Three Guideposts for Communicating Effectively and Empathetically
One of the fundamental rules of management is that if you want to be effective in your job, you must communicate, communicate, communicate. Not only is this true at all levels within an organization—executives, middle management, frontline employees—but it's far better to overcommunicate than to undercommunicate. Unfortunately, most of us do the latter, believing that co-workers are either mind readers or too busy to be bothered. Or we worry that our communications might be unproductive. But the fact is that people don't read minds, nor are they so busy that they don't want or, more important, need to know what's going on. After all, no one can work in a vacuum. So communication cannot be an afterthought; it must be a priority.
Unfortunately, the concept of communication has become an all-encompassing yet meaningless term in business—a catchall without any real teeth. As with integrity, we're all in favor of it. We say we want more of it. We know it when we see it. But can we really define what it means? "Good communication allows any organization—be it a family, team, or business—to identify the challenges that are coming their way and work through them in an efficient way," says Craig Weber. "Everyone has a shared, consistent understanding of what's expected of them."
My father once told me that the single most important factor for success in business was public speaking skills. I think he had a point in that the skill of persuasion gives you leverage; it enables you to move people to action. Thus, part of good communication is effectiveness—closing the deal. And as we all know, that's the game when it comes to business. Getting the other party to sign the dotted line, to meet deadlines, to give his or her best as part of your team. But effectiveness is only half of the equation. After all, yelling can be effective. Lies can be effective, too, as can threats. But these approaches to communication don't do much to cultivate trust in the long term—in fact, they undermine it. So, communication must do more than close the deal; it has to connect. It has to reinforce the ties that make relationships strong and productive; it has to build trust. To accomplish this, communication must be judicious and perceptive. In other words, the second component of good communication is empathy.
Communicating effectively and empathetically is important not only in the context of one-on-one exchange but also in broader applications: departmental and companywide communication, communication with customers, and so on. To maximize trust, all communication must be carried on at eye level, no matter how wide the audience. Whether in written form or verbally, communicate as though you are looking each recipient directly in the eye—whether you're persuading one person or one thousand.
This is, of course, easier said than done. But three guideposts—clarity, consistency, and compassion—will help you to stay on track as you seek to communicate effectively and empathetically within your Accountable Organization.
Clear communication is unambiguous. It leaves little or no room for misinterpretation. When you speak and write with clarity, people around you understand that you've identified what is important to you—the first hallmark of integrity. By not being vague, you let your audience know where you stand and that you are accountable for what you're saying. You have nothing to hide.
Be specific. Don't dance around what you mean; get to the heart of it. Again, you cannot assume that the people around you are mind readers. You cannot rely on them to simply "divine" what you want, no matter how big the hints you drop. When you are specific, you do your best to remove uncertainty—the main cause of confusion, fear, and rumor mongering. You show your audience that you trust them enough to be honest with them. If they feel they're getting the straight story, odds are that they'll start feeling comfortable enough to be honest with you, too.
Consistency in communication is likely the strongest element when it comes to cultivating trust. Do you communicate to others reliably? Or do you say one thing one day, only to contradict yourself the next? If you send mixed messages, what will your audience assume about you? At the very least, they'll think you haven't thought things through, that you're not sure what you want, that you're flaky. At worst, they'll think you're driven by expediency rather than values, that you're dishonest, that you have no integrity—not the attributes that inspire trust.
When we talk about consistency in communication, frequency inevitably comes up. After all, one's consistency is judged through a succession of communications and actions. If your viewpoint on a certain matter changes over time, your consistency will be called into question if the reasons for this evolution aren't communicated to others—that is, if others are surprised by your change of heart because they had been operating under assumptions that are no longer valid.
Achieving the right frequency of communication is more art than science. If you're like most people, you're not communicating enough. On the other hand—and this is particularly true since the advent of e-mail—remember that we're all suffering from information overload. Use your best judgment and solicit the feedback from co-workers. Do they feel in the know or out in the cold? Work together to achieve the right balance.
While logic tells us what is expedient, compassion tells us what is right. It's what enables us to truly connect with others on a deeper level. While clarity and consistency help us communicate effectively, it's compassion that helps us communicate with empathy.
We often wonder whether we can really tell the truth to our co-workers in the first place. After all, haven't we all indulged in a little white lie here and there? Nevertheless, when we run into difficult situations, we are invariably better off facing the music straight away—being uncompromisingly honest when it comes to ourselves and compassionately honest when it comes to others.
While honesty is crucial in building trust, the stark, untempered truth can be unnecessarily painful—and counterproductive. Compassionate honesty means speaking the truth, but also trying to understand and even identify with the "whys" of the other person's position and perspective. It's easier to connect with people in a meaningful way when you know where they're coming from.
Communicating with clarity, consistency, and compassion isn't just a nice thing to do; it facilitates action and builds relationships—leading to increased trust, efficiency, and a competitive edge. As Weber notes, there is a hefty price for poor communication, including "low trust, a Machiavellian environment, a lack of influence over critical decisions, and a feeling that no matter how hard you try you can't really make the team work the way you'd like." Members of Accountable Organizations understand the consequences of poor communication, so they're ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of communicating effectively and empathetically, no matter what the medium.
Craig Weber, president of Weber and Associates, interview by author, April 24, 2003.