The Importance of Communication
Communication is one of the most important things we all need to do—whatever profession we choose. In this article I’ll share some of my top communication mistakes to avoid and my maneuvers to have tough conversations.
Communication missteps to avoid
So, big news on my end. I deleted a social media app from my phone. Like, I open my phone, and the app isn’t there. And I have to say, I’m feeling 10 pounds lighter. And I now realize that is because in my time on this app, I watched a bunch of stuff play out that we were calling communication, debate and discourse. But really, it was a bunch of yelling and name-calling and finger-pointing.
Oh, and also I’ve realized that this isn’t just happening in the apps. These past few years have been something of a doozy. And many of us—on some days myself very much included—have gotten a little primal in our communication. We’ve let the intensity of things around us get the best of us. And we’ve made some mis-steps.
But we know the importance of communication in all we need to do,whatever our profession. And I think it’s time to reflect on some of the mis-steps we’ve made, call them out, and commit to doing better.
How about I share mine? And I’d love to hear what’s on your communication to-don’t list.
Losing sight of where I’m sitting.
Sheila Heen is the mastermind behind Difficult Conversations—a must-read for any leader or human who has to have, well, difficult conversations with some regularity.
And I heard her tell this story once about driving around with her son when he was a toddler. Every time they’d get to a red light, her son would say, “it’s green.” As soon as it would turn green, he’d say, “it’s red now.”
Fueled by concern that he was either color blind or really persistent at a bad practical joke, she finally turned around one day (safely—because the light was actually red), and she realized that the position of his car seat had him seeing the light from a different angle. He really was seeing green while she saw red.
She uses this as a metaphor for what so often happens when we communicate. We’re sitting with whatever information and context we have, assuming the other party has the same. But often, where they’re sitting offers a different point of view.
Like when I get annoyed at my kids for complaining about having to go to school. But then I remember. I’ve seen what a good education has done for me. So far, they’ve just seen tests, stress and middle school drama.
Or when I quickly explain a leadership concept to a client who puts up a hand and says, “wait, what?” and I have to remind myself I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff all day while they’re doing the job of coding or marketing or patient caring.
My bank of knowledge isn’t better than anyone else’s. It’s just different. And always keeping that top of mind helps us to be better communicators. That helps us keep frustration at bay, to remember to explain things patiently, to ask the right questions, and more.
Letting stubbornness trump curiosity.
My older daughter likes to joke that no one can ever win an argument with me. Also, I’m just now realizing she’s not joking.
She’s right. I’m an excellent arguer. But also, I’m stubborn as an ass (the animal, so I can say that).
I come in hot with a point of view and I’m so focused on winning sometimes that I lose the ability to be curious and really take in another point of view.
I struggle with it personally more than professionally if I’m honest. But I work with leaders who definitely struggle professionally.
One of my clients loved using the phrase “strong opinions loosely held,” which I’ve since added to my own arsenal of great wisdom. Have a point of view, truly always. But hold it loosely so that you know what it is, but you’re not so attached that you can’t absorb other possibilities.
Have a point of view, for example, on how you’d like to structure your presentation. But if a colleague mentions they’ve already presented to the same audience and offers a tip on how they were successful, stay open to hearing that and letting it inform how you run your show.
Keep your curiosity at the forefront. And I’ll do the same.
Missing a window of connection.
I’m pretty busy these days. You? I know. It’s all of us, right? And if you’re a regular listener you know I preach a lot about the importance of focusing on doing the few impactful things versus trying to get it all done every day.
But even when we’re focused on the right stuff we can still get overwhelmed.
And when I start to experience stress, my go-to move (because we all have a go-to move under stress) is to double down on getting down to business.
It’s great to be efficient with our time. To get right to the point. But also if these past few years have taught us nothing else, they’ve taught us how truly important connection is. And also how quickly we can create a moment of it.
