I went from being stressed out by poor communicators to someone who is adept at getting the information needed to get my work done. You can too.
I’ll tell you how it works so that you don’t have to learn it the hard way like I did. It’s turned out to be one of the most effective leadership skills. Adding this to capability to your leadership toolkit will help you be more successful in a bunch of important ways.
Maybe your organization suffers from some of the most common factors that create communication problems:
- Time pressure
- Unclear responsibilities
- A lack of strong leadership
- Low morale
Issues like these can pile up and feed on one another. They make your work more difficult and less fun. That’s stressful.
But there is hope!
While you might not be able to solve all of your organization’s communication problems, you can definitely adopt some strategies that make a big difference.
You can take some steps to quickly diagnose and address specific issues. It becomes easy once you understand that there are different types of communication gaps to fill.
Communication gaps fall into two categories: organizational and individual. As you learn to see these more clearly, you will be able to fill them more quickly.
To do this, you will need to adopt a slightly new perspective. You will need to step back a bit, observe the bigger picture a little more carefully, and strive to see and understand the specific communication channels in your environment.
By adopting this broader view and the flow of information through it, you will gain new insights. These insights, coupled with what I am about to show you, will help you to become more strategic and influential.
Let’s look at the two categories now.
We’ll start with organizational communication gaps.
Organizational communication gaps
Poor communications at work fall into six areas:
- Distribution. The content is known and clear, but it doesn’t get passed along.
- Editing. Word gets passed along, but it’s muddled. It is unclear what is important and what is not, so things get skewed, distorted, and confused.
- Misinterpretation. A close cousin of Editing, this is when the message isn’t heard, processed, and understood correctly. It’s the gap between what I think I said and what you think you heard.
- Assumptions. This can be anything from the “curse of knowledge” where I assume that you know everything I know already, and so I leave important stuff out to assuming certain things are true when they are not. All roads lead to problems, because this is the opposite of clarity.
- Bad Data. Data points are based on anecdotal insights, “guesstimates,” or incorrect data.
- The Wrong Tools. Using the wrong communication tool amplifies a lot of problems. Conveying lots of information orally when writing would be better, for instance. Or putting something in an email when a conversation is really what’s needed.
We can put these problematic areas into two groups: Content (editing, misinterpretation, assumptions, bad data) or Transmission (distribution, wrong tools).
With problem areas organized this way, you can focus on working from the inside out.
First, you can examine the content. Where is there wrong or missing information? How might it be misinterpreted? What assumptions need to be verified or challenged?
As you build a more complete and accurate picture, you can start to gain insight into where and how it can be edited. What are the “packages” of information that make up the message? How can they best be encapsulated without watering things down? How do they fit together into a cohesive whole?
You are trying to build a complete picture. This will require piecing things together, tracking things down, and validating lots of things along the way.
By working on the Content, you will identify Transmission problems that caused some of the poor communication. While it’s frustrating to find that critical pieces of information can be hiding in nooks and crannies of the organization for dumb reasons, it’s actually good news because it will help you to circle back later on. You’re learning the paths and channels that work and don’t work in your organization.
Now let’s look at the communication styles of the individual people involved and the additional gaps they can create.
Individual communication gaps
Understanding how different people prefer to absorb information will unlock a lot of insight. Not only can it help you better understand how to communicate to them, but it can help you to better understand what is coming from them.
Mark Murphy would tell you that there are four prominent communications styles:
- Analytical. Like hard data, facts, and numbers. Use precise language.
- Intuitive. Focus on the big picture and the endpoint. Largely ignore process and details.
- Functional. Focus on process, detail, and timelines. Dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s.
- Personal. Value emotional language and personal connections. Focus on what people are thinking and how they are feeling.
These categories are a useful guide. As you consider them, you will start to see where communication gaps among individuals can easily occur.
You also end up with a useful structure to create the most complete communications package. Addressing each of these styles in the content of a message ensures that each type of communicator can get what they need from it. It also helps you to ensure that the whole thing hangs together coherently.
As we did with organizational gaps above, we can put these styles into two groups: Vision (intuitive/vision, personal/emotional) and Detail (analytical/details, functional/process).
These can similarly be viewed with Detail enveloped by Vision.
To deal with gaps in these areas, you can first examine the big picture. Do you fully understand the vision? Who sees it and how are they articulating it? What, exactly, are the desired results? What are people thinking and feeling about this vision? What alternatives are worth considering? Why is this vision most compelling?
As you come to understand the Vision and identify all the people involved, you can also examine the Detail. Who is going to be responsible for implementation? What is the process and how does that impact the organization? What are the details that can accurately measure what is happening now and what the results will be in the future? What changes at the “ground level?”
To answer these Vision and Detail questions, you will need to get input from people who have different communication styles and different positions in the organization.
You will be connecting more dots, as you were above, but this time more specifically through the eyes of people. This is a more personal approach to piecing things together that will help you to more fully understand things, and to fill in gaps.
The value of being a gap closer
The systematic approach we’ve been talking about will help you to resolve most of the problems caused by poor communications.
You might be thinking that this makes sense. But you might also be wondering if it is worth all the time and energy.
After all, shouldn’t your organization improve itself so that you and everyone else can work more efficiently?
Don’t your colleagues have a responsibility to do a better job of communicating? And what about the vendors, customers, and partners? They’re part of this mix too.
You might be right about those things. But there is probably not a lot you can do about those, even if you are in a position of some authority.
It might be better to simply focus on dealing with the situation in the most effective manner, which is what we’ve been talking about in this post.
And, I would argue, the value you create by taking this on is well worth your while.
Think about how much more effective you will be by resolving issues of poor communication.
You will be unlocking lots of potential. Finding key pieces of information that help things to move forward. Performing translations between different types of communicators that help establish a shared understanding of things.
You will be seeing the big picture clearly. You will understand the details. You will connect people.
You will get things done.
All of that reflects brilliantly on you. So rather than being frustrated by working on problems that shouldn’t exist, you can embrace the role of resolving very real problems that make a big difference for everyone.
The biggest problem with poor communication is that nobody takes on the responsibility of becoming the gap closer. That’s where you come in.
You can fix this issue for yourself and everyone else. It takes some effort, but that effort creates a tremendous amount of value.
You can lessen or eliminate stress from time pressure, unclear responsibilities, a lack of strong leadership, negativity, low morale, uncertainty, and more. Because you now have an understanding of the most common problems and the most prominent individual communication styles.
You know that communications problems can happen with the content of the message itself. The message may not be well-formed, can contain poor assumptions, can be misinterpreted, and can contain bad data.
You know that even if the message is clear, it might not be transmitted well. It may not be distributed at all or not far enough. It may also be sent over the wrong medium.
You know that the message also has to pass through people, who can have very different communication styles. Some are focused on the big and emotional aspects of the message, losing sight of important details. Others focus on process and action steps, sometimes missing out on the vision.
As you approaching the challenge of resolving communication issues by systematically addressing these things will give you the quickest path toward a complete answer.
You know that this can take some effort, but you also know that it’s worthwhile. You will gain tremendous information and insight. You will become more effective and you will help everyone around you.
You will be creating lots of value. And you will likely feel a whole lot better in the process. Rather than feeling frustrated and stuck, you will be taking action and solving real problems.