Are You Really Communicating? Don’t Try To ‘Wing It’

More than half a century ago, author and columnist Sydney Harris offered some wise counsel that seems especially relevant today: “The words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Apparently, a lot of people in politics, academe, business and even (especially?) in the so-called communication world didn’t get the message.

A good primer on the basics can be found in Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence. Written by Ethan F. Becker and Jon Wortmann, the book clearly shows that good communication is not a skill that can be simply “improvised.” People who try to “wing it” with a speech or presentation frequently suffer crash landings. But communication skill is definitely something that can be acquired and refined through learning and practice.

Ethan Becker—who works with clients like Apple, IBM, Bain Capital, YouTube, and the New York Giants—offers communication tips that help anyone at any level in the business world.

Rodger Dean Duncan: “Match your listener’s tendency” is the first technique you teach. What does that mean?


Ethan Becker: It means that all listeners have the tendency to communicate in one of two ways—inductively or deductively. If you can match your listener’s tendency you will be more successful. Inductive people like the information given to them with the background details before the conclusion of the thought. Deductive people like the conclusion first followed by the background details. Exactly opposite of each other.

Duncan: Many audiences—in a business meeting, for example—are of course composed of both inductive and deductive thinkers. How can a message be calibrated to appeal to both?

Ethan Becker
Ethan Becker .
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Becker: When speaking to a group of people, you must decide the purpose of what you are saying and who you are speaking to. Topics that are more familiar to the group can be delivered deductively. Less familiar topics should take an inductive approach. If you are not sure or you get a question from someone, listen for whether the question is asked inductively or deductively and respond in kind. Senior executives tend to prefer deductive organization for sure. It’s best to be prepared to present ideas either way. Listening will be a key skill to help you decide.

Duncan: How does communication affect a person’s credibility, and how does credibility affect a person’s communication?

Becker: Both of these affect the other. Sadly, credibility can be hijacked or faked. Having a title or position may imply credibility, but we all know that’s not always true. On the other hand, people who are able to communicate their ideas in a clear, concise, and consistent manner almost always get credibility.

Credibility is relative. So, what establishes credibility to one may have no impact for another. Is the source of your credibility while presenting to senior management where you went to college or whether you reviewed last quarter’s data over the weekend? Some investors might feel you are credible because you cite data from your clinical trial. As a leader or manager, you may be given credibility from your title, but the first time you communicate feedback in a radically ineffective way, you lose credibility.

Duncan: “Employee engagement” is something every business should strive to nurture and improve. What specific communication practices contribute to that?

Becker: The simple and most direct answer is authenticity and empathy, neither of which is necessarily easy to have or implement. Leaders must begin with the desire and ability to communicate these two qualities. Employees will see and feel it. Of course, there is the aspect of knowing the work and being able to lead. Yet, these two qualities are what every manager or leader should strive to exhibit. As those things are learned and perfected, the employee engagement will follow.

Duncan: Some so-called leaders seem to have a special knack for sabotaging their own effectiveness. What are the most common communication mistakes that undermine leader effectiveness?

Becker: First, may be how they define “effectiveness.” If it’s founded in personal accomplishments or recognition, that is a mistake. Leaders must have followers. No one likes to follow a person who seems to be self-centered or who does not recognize the value and contribution of each team member. Second, may be not delegating, which is often connected to not trusting others. Third, may be the inability to communicate as both a group leader and/or as a one-on-one mentor, coach or leader. My mantra is “Attitudes Become Communication.” The way we think becomes the way we communicate. All of these sensitivities and skills can be learned.

Duncan: You describe framing as the intentional choosing of words to set the expectations of listeners. Give us an example of how framing might work for a business meeting and how it might work in a one-on-one conversation.

Becker: Words shape perception, so choose them wisely. Be careful, because words may have different meanings in different cultures. A frame you use in the United States might not resonate the same way with someone in Malaysia.

Let’s consider a business meeting where it’s announced that the company needs to cut a team from ten down to four.

Option A: Unfortunately, given the new orders from management, it’s time to decide who gets cut from the team.

This frame will inspire the group to look for poor performers and complainers. The first word is a negative word, and indicates that whatever comes next is bad. “Cut from the team” is a figure of speech that takes many people back to childhood when you are “not good enough” to play the game. This frame sets a negative feeling to the group and paints management as uncaring and demanding.

Option B: Given the new direction, let’s discuss what the ideal team looks like if we have the budget for only four people.

