Effective Communication - a Skill Worth Mastering
By Kathleen Lausman
This is a challenging time in our life. Or have you heard? There is constant noise out there. Social media, trolls, mainstream media reports, Prime Minister daily COVID 19 virus updates … memos from the boss …
Did you get the memo?
Did you read it?
Did you understand it?
Did you give a ‘sh*t?
Communicating is how we interact on many levels, in every situation, at every age, every day. But is our communication effective? Do we achieve the desired outcome? How do we measure success?
Communication is the act of transferring information from one place, person or group to another. It involves a Sender, an Audience, Mediums and the Message.
Many books have been written over many decades on how to communicate yet the need for learning persists.
The goal of communication – the ‘WHY’ - is to Influence opinions, actions, decisions or awareness. That’s how work gets done – how customers are better served – how better decisions are made. So, make your intention clear.
The ‘WHO’ - starts with understanding your audience. Know your audience, be specific and don’t message the world – even the Prime Minister targets just Canadians. Why should your intended audience care about your message? Put yourself in their shoes; practice empathy. What needs to resonate with your audience? What information do they require? What information do you require?
Then decide ‘WHAT’ Medium of Communication will reach and connect with your audience. You may decide to use data with context, graphics, sound/music, video, the spoken word etc. Perhaps many mediums. The delivery tool or tools is important.
Now, ‘HOW’ best to structure the message to meet your goal. Get to the point. People are busy and distracted. The ‘noise’ of today’s world is loud. Be brief and credible.
“In the absence of data, we make up stories.”[i] Be focused to ensure the message reinforces your communication goals. What’s your intention?
Let’s also review effective communication from the ‘audience’ perspective. We – each of us – are delivering messages and receiving messages. We are both the messenger & the audience. That’s communication. Are we ‘showing-up’, paying attention, listening, asking questions and providing feedback?
Or, are we distracted – not prepping for the meeting; texting someone else; checking the market; checking Face Book; having a separate conversation; not watching the news; watching too much news; playing video games?
Our world, the building industry, is large and complex. It’s comprised of many different organizations: planning, financing, designing, constructing and operating facilities for customer activities. Customers too have their own organizations and priorities. This industry work is a team sport. Its creative. It’s based on problem solving – together. There is no one hero, solving interrelated problems one at a time. Layer on a world pandemic and the need for a collaborative team practicing effective communication is essential.
So, what might effective communication look like within this complex industry? Organizations are systems with individual parts, groups and people. Communication is the metaphorical thread that links the parts together for better function. Effective communication is a measure of the strength of that thread to maintain connections and harmonize the function of the parts, groups and people for effectiveness. Communication breakdown is when this thread snaps or unravels!
The Communication Strategy
1. Show up! Get engaged.
2. Practice empathy by checking in on your team and customers; by listening to their issues, posing helpful questions, listening to questions in turn and creating answers together.
3. Draft an agenda for each meeting and stick to it. ‘Avoid death by meeting.’
4. Come prepared. Assemble the required data and give it context. This is after all a data rich industry.
5. Use Communication Technology - this is key - given today’s need for responsible, physical distancing. Organize one on-line database for drawings, details, schedules and decisions, that is structured to collect and collate information. This is the basis for your virtual ‘Big Room’ where your team meetings happen and decisions are made, the information is shared, reviewed and updated.
6. Make informed commitments and keep them.
7. Review risk, assign it according to who is in the best position to address the risk and manage it collectively. Most risks are shared.
8. Review constraints at least weekly together.
Listen and repeat the message. If the goal is to influence a specific action, has that goal been achieved? If not, then you need to understand why. Remember – its noisy out there with competition for attention. Track progress to determine if you achieved your communication goal. Request feedback and respond to it.
1. Jointly set team behaviour boundaries (Conditions of Satisfaction) and have everyone sign-off on agreement and commitment – your FM Team; your Project Team; your office Team.
2. Become an Active Listener. These five-active listening[ii] techniques can help everyone become more effective listeners:
· Pay Attention - participate
· Show That You're Listening – ask questions for more detail
· Provide Feedback
· Defer Judgment
· Respond Appropriately – with questions
Active listening is intended to encourage respect and understanding – a key component in effective communication. You are gaining information and perspective – learning. Use questions to explore the possibilities.
Following are examples of good types of questions[iii] to have in your ‘toolkit’ to improve the effectiveness of your listening communication skills. We all suck at listening.
a) Open-ended questions - The intent of these questions is to seek more detail, rather than prompt a “yes” or “no”.
