In my previous article, "Is Your Management Style A Reign of Terror?" I was horrified by the way a business owner spoke to one of his employees, and examined a better way to manage employee errors. Poor communication has been a major issue in too many businesses and business relationships I've encountered lately, so I figured it was time to lay down some of the basics that seem to be forgotten the minute a situation gets heated.

Here are 5 basic communication lessons that can drastically impact your relationships.

1. Don't Use That Tone With Me, Sir.

It's not what you say, it's how you say it. We all know this. Whether you agree with the old saying that communication is 55% body language, 38% tone, and 7% words, OR you think it's better explained in terms of context, clusters of behaviors, and congruence between the three (as does nonverbal communication researcher and PhD candidate Jeff Thompson), you can't argue the point that the tone you use to communicate says a lot more than the words themselves. Don't believe me? Watch a video of people speaking in a language you don't understand; you'll get the gist pretty quickly. Your tone of voice conveys all the energy and subtext of what you're really feeling. No one is fooled by a smile that doesn't reach your eyes, or a compliment that drips with sarcasm.

2. If You'd Just Let Me Finish...

Sometimes people need to give background information before making a point. Sometimes you think you know what someone else is saying (you may be right and you may be wrong). Sometimes you're just busy and don't have time for a long, drawn out story. No matter what the scenario, if interrupting is a normal part of your conversational style: stop it.

If you're busy and someone is prattling on about something trivial, ask yourself this: "Which is more important: my task or my relationship with this person?" If it is, in fact, the task, gently interrupt and explain that you have something else you need to remain focused on. If it's the relationship, listen to the person enough that they feel valued, heard, and acknowledged before you go back to what you were doing. Sometimes, just by giving a few moments of your undivided attention, the person will feel secure and appreciated enough in your relationship that you can go right back to work. (Men, just think about your wives--isn't it quicker to listen to them for a few minutes than to have yet another fight about how you never listen?)

3. Listening Is An Active Endeavor.

Active listening is critical for creating an understanding between people. This means consciously focusing on understand what the other person is saying verbally, nonverbally, and between the lines. Here are four MAJOR don'ts when you're listening to someone else.

  • Don't spend your time rehearsing what you're going to say back to the other person--that is not listening.
  • Don't "zone out" or multitask--if you're not interested in the conversation or the person speaking, don't have it. It's better to respect them and their time by being honest than by only listening halfway.
  • Don't make it all about you--try to put yourself in their position and understand where they're coming from. They may just want to feel heard or understood.
  • Don't assume everyone communicates the same way--many business owners are Type-A achievers with no time to waste--the kind of people who want others to get to the point so they can get back to what's they're doing. Other people may need more conversational finesse or time to get their point across. It's not wrong; it's just different.

4. Do You Want to be Right or Do You Want to be Heard?

As the CEO, the visionary leader, the head of the company, you're probably right. A lot. That's why you're the boss. But if you're obsessed with being right all the time, you're probably missing the boat when it comes to having satisfying relationships both at work and at home. We all like to be right though, so how do you know when your need to be right is pathological? Here are a few behavioral cues:

  • You have an overwhelming desire to point out others' mistakes--even when it's impolite, hurtful, or doesn't make any material difference to the matter at hand;
  • You can't "agree to disagree"; (you're arguing this with me in your head now, aren't you?)
  • Fine! You can "agree to disagree" but when you do, it's with the smug assurance that the other person is stupid/ wrong and that you are the better/smarter person;
  • You carry on arguments in your head long after the conversation has ended, thereby proving to yourself how right you are; and
  • You always have to have the last word.

5. Stop Playing the Blame Game.

Conversations that involve discipline, troubleshooting problems, and dealing with hurt feelings can be the most difficult for people who are not naturally empathetic. First, you must take responsibility for your feelings and your own contribution to the situation at hand. If it's a relationship-based issue and you're in the relationship, you have definitely played a part (as they say, it takes two to tango).

Yes, maybe they wronged you, but maybe you've also established a pattern of not speaking openly and honestly. If you've allowed someone to get away with bad behavior in the past, you've set that precedent and you need to acknowledge that. You should never take responsibility for someone else's bad behavior (that's enabling and creates problems of its own), but you need to critically examine yourself to see how you let this person believe what they were doing was okay. If you've never told your assistant how much it annoys you when he gives you documents with blatant grammatical errors, it's not fair to blow up at him about that just because you're having a bad day.

When something bad has happened or a mistake has been made, talk it out, let everyone who need to speak be heard, devise a plan to fix it (with measurable outcomes), set consequences for a lack of progress, and then... move on. Sometimes you need to correct the errors of the past, and other times you need to let them go in order to move forward. If you fixate on past mistakes, bring them up after they've been resolved, you're perpetuating a negative cycle.

* * *

If you want to have good communication with your employees (and any other people in your life), you have to first take responsibility for the way you communicate. If you are the person in a higher position (i.e. boss, manager, parent), then you have an increased responsibility to set a good example. Nowadays, no one respects a leader who tells people to "do as I say, not as I do."

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Published on: Jan 9, 2015
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