Can You Hear Me … Now?
Issue 96, February 23, 2023
The challenge of communicating with colleagues has become increasingly difficult. With the proliferation of tech experts and Next Gens in the workforce, we may need a translator to ensure we all understand each other.
Here’s a real-life example. A content team is struggling to understand how to load a certification testing module into a new software platform. The project lead from the platform is a developer who thinks with a literal, sequential mindset. The content team leader, although logical, is more of freeform thinker, making associations and finding patterns in conversations intuitively. Which is to say, the mindset is horizontal, holistic, and nonlinear. The two leads are currently at an impasse; neither individual understands the other, which makes conversations awkward, at cross purposes, and impedes forward progress.
The inability or lack of desire to listen and hear others can be a deal breaker. Understanding how to actively listen, ingest what is being said, and how to fundamentally recognize that although we seemingly are similar individuals, we have very different and diverse ways and means by which we communicate. Those differences and the diversity represented by individual personalities, life experiences, values, generational life stages and regional or cultural nuances can make communications a test. Few individuals share the same life experiences and values as others outside of their immediate families (and even then, siblings are more like their parents than each other). And to further complicate the process, our individual minds are programmed to communicate literally, conceptually, in freeform, directly, complexly and even dismissively. Finding the right match of speaker to listener is yet another hurdle.
How to Listen
Humans are the sum of their parts, and very few of those parts are the same for communication given five generations and the diversity of cultures and ethnicities from around the world in the workforce.
Effective communication requires discipline. Practicing turn-taking allows individuals to speak one at a time, alternating turns. In practice, it involves processes for constructing contributions, responding to previous comments, and transitioning to a different speaker, using a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic cues (Wiki). This is clearly a better approach than the more common practice of people in meetings speaking over one another.
Which brings up a more fundamental question: Are you listening or hearing? We’ve heard of tunnel vision, there is also tunnel hearing. If an individual typically figures things out independently and speeds forward in a conversation, he or she may not be the best listener. They are three steps ahead and oblivious to the fact that others are still catching up. They tend to be fast processors, but they are not always listening. When others speak, they are hearing, not synthesizing other’s thoughts (especially ones that they may not agree with). The key question here is, do you want to be right? Or do you want to be a team pulling the same direction with the goal of inclusive contributions to solutions?
There are a variety of reasons we don’t listen. Although some are valid and hard to resist, not listening (not even hearing) is compromising the integrity and respect of the speaker, and ultimately the team. As you read the following scenarios, pause, and consider if this has happened to you and whether you are the cause of any of these effects (both positive and negative).
- Fear of Clarity Syndrome. Most individuals are often reluctant to stop a speaker and ask, “Can you say that a different way? I didn’t understand what you are communicating.” Typically, we are shy about pausing the conversation to share what we thought we heard and confirm that’s what the speaker meant. Pausing to provide clarity is often seen as time consuming and rude. It can also lead to a perception across a team that the one stopping and questioning may be less intelligent or competent than the others. Let’s face it, no one wants to be seen as less intelligent than others. And no one wants to feel embarrassed when others roll their eyes, sigh, or otherwise express their frustration. But it is in the best interests of the team to be sure everyone understands what they are hearing. Word choices matter and may have different meanings to different people. Clarity can never be overrated.
- Un-Listening. There are also situations where people just aren’t interested in listening. This happens most often when the communicator likes to hear him or herself talk at the expense of the group. It’s human nature to quit listening when someone drones on. People may also stop listening if they disagree with what is being discussed and how it is being represented. And then there are people who simply believe that what is being said or discussed isn’t relevant to them in their professional role. This last reason has some underlying problems based on jumping to conclusions that may not be true. It is a disservice to any group of colleagues to stop listening –- for any reason.
- Personality Dynamics. Listening is a two-way street. When we speak, we bring our own conscious and unconscious biases to the table which inform and structure what we are saying and how we are saying it. Speakers need to read the room and invite their audience to listen. Effective communicators are not dismissive to those they are speaking to. They customize what they are saying to better align to the audience. They are mindful to structure what they are communicating to get agreement, a reaction, even an emotional response. The least effective speakers intentionally set someone up in a gamesmanship trap to see who wins. That is the height of not listening.
- Misinformation. Our newsletter on Communication Theory surfaced the current issue of misinformation and fake news. Our instinct is to trust others and listen to what they have to say. Today, facing widespread volumes of intentional and unintentional misinformation requires a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking to sort out the real from the fake. Listening with intent and clarity has never been more important.
The Implications of a Communication Breakdown
To illustrate the point, we offer an excerpt of a practical case study on communicating from our book, The Truth About Transformation. It’s just a taste of an operational breakdown that you may also be experiencing.
A small, niche B2B publisher went digital a decade ago. A daily article is transmitted to readers and its website has over 2,000 archived articles, including content from its former print editions. Ahead of its time, the staff works completely remotely, and all are long-time independent contractors. The founder lives in Florida, the editor in New York, the Gen Z social manager splits time between New York and Napa, the graphic designer is in Minnesota, the business development manager is in a suburb north of New York and the tech manager is a nomad, roaming the country experimenting with new places to live. The team is predominantly female. They meet weekly on Zoom and communicate principally via email throughout the week. Phone calls rarely occur unless there is an immediate issue that needs to be resolved. This field report is about their systemic dysfunction.
Larry, the tech manager, is self-trained, with a former career as a publisher and stockbroker. He has a task-focused work style, is literal, and over-communicates (likely due to his isolated lifestyle) in meetings and via email.
He is a stickler about tech terminology, to the point of interrupting and correcting team members to redefine the terms they are using.
This infuriates the editor, Kate, who sees this as an unnecessary sidetrack that throws up an interruption-based barrier to conversation. The team isn’t sure if Larry is attempting to deflect any potential discussion that may cause him to explain his tactics or if his behavior is a positional power play, particularly over the female members of the team. It has escalated to the point at which his interruptions are disruptive and derail meetings.
Further, the number of emails among the team has escalated to an exponentially impossible level. Emails are getting lost, unseen, ignored, and deleted by accident. The team continually communicates that they are overwhelmed and fatigued with day-to-day work, and the volume of email only adds to their already-challenged emotional states. Larry has been begging the team to use Slack to track emails transparently as he attempts to solve the immediate problem. But he hasn’t considered the potential larger operational and cultural issues within the team with his request.
The only members of the team that use Slack for content posts are the editor and designer, although they continue to use email to exchange requests, images and graphics, and general business information. Full transparency: the founder is 81 years old, and tech challenged.
Feedback: Is this a familiar situation to you? Your team? Your organization? How effective can the organization be in meeting its shared purpose given the communications environment?
Giving and Taking in Communication
Beyond the obvious problems resulting from misaligned mindsets, power positions, different vocabularies, and the intent of communications, there are a few fundamental principles that can liberate communications from antagonism and exclusion. As reported by TED, “Give and take changes our fundamental ideas about how to succeed—at work and in life. For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others.” And remember all interaction is a form of communication, whether in words, emojis, tone of voice, facial expression or body gesture.
Psychologist Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton and author of Give and Take. He studies the forces that shape how some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others fall to the bottom. According to Grant, “I have begun to worry that our drive for performance and results is driving conversation and relationships away from well-rounded and productive interactions. Relationships are not one sided or one perspective.”
Grant’s theory is that in professional interactions, most people operate as either takers or givers. A major influence in either role comes from personal power positioning which can be modeled by oneself or the influence of others.
If conversations are one-sided, or one person dominates, the speaker is a taker. Have you been in meetings led by a taker, where you have never been asked a single question? Grant explains that takers “strive to get as much as possible from others.” He writes that takers are self-focused and only help others strategically when the benefits to themselves outweigh the personal costs. Grant says, “Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs.”
On the other hand, a giver engages all participants, draws them into the conversation and manages the flow to be inclusive. Grant adds, “Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.” He adds, “In the workplace, givers are relatively rare. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.”
And then there are the matchers. If takers strive to get as much as possible from others, matchers aim to trade evenly, according to Grant. He adds, “Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.”
Changing the Intent
Author Dan Pink has landed on a simple but profound way to positively change the conversation. He cites Harvard research that reveals “When people made a very subtle shift, moving from ‘What should I do?’ to — listen carefully — ‘What could I do?’ they generated many more solutions and better solutions.” Pink adds, “Should is a “narrowing word. It nudges us to narrow down the possible actions we could take to a few seemingly good ones. Could, on the other hand, is a widening word that nudges our brains to think as broadly and creatively as possible to come up with all possible solutions.” He concludes, “Sometimes tiny changes really do seem to significantly improve how we think about things, leading to more and better solutions.”
Upping Your Game
Everyone can improve their communication skills, blending giving and matching with moments when taking may have more direct results. Listening versus hearing is a distinction that can transform a monologue into a conversation. Anne-Laure Le Cunff founder of NessLabs provides a few tips to up your communication game.
- Shift Your Mindset.How do you view your job and your relationships? How do your choices impact the experience of colleagues and customers? How can you align your decisions so when you win, everyone wins? Change your lens; instead of being self-focused like a taker or transactional like a matcher, think of an expanding circle where everyone can benefit from your success.
- Measuring Success.A problem low-performance givers face is the lack of focus on the way they give. Tracking your impact does not mean you need to become a taker and only help when it benefits you, nor that you need to become a matcher and only help when you receive equal value in return. Ask yourself: is this good for the company, for the customers, for the team?
The Fast Lane
In our time pressed world and over-managed meeting schedules, we tend to be impatient and too eager for everyone to get to the point — fast. It’s easier to digest sound bites opposed to substantive dialogue and discussion. Each has its time and place. For example, Next Gens are happy to communicate in texts, Tweets, three-minute videos and non-verbal social media – often among colleagues at work.
But that isn’t necessarily the most effective or inclusive approach. Quick communication is compromised by over-summarization that leaves many facts off the table that are critical to the resulting decisions, actions or chosen path. The rush to end a meeting on time leaves too many opportunities to miss comments, feedback and mutual understanding that are critical to the project or goal. Giving a short hand presentation can be as deadly as a boring, endless PowerPoint.
At 2040, we counsel our clients how to thrive in our highly dynamic ever-changing world. We help organizations seeking to successfully change, transform and adapt to today’s marketplace understand the need to embrace effective and respectful communications, including ensuring individuals are heard and individuals know how to listen, how to hear others.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.