We all know solid communication is one of the most important aspects of flourishing relationships and business encounters. Yet, how many communication problems still exist in our personal and professional worlds? For most of us, the answer, sadly, is, “Too many.”
It’s up to each of us individually to take responsibility for our parts in the communication conundrum and ask ourselves whether enough information is being exchanged during our daily, hourly and even minute-by-minute interactions. More often than not, we are silently assuming too much and communicating too little. So, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen?
Best Of Intentions, Worst Of Results
Imagine the financial controller of a company asks an employee, Meg, to make a deposit at the bank. Meg is given a deposit slip and an endorsed check, but when she arrives at the bank, she sees the check has a deposit slip for what looks like the controller’s personal account, even though the check is made out to the business.
Doing what’s been asked, Meg makes the deposit and gives the controller the deposit slip later that day. She doesn’t mention her concern but wonders if the controller might be stealing from the company. She watches him suspiciously. She may even gossip about it, report it, hide it or decide to engage in similar behavior.
There could be two things going on here: (1) The controller didn’t make a mistake but did fail to give vital information about the deposit account (i.e., despite the erroneous information on the deposit slip, the account does belong to the company). So the controller has no reason to believe that Meg is suspicious or planning to follow his suit. Or (2) The controller made an honest mistake, and a personal deposit slip was mistakenly used instead of the business deposit. The controller is unaware until he sees an unusual deposit in his account or a lack of deposit to the business. Now, the controller has good reason to question Meg’s ethics in not bringing this to his attention.
The shortcuts we take can lead to longer discussions down the road or far more destructive patterns of behavior. The only way to fully communicate is for a listener to ask questions and confirm the importance of information being shared. Likewise, the speaker must share information that would illuminate necessary details to the listener.
Could This Happen Outside Of Work?
This misinterpretation and lack of adequate communication isn’t just limited to the workplace.
Imagine a woman asks her husband to drop by the store and pick up a few groceries on his way home from work. She tries to make it easy and sends a list, asking to make sure he gets red apples. She doesn’t think to mention they must be red for a recipe she’s making.
The husband listens, buys the red apples and other groceries, and returns home. He knows she strongly prefers Granny Smiths, but does what she asked anyway. A couple of months down the line, he’s at the store again and sees apples on the list. Based on the last time he picked up apples, he opts for red again.
He returns home with the grocery haul, and his wife is upset he would get red apples since she doesn’t even like them. She wonders how he wouldn’t know her preference after 12 years of marriage. She complains, and he decides she’s crazy for always changing her mind. He fails to ask why she wanted the red apples last time, and she concludes he doesn’t pay attention.
These simple, seemingly small gaps in communication can lead to devastating assumptions and long-lasting distrust in relationships.
Four Tips For Improving Communication
To communicate fully and productively, keep the following four behaviors in mind, and adjust future interactions accordingly:
1. Don’t resolve to just ‘give in and shut up.’ When we have a lot on our plate and someone is giving us more to think about or do, we often shut down and do what they say without asking questions or getting more information. However, doing this results in the acquiescing party forming judgments or making assumptions about the requesting party. This can damage the relationship and productivity. Instead, ask clarifying questions from a place of genuine curiosity to give more background to the requests at hand.
2. Don’t aggressively push back. In this scenario, the listener jumps to a conclusion and then pushes back by refusing to complete requests, being passive aggressive, or acting immaturely or irresponsibly. Not only will this create severe tension, but it may also result in discipline.
Instead, if feeling triggered, take a breath, and realize the assumptions you’re making may not be true. Again, ask clarifying questions in a calm and respectful manner to get more insight into the request.
3. Don’t mindlessly comply. By just getting the job done and moving on, you lose the opportunity to understand the full intent behind the ask. Over time, this can lead to employee resentment and lower morale.
Instead, ask questions. (Are you sensing a theme here? Good!) Open up a conversation about the reasons and importance behind what is being asked of you.
4. Don’t resort to silent irritation or anger. Maybe you feel like you have no other choice but to get the requested task done, so you roll your eyes and roll up your sleeves. It doesn’t have to be this way! This dissatisfaction leaks into all areas of your work.
Instead, learn to ask why. Why is this needed? Why should it be done this way?
Whether you need to go deeper and communicate more fully, or you need to own what you don’t fully understand and ask relevant questions, both elements of communication are essential to developing an awareness of another person’s behavior and mindset. And in turn, they are the only pathway for clarity to be achieved.