The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart. -Benjamin Franklin
How often have you said something that you thought was perfectly clear, only to find out later that the receiver had taken it in exactly the wrong way? A boss’s ability to communicate well with direct reports depends on the capacity to transmit meaning between people through the use of words. These words give us the ability to represent the world through symbols, a skill that that allows us to make sense of our world and then to share that meaning with others. However, the very words that empower us to create meaning with one another also create barriers between us. Words give us the means for sharing ideas and expressing emotion, but they can also serve as a source of conflict. Intentionally or unintentionally, words can cause roadblocks to understanding.
One of the reasons for these barriers is, even though meaning is not in words, we act as though it is. Just because a thought makes perfect sense in our heads doesn’t, in any way, imply that anyone else will understand that idea in exactly the same way that we do. There are no guarantees that communication will ever occur in the way we intend for it to, but there are some things bosses can do to try to control the direction a conversation goes:
1. Use Specific Language
First, use concrete rather than abstract words. Abstract words are unclear because they are broad in scope. They tend to lump things together, ignoring uniqueness or even subtle differences. Abstract words describe things that cannot be sense through one of the five senses. Because these words are vague and nonspecific, they encourage generalizations and stereotyping.
Concrete language, on the other hand, is more specific. Concrete words frequently describe things that can be perceived by using one of the five senses or that can be described in behavioral terms. They clarity the sender’s meaning by narrowing the number of possibilities. Using concrete words, therefore, tends to decrease the likelihood of misunderstanding.
For example, I was recently working with the owner of a grocery store chain who had decided that he wanted to give his store managers some feedback about the conditions of the stores. I asked him what he would like to see changed, and he said “the environment of the stores. ” I told him that, in my perceptions, that meant he wanted the store windows to be clean, the aisles to be clean, and the store, even near the fish counter, to smell nice. I mentioned these things because those are the things I notice first about a grocery store. He said, no, none of those things had occurred to him at all. He was talking about the way they display boxes of merchandise on the shelves. He likes for them to be even on the top. I told him I had honestly never noticed or cared whether the boxes lined up.
Here we were, two native speakers, supposedly speaking the same language, and we couldn’t understand one another. So, to help him craft a more concrete message, I asked him the pivotal question, “If I were following you into the store, what would I see? Smell? Hear?” This helped him pinpoint what he wanted to say.
Similarly, I often work with bosses who want to talk to a direct report about his attitude or communication style. I ask, “If he changed in ways that you wanted him to, and I were following him around, what change would I notice?” This is the crucial question that will help you make your words more specific and concrete. How do you know if someone has a better attitude? Does he smile more? Say hello to more customers? Come out into the store more often? The more specific you can be, the more likely the other will understand you.
2. Send Nonjudgmental Messages
Descriptive words are one of the best ways bosses can make sure that they are stressing observable, external, objective reality. These words focus the receiver’s attention on the thing or action being described rather than on the boss’s personal reaction. Conversely, judgmental words show evaluation and stress personal reactions. They are words that direct the receiver’s attention to the emotion rather than to the description of the event. This often engenders a defensive response in the receiver because judgmental words tend to be vague and abstract, and they annoy people.
“You” oriented speech, a particular kind of judgmental language, tends to focus on the receiver and often implies blame. Whether the evaluation is stated outright or merely implied, the receiver often reacts defensively. “I” language, on the other hand, shows ownership of reactions and reduces the likelihood that the hearer will react defensively. Notice the difference between these two: You misunderstood.
I haven’t made myself clear.
The former assigns the blame for the communication breakdown on the listener, while the latter indicates that the fault lies with the speaker. Even though this may seem like a small thing, over time, judgmental language starts to feel like an attack, and its continued use stands in the way of building rapport.
One of the ways the boss can begin to use descriptive, concrete language is to begin sentences with “The problem is…. ” Notice the difference in these two messages: You aren’t showing much consideration to your coworkers when you come in late.
The problem is, others have to assume your responsibilities when you don’t get here on time.
The first lets the direct report know that there is a problem, but the defensive reaction will probably erase any willingness to find out more about how to be more considerate. In the second example, the person knows exactly what the problem is, and a solution is evident.
Another way to avoid defensive reactions is to try to use more unrestrictive words and fewer restrictive ones. Restrictive words are words that attempt to control or restrict the actions of others. Consciously or unconsciously the sender’s use of restrictive words implies that the receive must express agreement. Using words like “should, ” “must, ” “always, ” and “never” can cause the listener to react defensively. Unrestrictive words offer a less rigid orientation because they suggest rather than demand conformity. Saying “maybe, ” “might, ” and “could, ” describe options without being aggressive. Also, using unrestrictive language shows more respect for the direct report.
3. Stick to the Facts
Inferences are another source of problems in any communication situation, largely because the speaker treats the inferences like facts. Statements of fact are confined to what is observed and cannot be made about the future. Inferences go beyond what is observed and can concern the past, present, or future. Facts have a high probability of being accurate; inferences represent only some modest degree of probability. Most importantly, facts bring people together; inferences, like judgment, create distance and cause disagreements.
To illustrate the point, think of the last really heated argument you had with someone. How many statement of fact were actually articulated? One? Two? If it turned into a heated argument, chances are the exchange was riddled with judgments and inferences. Since facts tend to further agreement, facts are usually rare in these kinds of arguments. Conclusion
Effective communication is at the heart of all human activity, and bosses who excel in it also take great strides in developing their people and keeping the stars in the organization. Increasingly, an organization’s competitive advantage depends on people, especially on creative, innovative people. Successful organizations must develop, sustain, and market high levels of innovation throughout their infrastructures if they want to maintain their industry leadership. To encourage the pace of this sort of initiative, leaders can no longer rely on a few key individuals to develop creative solutions. Instead, bosses who want to attract, retain, and develop a pool of talented thinkers must know ways to encourage each person’s contributions. More effective communication is that way.
Dr. Linda Henman speaks from experience. For more than 25 years, she has helped military organizations, small businesses, and Fortune 500 Companies turn things around by getting the right people in the right place doing the right thing.
Linda holds a Bachelor of Science in communication, two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development, and a Ph. D.in organizational systems. By combining her experience as an organizational psychologist with her education in business, she offers her clients assessment, coaching, consulting, and training solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation. Specializing in assessment for selection, promotion, and development, Linda helps organizations improve their succession and retention initiatives and teaches people to become the boss that no one wants to leave.