In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott writes, “The fundamental outcome of most communication is misunderstanding.” That’s never been truer than in today’s multi-generational, multi-cultural workplace. It’s a subject that is as old as the Tower of Babel itself, but a couple of recent miscommunications reminded me that I am not the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan was.

The first incident occurred a couple of weeks ago as my adult daughter and I were assembling a shelving unit using very Ikea-ish directions – you know, the kind without words. In 30 minutes, the task was finished (almost perfectly), and I asked her a straight-forward – but unexpected – question: “How many times in that 30 minutes did I make you feel stupid?” Her answer surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t have.

“Two,” she said. “Both times, you took over and said “here, let me…””

Poor thing; that certainly wasn’t my intent, and I sincerely apologized both to her and my wife. If you think twice in 30 minutes is bad, you can only imagine being married to a tone-deaf oaf for 32 years.

The next miscommunication(s) happened during a cross-functional staff meeting discussing participants of our local Veterans Treatment Court. In retrospect – but only in retrospect – I realize I started it by making a glib remark to someone who: a) doesn’t like to be challenged; and b) wasn’t in the mood. You know the type.

The first time she cut me off mid-sentence didn’t phase me; after decades in the military, I’m used to being told to shut up and color. The second time was irritating; the third time pissed me off; the fourth time she got what she wanted: I didn’t say another word the rest of the meeting. So much for cross-functional inputs.

Effective communication isn’t complicated – there’s not much more to it than message sent = message received – but it seems like we come up short far too often. We’re essentially set up to fail, because we each have our own unique mental filter made up of feelings, attitudes, experiences and motives that we use to process and interpret what someone says to us.

We make assumptions, ascribe incorrect intentions to the speaker based on experience, think about our response (or retort) rather than listen for understanding, and allow emotions to derail the conversation. And we do it without realizing that the other person is doing the same thing.

The good news is that we get better at it when we apply the wisdom of “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:19 NLT).As the old adage instructs, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go all touchy-feely PC… far from it.  But I do suggest that when you say what you mean the way you mean it, say it with an awareness of how the audience is going to receive it. It doesn’t take that much EQ to have a conversation that doesn’t leave the other person dreading their next encounter with you. Anytime we start to explain or show someone with the words “it’s easy…” or “you just…” (worse yet: “like I told you before…”), we make that person feel inferior, they stop listening, and they’ll think twice before they come back. You both lose.

And, don’t forget that it’s just as important how you say something as what you say. The non-verbal cues and tone of voice are more often better indicators of your intentions than the words you choose. A good example is when someone stops by your office and asks if you have a minute. With a heavy sigh, you peer at them over your glasses and say, “sure,” when what you really meant was “no, so make it quick.”

Sitting up here on the lofty perch of a Leadership Sherpa, I know that some of you have no intention of changing how you communicate. After all, you rationalize, “I’m just direct/demanding/succinct/etc. and don’t have time to beat around the bush.” If that’s you, let me offer my condolences to your family and those who work for or with you.

Good leaders don’t stop practicing the skills that make them successful any more than athletes do, and effective communication skills are high on the list of every successful leader I can think of. Who knows, maybe even I can get back into the habit of not expressing my opinion the very second I form it.

What about you? Where do you need to brush up on your sender-receiver skills?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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