The three things great communicators always do

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Business and personal development coach James Sweetman discusses three things that separate great communicators from the herd.

Effective communicators know that just because something is said doesn’t mean it is understood. Equally they know that just because something is emailed doesn’t mean it was read, let alone understood. 

Earlier this year my doctor informed me that I had raised cholesterol levels. He listed various ways I could reduce it. Having made the diagnosis and giving me advice, the doctor’s job was done. Regretfully many managers still communicate with their people in the same way a doctor does, not realising that there is one crucial difference between the role of a doctor and the role of a manager. 

As the patient I’m responsible for my health, not my doctor, so whether I act on the advice my doctor gives me or not, that is totally up to me. In an organisation, the manager retains responsibility for the actions of his or her people. Managers of course can delegate responsibility for a task, but they cannot abdicate responsibility for it. 

Ineffective managers view their communications like just another item on their ‘to do’ list. A task is ticked off when an email is sent or when they deliver a monologue from the top of the room. 

Over the years, in working with managers and communicators at both ends of the effectiveness scale, I’ve noted three distinctions that separate effective managers from those who struggle as communicators. 

Result first, process second 
Effective managers are focused on the end result, not the process. They know exactly the result they are trying to achieve, which takes precedent over the method of communication. For example, a manager wants her staff to be proactive in sharing their ideas. The end result is that she wants staff to be vocal and willing to offer suggestions. How would this be best achieved? Would sending a once off email ‘to all staff’ be the most effective way to achieve this result, or should she stimulate new conversations with them by having face to face meetings? I would suggest the latter will get the manager closer to her desired result. 

Dialogue not monologue 
When communicating verbally to groups, either in the form of a presentation or a meeting, effective communicators participate in dialogue (as opposed to delivering a monologue.) This means preparing questions, not just statements, because questions are how we stimulate discussion and engage people. 

Follow Up 
Lastly, and perhaps most critically, effective managers follow up on their communications. They check in with people, they check for understanding (asking does anyone have any questions is not checking for understanding) and they create an environment where people can feel comfortable in raising their hand. 

Recently I was working with a manager in a large organisation where the management team had completed a piece of work on what were labelled the companies values. He had communicated the reasons behind the project, the desired outcomes and the values themselves with the staff of over a hundred people. He expressed his disappointment to me because several weeks later there seemed to be little evidence of any change in the company and in people’s behaviours. Now the merits of determining company values, sharing them and living them is worthy of article in itself, but for now let me share with you what I shared with the manager from a communication skills perspective. 

I asked him how he had communicated the company values to staff. He said he emailed a powerpoint document which contained a detailed notes section and he invited people to respond directly to him if they had any questions. He got no responses, which surprised him. It didn’t surprise me. 

I then asked him how many people opened the email, remembering that people get a high volume of email every day. He said he wasn’t sure, but he hoped that because the email came from him, everyone would read it. So even if we said 80% of people read it, I then asked him what percentage of people did he think understood it? After a moment’s reflection he said he wasn’t sure, but he hoped the more senior staff at least understood it. (So more hoping and guesswork I said to myself.) 

Finally I asked him, even of those who read it and maybe understood it, how many did he think believed the company values would have any real impact on their daily job and apart from reading the lengthy document, what were they expected to do with it? He just shook his head. 

Sending an email with the company values listed in them was the process. The desired result was sustained behavioural change which somehow was lost. If the manager was serious about enhancing the company’s effectiveness and leading behavioural change based on the values they want to personify, he has to keep the desired result front and centre, choose the combination of media that would best communicate the message and the desired result and lastly, follow up. Without follow up momentum will not be generated. Responsibility doesn’t end by sending the email or even having a conversation, they are just steps in a series of conversations across different media that will reinforce the message and allow for constructive discussion. 

Too many managers believe that they have done their bit by voicing their opinion at a meeting or sending an email. Many naive managers feel that their words and musings have great meaning to anyone who hears them or reads them. Equally they assume that when their ‘does anyone have any questions’ is met with silence, that everyone fully understands what has been said and everyone is ‘on board.’ (From my experience people don’t ask questions because they are either afraid to, or feel there is no point because their opinion doesn’t count.)

Getting clear on the desired result, engaging in dialogue and in particular following up, may require a greater investment of time, but surely that is wiser than wasting time with a communication strategy that has little hope of being effective in the first place. 

If you are currently just ticking the box when it comes to your communications, just add one more item to your ‘to do’ list – -follow up. In the words of Ronald Reagan, when it comes to communication and checking for understanding – ‘trust but verify.’


James Sweetman is a Business and Personal Coach, specialising in assisting individuals and firms to be more effective at what they do. He works both on a one-2-one basis with individual clients as well as delivering tailored training workshops on a range of topics including confidence-building and presentation skills. For more information visit his website.