How NOT to Confuse Co-Workers

It’s easy to assume colleagues—and any other people you happen to correspond with—know as much as you do about whatever you’re writing about. False assumptions are just one of many communication blunders you and your employees could be making, according to a new article in Fast Company by Aytekin Tank that caught my attention.

How many times have you gotten an e-mail that loops you into a conversation mid-stream—akin to a clique at a cocktail party suddenly surrounding you, with the question, “And what do you think?” Whenever I get one of these e-mails, the response I would like to give is: “I don’t know. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Then, like most of you probably do, too, I check myself, take the time to scroll through the e-mail stream, and come up with what I hope sounds like an intelligent opinion.

The assumption that the person you’re sending the message to already knows what you’re talking about is one of many assumptions you can make. Another, which Tank highlights, is the assumption that you have been understood by the recipient of the message—even when that message has been communicated verbally and in-person. “Unsure whether a thought has landed? Ask your listeners. See if they can paraphrase your words back to you. Don’t assume your message was received just because the words were spoken aloud,” Tank advises.

Long, rambling, disorganized messages that appear to have no purpose are another downfall of corporate communication. Sometimes you understand what the e-mail is saying, but you don’t understand why the person has sent it to you and others. Does the sender want your opinion about what was stated in the e-mail, does he or she want you to come up with a better way of doing whatever is being described? Will the new information he or she is giving you impact you personally, and does that new information relate to actions you will need to take? Tank says to “clarify your pursuits” when sending an e-mail or a group message on a workplace chat app such as Slack. That advice for e-mails also goes for messages sent in-person in meetings. Sometimes, if you think about it, it turns out that the message doesn’t require a meeting at all. “Knowing clearly what your goal is can be helpful in choosing the right medium for communication. For instance, before you call a meeting with your whole staff, it’s a good idea to ask yourself if this is really the best way of getting everyone on the same page. Could the same message be conveyed in an e-mail thread?” Tank says you should ask yourself.

A communication snag also can occur in the tone of your message. A message that is neutral in emotion, such as providing instructions for a new office protocol, or positive, such as recognizing an achievement in department-wide sales, can go wrong if the tone doesn’t match your intention. It also could result in irritated message recipients. Check to see whether you come across as brusque and unfriendly, or more authoritative sounding than you intended. It might help to read the message aloud, or run it past a colleague or friend outside the company (if it isn’t confidential or proprietary in nature). You also want to make sure the inverse doesn’t occur—sending an unprofessional message with a tone better suited for a personal friendship than a work relationship. “Be aware of the difference between sending a chatty, unpunctuated instant message to an office friend versus sending a project update to your boss. By focusing on the tone of your writing and your speech, you’ll be more likely to meet your goals at work,” Tank suggests.

Tank also reminds us that communication is “a two-way street.” That means listening at least as much as you talk. I had a manager in recent years who, by his own description, “never met a microphone he didn’t love.” Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for his affinity for being on the other end of the communication process. I often thought he could benefit from a training exercise in which he would be forced to listen for at least an hour with absolutely no talking, and synthesize what was said to him. Another place where communication among colleagues runs into snags is in the passing along of messages. Have you ever tried leaving a professional message with a receptionist? If you have, you know how frustrating it can be—how rarely the message gets communicated accurately and with enough information to be appreciated by the ultimate recipient. The telephone game from childhood, in which one person whispers a message to one person, who whispers it to another, another, another, and yet another, is a great way to illustrate to adults what happens to a message as it gets passed throughout the office.

What other communication exercises can help? One idea is to have mandatory training, for both managers and lower-level employees, in which a few different pieces of information are imparted. Learners then would have to show how they would communicate the information in their own words in an e-mail and via an audio recording how they would communicate the message verbally. You may be surprised (or not) at how many high-level executives are poor communicators. Understanding how we are misunderstanding each other is a great first step in interacting with each other in more meaningful and productive ways.

How do you check, and then remediate, poor communication skills in your organization? What tips can you offer other Learning professionals in improving how their workforce communicates?


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