Category Archives: management

How to Break the Communication Barrier

Is there someone with whom you have built up a barrier to communication?

Perhaps you reached an impasse years ago and still work with this person. Perhaps you know what you want to say and do not feel you can say it, or maybe you are not clear at all. For whatever reason, there’s a wall between you.

It’s hard to talk with him or her, and it’s different from the many work relationships where you and others get along fine.

If you would prefer that the wall weren’t there, here are some steps to take.

First, what are your assumptions? We commonly assume that the correct solutions are obvious, the other person’s position is unchangeable, that they are not rational, and that we have no responsibility for the breakdown.

Recognizing and questioning those assumptions can open the door for dialogue.

The next important step is to be careful NOT to jump in and give a good explanation of where you are coming from. Invite a conversation and then listen.

Listening through what the other person has to say may be difficult. Listen without interrupting, and with empathy.

If you find you are not able to listen through, take time to reflect. Maybe take out a piece of paper and write out your thoughts. Speak with a friend or communication coach to sort out what’s in the way and to build the skill of listening well.

If you can do this, there are few barriers to communication that will stand.

Send It Again, Sam!

Research supports repetition
If you really want to get something done, walk down the hall or pick up the phone, send an email and follow up with a text. That’s what a project manager in a recent study did to make sure that her message got through.

Turns out that the more we ask, and the more channels we use, the more likely we are to get action. Clarity of requests is not as essential as repetition (even though we at Syntax still strongly favor clear requests!).

Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge newsletter reported on the surprising results of a study by professors at Harvard and Northwestern. They shadowed 13 project managers across three industries for a total of 256 hours, examining media, timing, and power.

One interesting aspect of the study was that messages to nudge people into action communicated a threat of what would happen if they didn’t act quickly. These were project managers under pressure. They apparently transmitted the urgency they were feeling. Some spelled out the threat, others made it evident more indirectly.

Authority Is No Guarantee

How often and how creatively the requesters communicated varied first of all with their position power.

The managers with direct authority tended to ask once, or maybe twice, maybe just in an email message.

Their messages told recipients of the negative consequences they wanted to avert. It didn’t work very well. These managers more often had to do damage control because the action they counted on was not in fact done.
Other managers who had to influence without direct authority took more initiative and used more channels to communicate. They were the ones who made personal requests and then used other media.

A nuance in the communication was that these managers often conveyed the threat indirectly, leaving it up to the recipient to recognize the urgency. The number of messages and the use of various media increased the odds of the message getting a response.
Go Ahead, Ask Again

Bottom line is a reminder of the adage we heard many years ago: instructions have to be given at least three times. We follow that to advantage when teaching SYNTAX courses.

As they said in Working Knowledge, perhaps it isn’t nagging. Or maybe it is, and it’s just what you have to do in this overly stimulating world of workplace communication!

Either way: be prepared to send crucial information and requests more than once, in more than one medium, if you want people to respond.

Desperately Seeking The Healthy Organization

In writing an article on Co-Creating the OK Organization, I have asked people working in a whole range of organizations – from high tech to social work, from manufacturing to software, finance to education – it’s hard to find stories of people who love their organizations. Yes, they may love their work, or the people with whom they work. Some are proud to work for their companies even if they find it frustrating.

The good supervisor or manager goes a long way to deflect negativity. On the other hand, needing to stay in a job for health insurance or fear of unemployment doesn’t help at all. People suffering at work is an old story, despite the efforts of management(when they do care, which is not always apparent) and sophisticated consultants since the middle of the last century.

Whoever has a story about a healthy organization, or one of which they are proud, please tell me all about it. It would be great to learn what that’s like and how it’s done. For me and everyone who goes to work each day. Let’s make organizations reflect the best of what’s possible. And more to come on this topic as I work through the research process.