There’s a lot that goes into building a team: hiring the right people for key jobs, surrounding those people with yet more hires, and creating an organization to maximize efficiency. Everything is in its right place, and yet that organization isn’t operating as it should. There is any number of possible culprits for these breakdowns, but one of the most frequent, both directly and indirectly, is an issue with communication among the team.
We probably think that we’re better communicators than we are. Our ideas are clear in our head, and in our own perception, we’re communicating those ideas in a way that’s clear and concise to those listening (or reading, in the case of email.) But the truth is that we all miss the mark from time to time in getting across exactly what we want to say in terms of passing along information or offering guidance or direction. We make too many assumptions about what’s implied or understood, or simply leave out key details, not out of malice but our own absent-mindedness. All of this leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding, both of which diminish the ability to work to full capacity.
Some might look at the problem and decide that the solution is to offer the maximum amount of information to people at all times; we’ve all probably received more than a few emails that are walls of text and groaned. And while it’s true that that approach will ensure that there’s no information left out, it also threatens to bury the salient points in a deluge of unnecessary details. In matters of communication, clarity matters more than volume.
Clarity is a particularly important point during a time when communication is key, as we’re relying upon Zoom calls and emails to make our points that might have otherwise been worked through in person. We’re depending upon our ability to communicate our message in a clear and concise way to prevent misunderstandings that can inevitably occur with less frequent interactions.
How can we be better communicators with those that we work with, those that are relying on us for a clear and faithful relay of information in order to do the jobs required of them? Here are a few tips.
Take time to say what you need to say. The idea of the quick email, or perhaps the email in general, has done some harm to the idea of clear communication. It’s so easy to send messages that we end up sending emails with a bit of information, followed up with emails including details we forgot until the full message is spread across an entire email chain, perhaps even duplicates for forgotten attachments. Part of that is just the nature of work now — things change fast, and email definitely helps to keep everyone abreast of those changes. But we can be a bit lazy at times in what we’re writing, to the point that our thoughts aren’t made initially clear. For important emails, take a few minutes after writing to read what you wrote (outloud is my trick) and make sure it makes sense to a reader that isn’t you; if it doesn’t, well, change it.
Check to make sure you are understood. In the Navy, there’s an old tradition still somewhat adhered to of repeating back relayed information or orders; “meeting at 1800” becomes “meeting at 1800 aye.” In addition to sounding like a deckhand on a ship with sails instead of engines, it serves a practical purpose of ensuring a mutual understanding between communicating parties.
Your business probably isn’t a seafaring concern, but there is something to be taken from that naval tradition. You should be sure that what you’re telling your people is understood fully. And while you don’t want to be so demeaning as to demand they repeat it back to you, it’s probably ok to ask if there was anything they didn’t understand or would like clarified; hopefully, you’ve cultivated a culture in which people feel it’s ok to raise their hand and admit to being a bit lost or needing help.
Make sure the right people are in the loop. As much as choosing the right words, effective communication is also about talking to the right people. In the case of meetings, it’s not always easy; key people could be tied up in other meetings or out of the office for any number of reasons. Plus, in the case of second-hand information, you’re relying upon the people you talk to passing on the information as accurately as possible, which, if the game of “telephone” taught us anything as kids, shouldn’t be taken for granted. There is of course email, but sometimes meaning and context can be lost in trying to translate the full substance of a meeting into a handful of paragraphs. So try to include as many people as are needed in your meetings, to ensure that everyone is operating on the same page.
Communication isn’t something you can master entirely; we’re all guilty of not making ourselves clear more often than we’d care to admit. Translating our thoughts into words is tricky at times, but we should always strive for understanding amongst those on our team; otherwise, how could we possibly fault them for not meeting expectations they never understood? #onwards.