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Communication on the job: the good, the bad and the ugly

by Colleen Suo

The challenge was given at an educational session presented by Brian Gareau. Within a week after the session, take one idea and implement it in the workplace; take another and help someone else.

Brian Gareau, Inc. is a consulting firm that provides tactical and practical experiences along with executable models to accelerate and sustain high performance within companies and businesses.

One major way to enhance and sustain productivity is to improve communication skills.

Two points were made at the outset:

  • We judge ourselves by our intentions, everybody else judges us by our actions.
  • Communication is simple — but not easy.

One of the reasons we think communication is easy is due to the many recent technological enhancements for communication devices. Gareau contends that the technology is an enabler, but we need to make sure we are executing the basics really well.

The purpose of the session was not to teach anything new, but rather to remind us “of some really practical things that in the business of our day-to-day life” we may overlook. As we started, differences between hearing and listening were listed from some familiar quotes. Two that stood out for me were:

  • “Hearing tells you what music is playing, but listening tells you what the song is saying.”
  • “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”

You may be thinking what does this have to do with communicating in the workplace? If you understand how you’re being heard, it will help you to modify how you communicate.

Gareau explained that hearing is accidental, involuntary and effortless — you hear things all day. Listening, on the other hand is focused, voluntary and intentional — you have to on purpose listen to someone or something. “The best communications are a dialog between two individuals — not a one-way conversation.” He went on to go over some operational definitions for the purposes of his presentation.

Communications, Gareau explained, is the giving and receiving of information, serves multiple purposes within your organization, it is directional (up and down between departments and laterally within departments) and it involves choices — are you going to choose whether to participate.

Clarity can be one of the biggest barriers to communicating effectively.

Without clarity as to what’s the mission, what’s the goal, what’s my role, what are our standards; it will be impossible to hold people accountable and to expect them to perform effectively.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “words have meaning.” What words mean to each person will be reflected in actions. For instance, Gareau asked when something happens “half the time”, what percentage is it? How about sometimes, frequently, rarely, never or always?

The half and the never may have more common expectations, but the other time measurements are extremely subjective. When you request a quote or results of a job soon, is it clear to the employee how soon soon is?

Do you have commonly used acronyms within your company or organization? What about jargon? Is everyone in the loop when it comes to defining your companies frequently used acronyms and/or jargon? Do all the employees know what they stand for? Is it possible those same letters meant something else in previous employment for someone or even within different departments? How about metrics — how and what you measure for use in evaluation and comparison?

There is an online acronym finder and there are over five million acronyms — some with several meanings. For instance, there are 37 definitions for ROI. Now in all fairness, return on investment was the first one but rate of interest was number six.

Another barrier is resistance to change. If someone just doesn’t want to make the change, they’ll find a hundred reasons why you haven’t communicated it effectively to them.

An unlikely barrier to effective communication could be equipment and technology. It could be very difficult to effectively communicate on a jobsite while trying to use radio headsets when workers are required to wear ear protection. Gareau pointed out that this important safety feature could become a barrier to jobsite communication.

Gareau went on to say that we are all wired differently. However, we tend to deal with people the way we like to be dealt with, so learning to identify what style of person or people you are communicating to and with can clearly be beneficial.

He identified the four styles represented by animals as follows:

  • Dolphin: prefers personal communication, is a great coach and cheerleader, delegates by asking “who wants to”, prefers an open meeting style and solves problems using people/teams. Dolphins will want more dialogue in the communication process.
  • Unicorn: visionary but fragmented in communication, very innovative, delegates selectively, prefers meetings only when needed and solves problems by trying “something different.” Unicorns love to brainstorm through a problem — “what if we try this.”
  • Eagle: communication is detailed and factual, has well developed process skills, delegates based on structure and role defined, prefers very standardized meetings and solves problems through good documented processes. Eagles are very documentation-oriented and will help create standardization.
  • Tiger: does not like to repeat themselves, when they are called to action they act quickly with the goal to “get ‘er done”, delegates minimally, prefers meeting only when necessary and solves problems by getting things done. Tigers get impatient with delay and what they perceive as “wasting time.”

Gareau illustrated the point by saying, “if the boss is a Tiger, and his staff has a lot of Dolphins in it — if the Tiger doesn’t adjust to allow more conversation, the Dolphins never truly “get it.” If the Dolphins are supervisors or managers, how are they going to go out and explain it to the rest of your workforce?”

There are four support systems within every business to help you inform employees with clarity what you want and expect.

The first is communication. Any way you engage with employees formally or informally, which includes staff meetings, one-on-one meetings, a website, or company newsletter. Next are your policies and procedures, these are documented ways detailing how you would like work completed and what employees should do and shouldn’t do. The third support system is your standardized processes and the fourth is measurement. Gareau explained that what is measured sends a message as to what is important within a business or organization.

Information overload is another barrier. The average human’s short-term memory capability is seven ideas (plus or minus two). To expand on this statement Gareau said, “Think about how many meetings you go to where you get seven in the first minute and then people wonder why didn’t they get it?” Too much noise and information results in selective hearing and not active listening.

Gareau also mentioned that it is critical to be able to give and receive feedback, both positive and negative as part of communications. He suggested five points to help in this often-difficult aspect.

  • Timing: is this the right time for this discussion? If you’ve just come from a “bad” meeting, it is probably not the right time to approach someone else and vise versa.
  • Limit your focus: concentrate on specific behavior and effects. It is also helpful for some to have a “script” so you remain on target.
  • Delivery: don’t embellish — stick to the facts, use “I” instead of “you” (“I felt this” or “I heard this”, instead of “you did this”) and don’t give advice at this point. You are providing feedback.
  • Receipt: be an active listener. Remember, communicating is giving and receiving.
  • Afterward: Thank each other and look for other opportunities to reinforce the dialog.

No matter what size company you are running or working for, learning and executing effective communication skills can only improve your bottom line. Employees will know what is expected of them, your customers will receive efficient services in a timely manner and everyone will spend less time scrambling to correct what they thought they were supposed to be doing.


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