[e.g.: How does this particular material perform in a high humidity environment?]
b) Participation questions - This form of question invites audience participation and an exchange of views.
[e.g.: A number of structural materials could meet code requirements. Which do you think would be best performing overall given occupant activity, maintainability and life-cycle cost?]
c) Leading questions - With this type of question, you try to guide the person to a win/win point of view in a persuasive manner.
[e.g: With all the schedule change advantages we discussed, do you think we could share the same space and have a positive impact on our budgets?]
d) Low-key questions - This is a gentle way to ask a question and not trigger an emotional or hostile response.
[e.g.: What would the capital budget impact be if we chose the options with lower life-cycle cost?]
e) Sequential questions - Sometimes, it can be a wise strategy to ask a series of questions to better understand a particular conclusion.
[e.g.: If your production could focus on smaller batches is it possible you could deliver ‘x’ product by ‘y’ date followed by product volume ‘a’ by ‘g’ date and perhaps adjust production as the job advances?]
f) Flattery questions - This is an effective means to both be complimentary towards the other team members and to elicit information, both at the same time. Most people respond well to a friendly compliment.
[e.g.: Could you use your brilliant reputation for client satisfaction to add some perspective to approaching important decisions with the user group on best use of space?]
g) Probing deeper questions - When you need to gain a better insight into a person’s thought process to further illuminate their rationale or position.
[e.g.: Could you give us some context for your approach by summarizing your data points?]
h) Team health questions – would be useful as a way to ensure everyone is focused on learning and respect. Practice empathy for people.
[e.g: Are we allowing adequate ‘thinking’ time for your input given working from home with a house full of energetic kids might be a distraction?]
You think you are effectively communicating, yet you experience a ‘breakdown’. The communication thread breaks & work starts to unravel. Factions of the team go into blame/fight mode and the discourse becomes adversarial. Negative emotions surface. What now?
Adversarial behaviours and questions can result in team discord. Certain kinds of questions can result in being too pushy or biased. This style of questioning may place people in a very defensive position. It may be very aggressive and not necessarily productive. These behaviours or questions are likely to result in triggering a negative emotional response, particularly when presented with arrogance rather than genuine inquiry.
Remember Team Health questions and loop back to understanding your audience/team with some empathy. Respect for people should be captured and practiced as one of the established Conditions of Satisfaction (CoS). Listen, think, then ask—not the other way around. Inappropriate questions, or timing can derail effective communication goals.
Whether you’re a Facility Manager, a Designer, Project Manager, Contractor or in any other role within the building industry, you are either presenting information or asking questions to get the information you need. This may be required to improve or schedule your work and ultimately contribute to the improvement and performance of the built environment. Customer satisfaction is a likely value you strive for.
Most of the time, we’re using questions to confirm problems and agree on the appropriate solutions. To practise asking good questions in your work, it is important to think about how to use your communication skills to get the best results. The manner in which you listen and ask your questions can have a powerful bearing on the results of your interactions. So, it’s important to ‘go slow to go fast’ and ‘listen, then think before you speak – or write.’
COVID-19 has us trying to function in unknown territory where the status of things is constantly changing. This is an even more compelling reason to practice effective communication.
Effective communication is complex. It begins with listening and takes a lot of practice and reflection. Reflection is our on-going measure for success and learning. Plus/Delta ‘What worked well/What could we do better next time?’
And, that’s also how you win hockey games! (Sorry, that was a distraction!)
About the Author
Kathleen Lausman, MBA, BES is a Principal at Shift2Lean and building industry professional with a background in architecture and business. Her experience is that of the Public Owner and buyer of design & construction expertise. She is a former Deputy Minister for the Nunavut Government and former Co-Chair and forming member of LCI-C. She started her Lean journey sixteen years ago and is still learning. www.shift2lean.ca
This article was written with input from the intended audience through the act of listening and reflection.
[i] Dr. Brene Brown PhD, LMSW a professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host. [ii] Mind Tools; Essential skills for an excellent career - Newsletter [iii] Leigh Thompson, ‘The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator-2nd Edition’, Prentice Hall Business Publishing, (2001), J. Lewicki, A. Litterer, W.Minton, M. Sauders, ‘Negotiation’, 2nd Edition, Irwin,(1994), Harvard Business Essentials ‘Negotiation’ Harvard Business School Press, (2003)