Communication: One Step at a Time

workplace communicationWhen I talk about the topic of communication, most people roll their eyes and quit listening. They have heard it all before, believe they communicate well or perhaps simply don’t care. And isn’t this the problem with communication…people aren’t listening?

We are so focused on what we think and believe that it doesn’t cross our mind that there is something we can learn simply by listening. Maybe if we opened our minds and push aside our beliefs we might hear something the other person is saying that is important and could change how we think or feel. Is it possible that even if we think we heard it all before that we may hear something that we hadn’t heard, or hear in a new way that makes an impact on us?

We have such busy lives, who has time?

The truth is we all lead very busy lives. We are rushing to the next meeting or phone call, have emails out the wazoo to respond to and more things to do than time allows. And this doesn’t account for all the family stuff that needs to be dealt with on a daily basis. Who has time to stop and pay attention? The employee who stops you in the hall to ask a question is focused on his needs, not yours, and you are focused on your needs (the meeting, call, emails, project to complete…) not his. So guess what happens? Neither of you is listening to the other. He has an agenda and his agenda likely doesn’t mesh with yours right then. You know you should listen to him but truthfully you only half listen because the timing isn’t right for you.

Here’s what happens:

  1. You aren’t giving him your full attention so you miss nuances, unspoken questions or concerns or worse what he is attempting to tell you.
  2. Because the timing isn’t right for you, you ask him for the Reader’s Digest version so you can feel like you showed him you cared but don’t have the time for the whole scenario.
  3. He feels like he doesn’t have your full attention, which he doesn’t, and might feel like you don’t care or worse feel dismissed.
  4. You walk away thinking you gave him what he needed and did a great job of communicating.
  5. He walks away not knowing for sure what he should do or if you understood the situation, and maybe like he isn’t important or what he is doing isn’t important enough to give him your time.

It’s not a good ending all around.

What’s one step you could take?

There are so many steps you could take to change the course of this interaction. Here are a few examples:

  1. Ask if this is a topic that requires more than few minutes or a quick response, sharing that you want to make sure they get what they need and perhaps it would be better to schedule a short meeting, because you are… on your way to a meeting, have something you have to finish, etc. This leaves them feeling not only like you care about what they  need but that you don’t want to short cut them because of your own agenda.
  2. Tell them you are on your way to a meeting, or whatever activity you need to handle, and ask if they could send you an email with the question/issue to allow you time to think about it and then provide a specific time you will get back to them. Oh, by the way, while email is great, one can never overlook the value of the personal touch of a call or a meeting.
  3. Explain your time constraints and ask if someone else might be able to help so they get their needs met quickly.
  4. Find out what they need. For example, do they need an answer, you to run interference, a decision, have a problem only you can resolve, simply need your approval…you get the picture. Once you know what they need it’s easier to determine if you have the time right now or need to suggest another option.

These aren’t the only steps, just a few possibilities. However, in each the common thread is you want to help them, share with them your situation (timing for instance) and work with them to find a way to resolve this right now or later, and the choice becomes theirs. People like choices and when it’s their choice, the satisfaction level goes up. Even if you push off the conversation to a later date, it becomes their decision and they feel good about the interaction.

Improving communication, which by the way is as much about how people feel about the interaction as the actual result, is about taking one step at a time. Next time you are caught off guard by someone who wants to have a conversation with you, at an inconvenient time, consider how to turn this interaction from one where they feel unheard or uncared for into one where both people’s needs get met…yours and theirs.

It starts with you putting a pause into your thinking, instead of simply reacting. I promise that while you might think that taking an extra couple of minutes to make sure you know what they need and how to best be of service to them is time you don’t have, it will pay dividends many times over. Taking shortcuts in communication often leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and poor outcomes.

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