly have an effect on how much time you have to prepare your information and then share it. Another consideration is how important is the information. A simple project status to assure that everything is running smoothly certainly doesn’t have the same level of immediacy as ‘the project is in flames and spiraling toward the ground’.
Now let’s look at the message in more detail. A message can come in one of four varieties: Informal verbal, informal written, formal verbal or formal written. These should be pretty self explanatory. The 30 second ‘elevator speech’ when you run into your first line supervisor in the hall is much different than the 30 minute presentation you have to prepare for executive management to justify spending large sums of money in your department. Knowing your audience (receivers) is essential to preparing the correct message in the correct format. Knowing your audience also means knowing their level of familiarity with the subject and the lingo. Nothing turns off a gathering of people faster than talking down to them, using a lot of acronyms without explanation or spouting technical jargon to a gathering of non-techies.
In addition to the above considerations related to the message you also have to think about the environment where the message will be delivered. Is it conducive to sharing a lot of information? An informal verbal message shouldn’t be 15 minutes standing next to the multifunction print device, the microwave or your neighbor’s cubicle. All three of those have considerable distractions (to say nothing of being rude to your neighbor) that can interfere with the message being received. Similarly there is little need to call a meeting to simply hand out a 30 page formal written document for review – unless the detailed instructions you want to share cannot be easily explained in email or your on-line collaboration environment. The location should be suitable to the type of message you need to share.
The last piece of the effective communication formula is, in my opinion, the part that is usually missing. This is the piece that keeps much communication from being effective. What I am talking about is the feedback loop. One-way communication is seldom if ever effective. While the scenario when the boss walks in and says “You’re fired – pack your stuff” and walks out may seem like it was effective, it wasn’t because while the message couldn’t have been clearer to the sender, from the perspective of the receiver there are certainly some questions they would like answered . Similarly, a 5 minute verbal chastising to a team followed by a loud “Are there any questions?” to which no one says a word hasn’t really provided an opportunity for true feedback, has it?
Effective communication requires another skill that in my experience appears to be missing from many I interact with – active listening skills from the receiver. Active listening does not mean reading messages on your Blackberry or iPhone while someone is talking to you. It means engaging with the individual. It means being in the conversation completely. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the use of paraphrasing. When engaged in a verbal communication, to assure understanding of the message that you have received, the feedback loop can begin with something like this, “So what I heard you say is…..” or “So if I heard you right you want me to …” and then in your own words paraphrase what was said as you understand it. This feedback allows 1) you to assure that you received the message correctly, 2) a level of assurance to the sender you received the message correctly and, most importantly, 3) the opportunity for further clarification if the message was misunderstood or segments of it were missed. For a feedback loop to work, the sender of the original message now needs to engage their own active listening skills to hear what’s being said and either confirm it is correct or provide another message.
In today’s “instant world” the art of effective communication (and it truly is an art form) has been replaced on a personal level with shorter and shorter bits of cryptic one way communication broadcast to the world with no expectation of feedback. This is slowly (or not so slowly in some cases) creeping into the office environment.
As a project manager, a people manager, or just a member of the team you can not effectively do the job if you don’t understand where the organization is going and what is expected of your portion of it so you can pass along the vision and work tasks necessary to assure everyone is successful individually as well as organizationally. If corporate communication is either non-existent or only one-way, there cannot be effective communication. That doesn’t mean that the CEO needs to hold a meeting with the entire organization on a weekly basis – that’s impractical, expensive, and would certainly be chaotic. What is does mean is that there should be an expectation from the top that communication shared from on high is passed down through each layer of management with an expectation that everyone in every corner of the organization or project team will receive that message.
There is another wise old saying that you must repeat a message seven times to assure that it is heard. I believe with the use of effective communication that the number of repetitions can be cut significantly. In addition to the usual staff meetings (formal verbal), a blog posting from the top (formal or informal written) could help share the top priorities or current initiatives and how they affect staffing within each area.
This concept of ‘effective communication’ doesn’t stop when you walk out the door at work either. This is key and essential in all segments of your life. Will it solve all of the world’s problems? Of course not but it may just cut back on the number of miscommunications and the frustration level felt on a regular basis.
I urge you to give it a try the next time someone is trying to communicate a message to you. You might be surprised at the results.