So my big commitment to myself for next year is even in my busiest moments, any human interaction I have will begin with connection. Even just 5 minutes of small talk—about family or TV or an upcoming vacation—can keep humanity at the forefront of even the most businessy of business meetings. And isn’t every meeting just better when we all remember our humanity?
And finally… missing the insight.
I have this one client—a CEO. And he has this problem with his leadership team. They often ask him for things that he doesn’t want to give them. They want him to weigh in on who owns which decisions in the face of disagreement. Or they want templates for certain reports they have to write.
The team keeps asking for these things. And each time they do, the CEO kind of rolls his eyes in frustration. “They should be collaborating more effectively, they shouldn’t need decision rights” or “I want them thinking creatively—and a template would limit them. Why do they keep asking for one?”
And what I finally had to tell him was this: “You’re listening well to the words they’re saying. But also, you’re missing the insight.”
They’re asking for models and templates. But they’re telling you that they’re struggling with something and they need your help. They need clarity or direction or guidance. Rather than saying no to their requests, ask them why they need these things. Probe until you find the insight.
This applies to me—and all of us—sometimes. Has your boss asked you 14 times this week how that project is coming along? Maybe the insight is he’s feeling in the dark and needs you to share periodic updates.
Are you a customer service professional tired of constantly answering the same questions? Maybe your customers are offering an insight about information that should be prominent on your website.
There’s insight in almost everything if we’re keeping our ears and egos open enough.
Let’s own this one together.
Now let’s focus on hard conversations at work. There is nothing quite like them to make the blood run cold. So, let’s talk about what makes a conversation crucial, and how we can have solid ones that leave everyone feeling like a winner.
How to finally have that dreaded conversation
The thing about great working experiences is that, well, they require hard work. And I mean hard not so much in effort, but in our shared willingness to talk about stuff. Like, stuff that feels uncomfortable, or awkward, or likely to trigger feelings we just don’t wanna deal with.
So many of us—yep, me too—are guilty of just not having that conversation. Because really, things right now aren’t that bad, right? And yet, if we had it and had it well, we know in our hearts things could be so much better.
Like, imagine your boss is great. Mostly. He’s supportive of you, he coaches you, he respects your boundaries. But you’re ready for the next level and need exposure to other leaders. And any time you work on a presentation, your boss does all the presenting while you sit quietly in the back.
Or maybe you have a colleague who is smart and well-meaning, but they have certain habits that make collaboration painful. Like they send 17 emails that, if they’d done just a bit of organizing, could have been one. Or they don’t check with you before making decisions that leave you with extra administrative stuff on your plate.
In both of these situations, you could just not have the conversation. Because nothing horrible is happening. But wouldn’t life just be better if you went for it?
These dreaded moments require us to have something called a Crucial Conversation. This is an actual book, and Click to check for reference to it if you’d like to read more.
So what makes a conversation crucial, and how we can have solid ones that leave everyone feeling like a winner?
What is a crucial conversation?
There are all sorts of important conversations that could or should be had. But what makes something specifically a crucial conversation? There are three criteria: (1) opposing views, (2) high stakes, and (3) strong emotions.
Opposing views is probably pretty self-explanatory, but it just means there’s not an obvious “right” or “wrong.” It’s not, for example, a conflict between someone harassing and being harrassed. There’s no objective offense or failure to point to. You feel one way, and presumably the other person feels another.
High-stakes means this thing really matters. In the examples I gave, the stakes are your ability to get promoted or to manage your time effectively. It’s not a matter of disagreeing whether this year’s holiday party should be beach or city themed. The consequences and impacts are real.
And finally, strong emotions means someone could really get hurt or offended if things aren’t handled properly.
Next time you face a conversation you don’t want to have, start by asking yourself whether it meets these criteria. If it’s low stakes, it may not be worth having. If it’s not super emotional, it may not be worth stressing over. And if there really is a right answer, then that might be a feedback conversation.
But for now, let’s assume it’s a crucial one. So with criteria met, how do you have it effectively?
