Sticky Notes: Teaching Interpersonal Communication

Whether communication is in-person, electronic, in scheduled meetings, or around the water cooler, here are tips to help employees conquer four common communication issues.

There are four common interpersonal communication issues with which you might have to help employees:

  1. When employees talk too much at all the wrong times.

There are two types of overzealous talkers:

First, are the employees who speak up—and don’t stop when most people would. These are the individuals who have an opinion about everything and never hesitate to share it. They do way too much of the talking—and not enough listening—in nearly every conversation to which they are a party. They might opine about matters of which they know little or in which they are not involved, or in the presence of big-shots who don’t appreciate the outspoken underling. The talk-too-muchers also tend to be big conversational interrupters (see below).

You need to tell them to stop talking so much at all the wrong times. But that lesson usually works a lot better if you teach them what to do instead: Teach them to start listening with much more focus and purpose; to let other people talk; to wait through uncomfortable silences and let someone else break the silence; and to get in the habit of writing down their reactions initially instead of saying them out loud.

The other type of overzealous talkers are those employees who always seem to be taking a break. It’s hard enough to keep those chatterboxes focused on the work. On top of that, they often distract other employees, drawing those others into extra unintended breaks of their own. Sometimes they are thoughtless, sometimes conniving. Be that as it may, these are the easy cases: Keep the break-takers on task. Hold them to high quotas of output. Coach them to replace breaks with more concrete tasks on tighter timetables. Coach others to resist their entreaties. Stop them in action when they are distracting others. Keep track of all that in writing. Follow up. Get them off the team if they don’t change their ways.

The harder cases are the thoughtful and well-meaning employees who nonetheless waste other people’s time on a regular basis. Usually this happens inadvertently due to a lack of preparation and focus when it comes to communicating with others: one-on-one, in electronic communication, and in group meetings.

  1. When employees interrupt each other (and you).

“Interrupters” come in two forms:

First, are the conversational interrupters. They are almost always the same people as those who talk-too-much and should be dealt with accordingly (see above).

Second, are the structural interrupters. They try to catch you for spontaneous unscheduled meetings. Surely the antidote to interruptions is regular structured dialogue. When everybody is in the habit of regular structured one-on-ones, it’s much easier to push the interrupters into scheduled conversations. Most people will already have some skill and experience when it comes to playing their parts in those conversations. For those who have a harder time making effective use of one-on-ones, coach them on it until they start practicing the fundamentals:

  • Come in with a clear agenda, a list of updates, questions, and decision points.
  • Whenever possible, try to choose a regular time and stick with it as long as you can. If you have to make a change, try to set a new regular time and try to stick with the new time as long as you can.
  • In-person meetings are always preferable to meetings by telephone, but if your only option is remote, don’t let it slip, and do it well. And follow-up e-mails are key.
  1. When employees need guidance in handling electronic communication.

Often people sidestep one-on-ones and prefer instead to communicate via electronic message. Electronic communication can be a powerful tool for effective communication—especially asynchronous communication—but sloppy e-communication practices are every bit as much of a nuisance as in-person ones. Make sure your direct reports learn and practice good e-mail discipline. Teach them to:

  • Send fewer and better messages.
  • First ask themselves if a message is something that should be communicated in-person at a scheduled one-on-one or meeting instead of electronically.
  • Send first drafts to themselves.
  • Send reminders to themselves
  • Only cc people who need to be cc’d.
  • Use red flags and other indicators sparingly and with true purpose.
  • Make subject lines smart; context is everything.
  • Make messages brief, simple, and orderly.
  • Create a simple folder system for filing incoming and outgoing electronic communication based on how they will use them later.
  • Establish time blocks daily when they will review and respond to electronic communication and let people know when to expect their responses
  1. When employees need to be taught how to make the most of meetings.

Perhaps the most pernicious time-wasting occurs in team meetings because when time is wasted in a team meeting, the waste is multiplied by the number of people in the meeting. If an employee wastes 10 minutes in a meeting of 10 people, that is 100 minutes of productive capacity wasted! Out the window! Ouch! Teach all of your direct reports:

  • Before attending any meeting or presentation, make sure you know what the meeting is about and whether your attendance is required or requested.
  • Identify what your role in the meeting is: What information are you responsible for communicating or gathering? Prepare in advance: Is there any material you should review or read before the meeting? Are there any conversations you need to have before the meeting?
  • If you are making a presentation, prepare even more. Ask yourself exactly what value you have to offer the group.
  • If you are not a primary actor in the meeting, often the best thing you can do is say as little as possible and practice good meeting manners: Do not multitask or make unnecessary noise or activity; do stay focused on the business at hand.
  • If you are tempted to speak up, ask yourself: Is this a point everyone needs to hear, right here and now? If you have a question, could it be asked at a later time, off-line?
  • If you don’t have a clear role in the meeting and yet find yourself there anyway, try not to say a single word that will unnecessarily lengthen it.
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: