There are some days when it feels like no one is listening. Your boss isn’t understanding the project problems you discussed. Your team isn’t getting results. Your new intern can’t seem to grasp the simplest concepts. You think you’re a pretty good communicator—but is it them or you?
“It’s always you,” says business social scientist Joseph Grenny,coauthor of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. “It could be that you failed to communicate, and so it was a fact gap, or it could be an expectation gap, or it could be that on the other side they’re not being attentive. It could be that they have different incentives. It could be that we’ve got a poor medium of communication. But in any of those instances, the problem is mine, because if I’m not getting the results I want, I need to ask, ‘What can I do to close that gap?'”
While it can be hard to do a self-check when it comes to effective communication to others, there are some signs that you may need to change your style or approach.
If you’re not getting the results you want or if you’re having meeting after meeting and you’re not getting the response you want from your team, it’s time to look at how and what you’re communicating, says Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking, an executive communication training firm, and the founder of The Oratory Project, which teaches executive communication skills to at-risk young adults. Other signs include:
Avoidance. People only approach you with questions or feedback when they absolutely need to do so, Eventoff says. They don’t seek you out otherwise.
Lack of clarity. If you walk away from a conversation or meeting and cannot remember what the other person said or cannot articulate their point of view, you’re not listening properly, which is essential for good communication, Eventoff says.
A pattern of misunderstanding. If multiple people have misunderstood you on more than one occasion, it’s not just an isolated incident of miscommunication, says Shani Magosky, founder of the Better Boss Project, a leadership training and executive coaching firm.
In other words, if it seems like everyone around you just “doesn’t get it,” maybe it’s time to improve how you’re conveying your messages. Try these tips.
DO A SELF-ASSESSMENT
First, you need to take an honest look at how you communicate, Grenny says. Are you thorough, clear, and factual in how you convey yourself? How consistent are you in how you communicate? And do you involve all of the stakeholders so you can get different perspectives? Look at how clear you make your expectations—and how open you are to understanding what others expect of you. Finally, how do you handle “crucial conversations” that can be emotionally or politically charged? Having a sense of which areas that are often avoided or tend to fester until they’re problematic can help you defuse situations that get in the way of progress.
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DITCH YOUR ASSUMPTIONS AND ASK
Asking curious, open-ended questions encourages dialogue instead of dictating what other people should do or think, Magosky says. “The best communicators listen more than they speak,” she says.
To be effective in information gathering this way—which will inform your communication—you need to let go of assumptions. “Humans are assumption-making machines, but effective communicators are self-aware enough to recognize when they’re jumping to conclusions, making judgments, or using labels,” Magosky says. Instead, communicate about observable data in non-emotional, business-oriented terms. When you’re unsure about the next move, ask more questions.
DEFINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
People need to know the outcome that you’re seeking or the result you want, Eventoff says. If you’re not getting the result you want, go back to whether you were clear about what, exactly, those results should have been.
“It might not be because they don’t like what you’re saying. It might be because they don’t understand what you’re saying, and they don’t want to offend you or appear rude or harsh,” he says. If you’re using a lot of jargon or vague language, or trying to communicate in endless emails instead of calling a quick face-to-face meeting where you can show that you’re open to questions and explaining what you want, you’re likely to get much better results, he says.
“If I say, ‘Well, we have to go do the A, B, C algorithm because X, Y . . . the, you know, the Z, the Z drive is the X, Y, Z hub,’ [they] might just say, ‘Oh, okay, Matt, sounds good,'” he says. However, they may be thinking, “I don’t know what that was and, hopefully, when he sees me again, he won’t speak like that, and we’ll be able to move forward with something.”
Eventoff says listening is essential to good communication. After meetings, he typically jots down a few notes about what was said and what others’ viewpoints were. If he can’t articulate them, it’s a sign he needs to go back and ask more questions to be sure he was clear.
ESTABLISH A SYSTEM OF FEEDBACK
“Any time [there is] performance art, it’s necessarily to receive regular feedback in order for performance to improve, and communication is the ultimate performance art,” he says. When you communicate, there is always an audience by definition. “People who are continuously seeking feedback are the ones who get the best at it for saying, ‘What am I missing here? What have I not told you? Am I filling you in consistently?’ And not just up that chain, but down the chain, and sideways,” he adds. Those who are hungry for feedback are the ones who will improve most consistently.
Magosky says it’s important to remember that all people have good days and bad days. Being a good communicator requires compassion, empathy, and understanding when communicating–especially in potentially difficult conversations. “A well-known study by Google showed that the common denominator among the most effective teams is psychological safety, meaning people at all levels feel comfortable being open and transparent without fear of repercussions,” she says.