- Do some prep work. OK. Because of the whole high-stakes, high-emotion thing, you want to head into this conversation with something of a gameplan. Here are some questions you should ask yourself—and answer—before diving in.
Let’s consider this situation with your well-meaning boss who’s hogging the spotlight.
- Consider your objectives. What outcome are you hoping for—for you and for them? And what do you want to avoid having happen? You probably want to be given more opportunities to showcase your work, and you don’t want to leave your boss feeling unappreciated for all the hard work he’s doing to support you already.
- Next, think about the other person’s default style—how you’ve experienced them in the past. Do they tend to respond more to data or story? Do they like to problem-solve together or to reflect before responding?
Having clarity around objectives and the other person’s defaults can help you prepare for the outcome you’d like by having the right data or stories—or whatever you’ll need—on hand.
- Present facts and stories, but keep them separate. In every situation, there are facts and there are stories. Like, fact: the last time there was a big presentation, your boss did all the talking. Story: you’re concerned the absence of your voice is holding you back from bigger opportunities. Maybe you’re even worried your boss doesn’t trust you to deliver.
All of this is fair. But when you deliver your message to your boss, it’s important that he hear the distinction between fact and story. If you go in hot, saying, “you never give me the opportunity to speak because you don’t trust me” (blending fact and story together), you’ll lose your boss quickly. Because, as it turns out, he totally trusts you!
Leading with an accusation that rings false can leave your boss feeling attacked. And this is exactly what triggers those high emotions. This is a landmine we want to step carefully around.
Instead start with the facts. “In those last three presentations, I was hoping to have an opportunity to speak at some point, but I was asked to take notes and advance slides.” This is indisputable. Start there and then move onto the impacts. “It was kind of a bummer because I’m worried maybe you don’t trust that I’m ready to present to the leadership team.” And there’s your story. That piece is debatable. But it puts your boss in the position of having to recognize facts and understand the impact they’ve had on you.
And now it’s your boss’s turn to reply. Be sure to listen and listen well. Because maybe there’s an entirely different story about why your role has been strong and silent. And remember, one of the elements of a crucial conversation is the possibility of strong emotions. Your boss may have a moment of feeling awful or guilty or afraid you’re going to resign.
Create a safe space for emotions. Take a pause here and let it all be put on the table before moving to the next piece.
- Propose options. Here you get to advocate for what you want. Ask, respectfully and boldly, but be willing to compromise. Maybe you’re hoping to run the show next time—give the whole dang presentation. And maybe, depending on what came out of the previous part of the conversation, your boss isn’t ready to make that leap.
So what are some options you might compromise on? Maybe when the next presentation comes around you get the opportunity to do the introduction and facilitate the Q + A at the end? Or maybe your boss shared a specific concern, and so your next step is to do some practice presentations so he can coach you on your public speaking skill.
The goal is to land on an option you both feel really good about. It addresses both of your concerns and hopes.
- Plan your next steps. Get specific. You want to be sure that you and your boss are both clear and aligned on exactly what’s been agreed to.
Walking away with a loosey-goosey sense of “we’ll get ‘em next time” tends to lead to disappointment. Specifics—details, actions, dates, times—these should all be captured, ideally in writing.
This doesn’t need to be super heavy-handed. If you can do a quick verbal recap at the end of the conversation and then commit to emailing it his way (so you both have a copy) this will get it done. “OK,” you might say as you wrap up, “so for our next presentation on April 3rd, I’ll cover the intro and take us through the objectives for the day and then hand it over to you. When you hit the final slide you’ll pass the mic back to me, and I’ll run the Q+A piece. Is that what you heard as well?”
It’s always amazed me how differently two people can hear and interpret the same conversation. So don’t leave this bit to chance.
And there you go. The thing about crucial conversations is that we can almost always make an excuse not to have them. But when we finally do, if we’ve prepared well and facilitated openly, it nearly always leaves us in a better place. Did we need another affirmation for the importance of communication?
So now you. What do you know you need to address with someone? And are you feeling ready to get it done? Let me know how it goes!