Teaching the Nuances of Communication

What you say is only half the battle in effective communication; the other half is how it’s delivered. The same words that sound inoffensive, and even humorous, delivered by one person, can sound snarky and cruel coming from another. As a sensitive person, I’ve repeatedly noticed this phenomenon, and try to remind myself that many of the people who rub me the wrong way mean no offense. It just may be that they’re clumsy communicators.

What’s the toll of communications in the workplace that unintentionally offend? A piece by Zeynep Ilgaz on SmartBrief notes that people give themselves away with body language, so a perceptive manager knows who’s friends with whom, without ever having to hear what the people in question are saying to each other. Similarly, the tone you use face-to-face and in e-mails can communicate a message that may not be what you intended.

I work with a woman who is based outside our office. I dislike communicating with her via e-mail, but I have no problem communicating with her face-to-face. I know she’s not a bad person. When my mother died a few years ago, she sent me a thoughtful e-mail, letting me know she was there to listen in case I needed someone to talk to. I appreciated the kindness of her e-mail very much, which makes many of our other e-mail communications confusing to me. I find her brusque and cold in day-to-day communications. I always say “Hi” at the beginning of e-mails, and she never does, which isn’t a big deal. But when I say “Happy New Year” in an e-mail, or take the time to ask her how’s doing, she answers me with a blunt statement, like she was taking my order at the McDonald’s drive-through window. I understand that most likely she’s just busy and means no offense, but I’ve come to dread our communications because I always feel angered when I get her responses.

Personality clashes can come out in communications between co-workers, and if managers aren’t savvy about picking up on colleagues who aren’t communicating well with each other, conflict can arise, or projects can be impeded because the two employees won’t want to work together enough to get the projects done on time.

How can you prepare managers to read the non-verbal, subtle differences in tone between their employees, and to read body language, so they can head off potential problems? The value in teaching them these skills is that they can either avoid having two people work together, or they can be sure to add a third, or fourth, participant to the project to keep relations calm. Two people who have clashing personalities sometimes can work in the same group, but are best not left working one-on-one.

One idea would be to do an activity in which a few employees from other departments, whom the managers have never met, or don’t work with enough to know, give examples of how they would word an e-mail or deliver a piece of news. The manager then has to guess characteristics of their personality and their work-style preferences, based on how they delivered the message. Another exercise would be to have the managers themselves show how they would deliver a sensitive message, such as e-mailing and telling a person face-to-face that his or her work hasn’t been up to company standards, or that an employee is behind on an assignment and needs to turn it in by the end of the week. Your trainers may be shocked at how brusque, and even offensive, these communications may be—even though most managers don’t intend to be offensive or unkind.

Role-playing one-on-one meetings between manager and employee also could be helpful. As I’ve shared before on this blog, I worked under a woman for a few years who would look at me with no expression on her face while I spoke, sometimes not even nodding her head. If I said hello to her and smiled, she would answer me with raised eyebrows and no other expression on her face. Maybe she was unaware that this was how she looked, but I don’t think so. Sometimes, if it’s bad enough, an employee may even go to the manager’s boss and express confusion and distress. I did just that with the boss of this stone-faced manager, and was repeatedly told there was no problem—that it was all in my imagination. Part of being sensitive to how communications are delivered and perceived is to never discount an employee who tells a company leader he or she is concerned there’s a problem with another employee.

What role does non-verbal communication savvy play in your manager and leadership development? How can you teach employees to be more self-aware of how they communicate with each other?


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