This will have the same result, a list of who stays, but with more clarity. It also places very little attention on management, feels exciting to focus on the future vision, and will result with high quality job descriptions.

Now, let’s consider a performance evaluation where 5 is the highest score.

Option A: I’m sorry but I have to give you a 2 on your follow through. What happened? Why didn’t you get this project done on time?

Sure, this informs about the score of 2. It also results with the person feeling bad, resentful, and likely demotivated. The discussion that follows will likely be focused on rehashing, complaining, and finger pointing.

Option B: Your quarterly score this time came in at a 2. How we can we get you up to a 3 or 4 for the next quarter?

This results in the same information about the person getting a 2, but places the focus on doing better. It paints an image that this is just one of many scores, just like in any game. Rather than dwelling on the past, the focus is on changing for the future.

Want to know if your framing will be effective? Practice out loud, record yourself, and play it back. Also practice with a peer. Listen for your tone of voice while you’re at it.

Duncan: Acknowledging that we’ve heard and appreciated someone’s view is critical to good communication. What does that validation look like in terms of observable behavior?

Becker: Validation can be seen in head nodding, eyebrow raising, smiling, simple sounds like “Oh, I see,” or more established responses such as paraphrasing or further questioning. Done well, people will feel that you are listening. Done poorly and you will come off as condescending. Done not at all, and people have no idea if you are receiving their messages.

A common problem is that people feel like validation is the same as agreement. Sure, if I agree with you, that is a form of validation and providing positive paralanguage comes naturally. But what if I don’t agree with you? I can still validate your contribution to a conversation or point of view.

Duncan: How do good communicators spot their own defensiveness, and how do they defuse it in others?

Becker: Good communicators, especially those in more senior management or leadership roles almost always seek the objective view and recommendation of others. That may be a trusted friend or a speech coach. Highly sensitive and self-aware people can use video or audio recordings of their behavior. Without some semblance of these options, it is almost impossible to get an accurate view of your defensiveness.

Duncan: You relate the story of how Abraham Lincoln wrote “hot letters” to people who opposed his views or who even attacked him personally. But then he didn’t send the letters. What can today’s communicators learn from Abe?

Becker: One of the best lessons that translate into modern society is do not send an email that has emotion attached to it. Write it out, step away, read it. Read it again. Place yourself in the role of the receiver. Then decide whether to send it. Usually, email written in a moment of emotion is best not sent. Or imitate Abe and send it to yourself. See how it feels to receive and read it. While folks are pretty controlled on Linkedin, other more casual social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are filled with emotional outbursts. It’s one thing for a celebrity, who most people will never meet, to do it. It’s another, when it’s done by your own work colleague.

Duncan: What are best practices of people who solicit feedback on the effectiveness of their own communication?

Becker: One of the most important things is to have the right mindset before and during the feedback. It may or may not be what you like hearing. However, it’s the perception of that person. Simply thank them for it and don’t commit to making any specific changes until you have had a separate opportunity to think about it.

Once you have the feedback, if you decide to seek validation from others, be careful not to accidentally spin it. It’s easy to ask for feedback with a frame that clearly leads the other person. “Jim said he thinks I talk too much? You don’t think I do, do you?” Instead, try framing it as “I got some highly valuable feedback yesterday. Do you feel that at times, I include too many details?”

Duncan: Meetings consume (and, arguably, waste) enormous amounts of time in the workplace. What recipe do you suggest for improving the effectiveness of meetings?

Becker: Know the purpose of the meeting. For instance, is it a brainstorming meeting? Is it a problem-solving meeting? Is it a meet and greet meeting? Is it an information gathering meeting? etc.

Once you know the purpose(s), then decide who should be there, why, and how long the meeting should be. It often helps to assign every topic on the agenda with a time limit. For example, one computer programming team, developed a version of an agile meeting which is about 20 minutes and conducted standing. Understanding how to facilitate a meeting effectively is pretty simple. Being able to do it, takes practice. The leader of the group does not always have to be the facilitator. On some teams, we recommend rotating the role of facilitator to encourage engagement.

Duncan: What can companies do to help their leaders get better at communication?

Becker: Many companies place their focus on leadership training initiatives that have pretty thin modules on communication. I say flip that. Place your effort, time, and target on communication programs first, then introduce other leadership competencies like purpose and values and you’ll end up with strong leaders. This order has proven to be a much stronger scaffolding approach.


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