Do you understand what I'm saying?
Putting your thoughts into words is the easiest part of communication, making sure the other person understands you is however not always that easy
I was on an interesting project with a public sector undertaking (PSU) as a project manager. The Department of Public Enterprises, which is the governing body for PSUs in the country, had in 2008 provided fresh guidelines on incentive pay scheme to all PSUs. It had mandated a revision in the incentive scheme wherein considering individual performance for determining payout was made compulsory for all PSUs. Besides this, an additional change was that the performance related pay pool was to be determined as a mix of percentage of profit as well as a significant piece to be from incremental profit.
These changes were so dramatic for the employees that during the design phase itself the project manager from the PSU suggested that we connect with employees across the country through town-halls with the objective of introducing them to the changes, possible design options and seek their inputs. While drafting the presentation, his brief to me was: Keep it pictorial, show the reality and bring them to face the challenge ahead as well as the possible returns. We presented to employees across multiple locations in the country. We received varied responses from the employees during these town-hall sessions. Some appreciated the forward-looking thought, others feared for reduction of their incentive pay, but everyone appreciated the honest way we approached the subject.
As this example tells us, communication unfortunately is not always pleasant. Tough conversations are part and parcel of our life whether on the professional front or personal. In my experience, these following three ingredients help in getting the message across better.
Authentic communication: Almost all organizations include authentic communication as part of their leadership competencies. In every day context, there are many aspects beyond our control. As these come up in difficult conversations, a strong temptation exists to glaze over that which we can’t control or explain. Authentic speakers/communicators resist such temptation in favour of being candid about issues. They make a connect with that part of people which expects fairness and honesty. People can rely that whatever such a person says can be believed and trusted. They then become open to hearing your message.
Learning styles: Every person responds differently to stimuli and thus has a different style in which they understand concepts. Some people grasp better when they do or feel, others relate better to pictorial representations and some others to audio. This concept of learning style is equally applicable when we communicate. That is why some people in a presentation are seen reading the reports, some looking at the visuals on the screen and others who are focusing more on the voice over the presenter is giving.
Empathy: Understanding others’ aspirations and fears is probably the greatest key to building a connect with them. Every person has a context they come from, insecurities they have and things they aspire for. While the main message may remain the same, being able to connect it to the recipient’s context changes how the message is received. Actively listening to others helps build our understanding of their context. Given the variety of situations and people we face on a day-to-day basis, getting our message through can quite often be a frustrating experience.
If getting the message across is one of the challenges you’re working on, here is something you can do: Maintain a small diary and record some of your bigger incidents where communication was the focus; both the ones which went well and the ones which didn’t and your sense of why. Also use it to prepare for key conversations. Note down your observation of the person’s learning styles as well as your understanding of their fears and aspirations. Use that insight to tailor your communication and then come back afterwards to record what worked and what didn’t.