Can You Hear Me Now?

Six Of The Most Common Missteps

Communication MisstepsA leadership expert lays out the six missteps managers often make when communicating with customers and employees. Here’s how to avoid them.

One bad communication habit is all it takes to cause a lifetime of trouble. And with today’s quick methods of communication, it’s all too easy for bad habits to work their way in. You overreact to an e-mail and send off a furious and damaging reply. You offend a client on a social media platform with an ill-advised attempt at humor. Or, you can’t resist a snarky comeback to a difficult customer’s provocation, even though you immediately regret your words. When bad communication habits take over, the reputation you worked so hard as a leader to cultivate takes a beating.

Bad communication habits are the punishment that keeps on giving, unfortunately. Even if you suffer from only one bad habit, it can recur in dozens of conversations and cause damage each time. But the good news is that by eliminating a single bad habit you can prevent many future problems. In fact, nothing else you can do as a manager gives you as much bang for your buck as resolving to eliminate a bad communication habit.

It’s true that it can be incredibly difficult to break free of the bad habits associated with the distraction, expediency, self-expression and excess that characterize so much of our digital-age communication. Yet if managers are willing to cast off some of their bad communication habits, they can optimize opportunities to connect productively and meaningfully with employees and clients.

Here are six of the most common bad communication habits, along with strategies for how to make sure you’re avoiding them in your business.

Letting the Neanderthal Pick Your Words
When we’re agitated, irritated or frustrated, a battle plays out between our primitive, impulse-driven Neanderthal brain and our more modern, thoughtful and deliberate brain. And while the Neanderthal parts of our brain are indispensable when we’re in physical danger, our Neanderthal brain is terrible at picking our words. Word selection is better left to our more analytical modern brain, because the Neanderthal prefers to club first and ask questions later.

The problem is that although words can build relationships slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless tweet or a hasty remark lands people in hot water all the time. When the Neanderthal chooses our words, it never ends well.

A simple but powerful way to improve your communication is to stop talking and think for a minute whenever you’re frustrated or upset. You don’t need to take a vow of silence, but you do need to pause long enough to keep your more thoughtful and deliberative brain in charge of selecting the words you’re going to express. Even a few seconds can help you to steer clear of the Neanderthal’s exhortations to club someone, can allow you to get in front of ill-advised words and can provide you with the space you need to self-correct when you’re angry or upset.

Multitasking When We Should Be Listening
The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s just too much communication junk getting in the way. Our thoughts are scattered, our minds wander, and ever-present distractions make it difficult for us to focus on the person right in front of us. Most managers today need to make a concerted effort to reinvigorate their listening skills.

Intentional listening will make you more present in conversations and will decisively improve your communication. The funny thing is that people are telling us all the time about what they want, what they fear and what’s important to them, but we’re often too busy thinking about what’s in our inbox or who just texted us to absorb much of what they’re saying. The ‘old school’ behavior of listening will help you become a much better communicator and will enable you to become far more knowledgeable about the people in your life.

Asking Faulty Questions
Questions aren’t always neutral. They make some of your conversations better, but as you’ve probably noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even “simple” inquiries can go awry. Something like asking an employee, “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.

Some of your relationship problems probably reflect your underdeveloped questioning skills. Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query simply to indulge your personal cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point or to satisfy a narrow personal interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. It’s better to focus on what you can learn from or about another person and to ask questions that reflect a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing. If a question to an employee or client can be misconstrued in any way as deflecting blame, then a manager shouldn’t ask it at all or make sure to rephrase it so it doesn’t seem like there’s any agenda attached to it.

Our quick and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary collaboration and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. That’s why smart communicators, like smart doctors, have a good triage system – its categories are Now, Delay and Avoid – to focus on the most pressing issues, while delaying or ignoring less important matters.

Problems in the Now category require an immediate, solution-based conversation. Don’t automatically assign too many issues to this category – this is the fundamental miscalculation your triage system is trying to correct. Delay is your default category. Many issues may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your intervention. Finally, avoid issues that reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside another person unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work.

A good communication strategy for managers is to have fewer conversations, but to try to make each one count. Most of us are guilty of inserting ourselves into far too many unnecessary conversations.

Fighting with Difficult People
Jane talks too much. Jim is incredibly stubborn. Your client is moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations – even though we’re unlikely to influence these people. For example, we wrestle with Jane to get a word in edgewise. We struggle to change Jim’s mind. We try to offset our client’s mood swings. It’s time to quit trying.

At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. But giving up your desire to ‘win’ by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.

In typical business conversations, we often use more force than needed to accomplish our objectives. We yelled when a measured response would have worked better, sent a blistering e-mail when a more restrained reply would have sufficed or issued an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would have done the trick. But excessive force frequently causes a destructive cycle – attack, retaliation, escalated attack and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.

Exercising restraint during a contentious interaction is challenging, but try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective. Be the calm, controlled and stabilizing influence on a conversation that’s become heated so you can minimize the chance of permanent relational damage.

Overall, managers should focus on shedding the bad communication habits that are coming between them and their employees or clients, because those bad habits often prevent them from having meaningful interactions. Eliminating just one or two bad communication habits will dramatically improve your communication and strengthen your relationships significantly.”

—Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating, is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC and president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company.