Why Your Communication Might Not Be Working (and How to Make it Stick)
Do you believe there is such a thing as over-communicating?
Here's why I don't...How many times have you told your child, team member, or spouse, "I just told you", or "we already talked about that" only to find that they have zero recollection of that conversation?
You see...we're all living in our own micro worlds, navigating thought in our own brains, and our own little mental bubbles. We all have a lot going on in life (and in our minds) and the truth is we as humans zone out!
It’s the reason why we can be looking directly at someone, but not actually listening to anything they're saying. It's why we can sit through a class and have no idea what was just discussed.
So how do we get people’s attention? How do we become more effective communicators?
"People don't read minds."
It starts with knowing a foundational truth. If you don’t say it, they won't know it. People don’t read minds. They don’t have the mental capacity to think for you, too. If you have something you need to say, it needs to be said. But, how then, do you say it so that it's "heard"? Here are 4 tips to making your communication stick better.
Know the State of the People
First and foremost, if your audience isn't in the right state of mind, your words might just land powerless. For instance, peak season at work, post-layoffs, following bad news, or even just hunger or exhaustion on the home-front pose challenges for important message to land as intended. While you can't always control the environment, when possible, it's important to acknowledge where people are at (i.e., what's important to them right now). From there, you can determine the best how to method to communicate your message.
The culture and environment that you foster is key. It's your job is to create a safe place for meaningful relationships and conversations at work and home, too. When people don’t feel it’s safe to talk, they often won’t bother to listen either. There’s a mutual respect void that springs forth. And while someone on the receiving end of a message might be physically present, they’re not necessarily going to be influenced by what you say.
Question for reflection: How do you build trust? How do you help people feel seen? How do people know you care?
Deliver Expectations, Remove Barriers
People like to know what to expect. In all my years of working in patient experience, I can tell you two things. People want to feel valued as a human, and people want to know what to expect. This information comes not just through relationships, but through answers to the questions such as: How long is this going to take? What can I expect? How can I prepare? What is this going to cost?
Time, money, and discomfort can all be major stressors. When you can alleviate the impact of of these stressors, you help divert the attention during the message delivery to the message itself. It’s the reason companies tell you how long the wait will be, your expected time to be seen, anticipated delivery date, and send out status updates. When uncertainty exists, people WILL set their own expectations and we all know what can happen as a result.
In the working world, here's what too often happens. We deliver minimal information and expect a maximum output. With minimal information, some will either make their own assumptions and act upon those while others will wait, and wait, and wait. So before you jump to the conclusion that people "aren't doing their jobs", " aren't meeting expectations", or label someone as one who "never listens", ask yourself whether or not the source of the problem was in the original communication.
Vanilla ice cream vs. ice cream sundae
Let's say I gave you vanilla ice cream and expected you to make the best ice cream sundae without ever telling you. Then, I came back only to express my disappointment that you're still holding the tub of vanilla ice cream and didn't do anything with it. How would that make you feel? Perhaps annoyed or confused? You see, your role, especially if you're a leader, is to be clear and make it easy for people to do their job. Set the expectations and them remove barriers for your people to do their jobs and work their magic. It's not about making the "sundae" for them, but rather about making it easy for them to make the best sundae out there. Engage them in the goal, teach them what you can, empower them to do the rest, and then provide feedback.
Close the loop
One of the biggest problems in broken communication is that the loop is never closed. The best way to do this is to keep messaging simple, summarize, ask open-ended questions and assign ownership.
Simplify. Don't overcomplicate what you're trying to say or "beat around the bush". We live in a complex world and people need you to keep things simple and get to the point. Yes, there is such a thing as delivering your messaging in the form of a "good/bad/good sandwich", but we try to supersize so much of the good and as a result, the meat that needs to be shared gets buried in the goodies.
Summarize.Tie your conversation together in a nice package. "We’ve talked about a lot today and if you walk away with only three things today, here’s what they are..." or "I will do X if you can do Y and then we'll come back together and talk about the next step from there" are some great examples of summarizing conversations effectively.
Assign ownership. When ownership isn't assigned and expectations aren't set, the result is often that everyone assumes someone else is doing it and nothing ends up getting done. One way to do this is through asking open-ended questions and get people engaged in the conversation. If you end the conversation with something like, "is everyone good to go?", you're almost guaranteed a nod, but not necessarily understanding. Why then do people nod? Because they're ready to get on with their day, have a lot on their minds, or have no idea what was just shared.
Create Value for Others
In a "me" centered culture, we've got to begin shifting more of the "what's in it for me?" mindset to "what's in it for them?" when communicating. For example, will they have less stress, more time, a reward, a bonus, ownership in decision making, get home sooner, or a new opportunity waiting on the other side?
If you go into every important communication with the goal of building value for people and engaging with others, you will begin to notice a big difference in the impact of your communication. If you can go from me-centered thinking, to clear, simple and people-centered thinking, you will begin to experience more of the outcomes you're expecting (and maybe even beyond!). Don't stop communicating because "people aren't listening". Rather, think about how you might be able to tweak your how and, instead, make it easier for people to listen.
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