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A New Approach to Communication

(Originally featured in the Winter 2016 edition of the Channel Partner Magazine.)

You’d think, with all the practice we’ve had in communication over our lifespan that it would come to us easily once we entered the “real world” of work. Most of us learned to speak as toddlers, we were taught to read and write as we went through grade school and some of us may have even taken communications classes in college. Should be a piece of cake, right? Unfortunately, my experience in business (and in life for that matter) has been a resounding and hearty No. But, why? If we’ve put so much of our time into practicing, why is it that a majority of our communication doesn’t work the way we expect or need it to?

In business, if a process or strategy isn’t working it’s a wise practice to reflect on what’s missing. When it comes to communication, maybe it’s time to consider the fact that we’ve been practicing all the wrong things.

(Warning: The practice prescriptions I’m about to share with you will definitely work in your office and among your business partners. It will also work in your personal life and the community at-large. Symptoms may including nodding heads, improved productivity and “getting it right the first time.”)

Practice Pitfall #1: Using Fuzzy Language

Google the word “culture” and take a quick look at the number of results that come back. Each result has a different take and a different perspective about what the word means. Same rings true for most words, processes and ideas. What we practice, however, is normally not a reflection of this truth but the exact opposite. Instead, we use

  • His definition of “professionalism” is the same as mine.
  • Her understanding of what a sales process looks like mirrors mine exactly.
  • My channel partner should know what “customer service” means.

Does this sound about right? The problem is, when we use fuzzy language or vague words and assume others have the same definition of something that’s important to our work, we are immediately setting the stage for miscommunication and a lack of clarity.

Practice Prescription:

Use the “STRAM” Model. Similar to SMART (but smarter) – the STRAM model, used by Ken Blanchard as a goal-setting tool, can also be refurbished for communication. When you’re starting out a business relationship or project, ensure your communication with all parties is:

  •      Specific (everyone agrees on what a good job looks like)
  •      Trackable (how are we going to measure progress?)
  •      Relevant (why is this important to the bigger mission or vision?)
  •      Attainable (can we all agree what we are communicating is realistic?)
  •      Motivating (will your message create energy in your receiver or zap it?).

Leave no expectation unset by being crystal clear about what your words mean to you. Expect a follow up from your channel partner? Let them know exactly what that means to you on the onset of your relationship and why it matters that it happens that way. Have you been given an assignment? Ask the question: “What does a good job on this assignment look like?”

The power of bagging fuzzy language and taking time to clarify and align on a shared definition of success cannot be underestimated.

Practice Pitfall #2: Making Assumptions

This may sound strange, but we constantly practice telling ourselves stories about the way things are. Naturally, we rely on our own perspective to make sense of situations we face in business and in life – but our ability to storytell goes way beyond that. We are such good storytellers that we don’t just make up stories for ourselves. We make up stories for others, too.

  • My channel partner only cares about the bottom line and that’s why he’s lacking in customer service.  
  • This team member is lazy and that’s why he doesn’t follow up the way he should.

Our thoughts and assumptions are so powerful that we can create full blown lives, thoughts and intentions of those around us…without ever asking them. This causes us to miss out on important information and insights. 

Practice Prescription:

This Rx is two-fold. The first and easier part is to learn to recognize and test your assumptions. When that voice in your head starts to storytell, take a moment to figure out where the story is coming from. Make it a game to poke holes in your story to see how it holds up in your mind’s court of law.

The second half is a little more difficult and may take some getting used to: Ask questions. Once you’ve realized that you’re making up a story, the next step is to fact check. If you’re feeling as though your channel partner is lacking in customer service, but you’ve checked your story and know they value it, ask them what’s going on. The only way to truly gain insight and full perspective is to know the stories of others. Even better, pose your questions with the intention that everyone should win and watch how that changes your mindset.

Practice Pitfall #3: “Constructive Criticism”

Say it with me folks: Constructive criticism is a facade. That’s right. We’ve been practicing “constructive criticism” for our entire adult lives, and it’s been the wrong practice. Constructive criticism is nothing more than judgment with a little lipstick on it. And nobody wants to be judged.

To figure out why this is we call on neuroscience research dating all the way back to our more primitive years and the idea of fight, flight or freeze. The reason “criticism” immediately makes you bristle is because it’s inherently negative and almost always given in a way that’s personal as opposed to objective. To say it in another way: Our brains react to criticism the same way it would to being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. It puts us on the defense almost immediately.

Practice Prescription:

The new and improved word and process for criticism is “feedback.” I define feedback as information about the past or present that influences change in the present or future. Before you go thinking this is semantics, notice I also said process. There are proven and specific methods to give both positive and constructive feedback in a way that our brains are wired to hear more easily than others.

Truly effective feedback must:

  • Include facts or data (objectivity)
  • Be relevant (needs to matter in context)
  • Be an actionable request (a specific behavior).

Depending on the situation you can also add your point of view – feelings, thoughts, assumptions, judgments, etc. Most people just give their point of view and skip the rest.

So much of our communication pitfalls stem from our belief that, since we’ve had so much practice, communication doesn’t need to be planned. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A little planning goes a long way. Start incorporating the above prescriptions into your daily communication practices and watch as your words become more and more easily understood.

Amber Barnes
Amber Barnes
Amber is a leadership development professional with a heart for helping leaders maximize human performance in the workplace (and beyond.) With over a decade of experience coaching, training and advising leaders, she writes to helps leaders become more effective. Amber highlights common pitfalls, effective (and human) leadership practices as well as "must-knows" for leaders.