Mastering the art of communication

Considering the potential risks and liabilities associated with miscommunication, business professionals would be wise to spend more time and energy on improving their communication skills and practices. Mark Richardson offers a few helpful tips.

January 05, 2012

Communication is how we interact. Communication is how we do business with clients. Communication is how we lead our team, especially in troubled waters. Imagine a day without communication. While it may sound like a restful one, not much would get accomplished. 

I’m not an expert in communication, but I do it constantly. I have not formally studied the subject of communication, but I observe and think about it daily. Like most people, I have been hurt or affected by miscommunication. A friend of mine once said in an apology, “Communication is difficult at best.”

Considering the complexity and pace of communication today, as well as the potential risks and liabilities associated with miscommunication, business professionals would be wise to spend more time and energy on improving their communication skills and practices. With this thought in mind, here are a few tips and insights on effective communication.

Think before you react with email. While email is now a standard way of communicating, it should be used as a tool, not necessarily your primary method of communicating. I have received more damaging, hurtful, and waste-of-time emails in the last 12 months than in the last 50 years of written letters or phone calls. The majority of these emails were never intended to be negative or hurtful; they were simply misread, poorly written, or accidentally sent to me. For instance, my former financial advisor once referred to me in an email trail as a “huge PIA” (you can imagine the outcome of that). Never use “bcc” because you can get caught in the “reply to all” trap. Also, be mindful of the recipient’s time when writing your message.

Bottom line, think before you react. Ask yourself: Is this the most effective way to communicate or just the most efficient? Who should read this? Should I pick up the phone or walk down the hall?

Time is not on your side. This is the case mostly because of technology, but also due to people’s expectations. On one hand, you want to respond quickly. On the other hand, you want to offer meaningful responses. Also, some people are immediate responders, while others are slow to get back.

Given the proliferation of communications we receive (I get about 150 to 200 emails a day, not counting what gets caught in the spam filter), it’s difficult to manage the communication flow. For instance, if I get a response too quickly I think the person does not care enough to reflect on my question. If it takes them 24 hours I wonder if they don’t care or are lying on the beach.

Ask yourself: How quickly would they like me to respond? Should I pick up the phone to respond?

Try not to make communication personal. Many years ago, we had a grievance counselor come in and speak to key team members after one of our colleagues was tragically killed. She said, “Don’t judge your teammates on how they process John’s death.” People process tragic situations like this in many ways. Some cry, some are quiet and bury their feelings, while others express their feelings through humor. I believe this is also true with day-to-day communication. Some will find courage in an email or a voice mail that does not exist face to face. Some use language differently based on the vehicle of communication. If you try to focus on what is being communicated and not judge the person doing the communicating you will generally be better off.

Ask yourself: What is the intended message? Were they in a hurry when they wrote this email with an inappropriate word or tone? If they made this comment at the coffee machine, would I feel the same?

Make communication more of a priority and you will see your stress level go down and effectiveness go up.

Mark Richardson is co-chairman of Case Design/ Remodeling Inc. and the Case Institute of Remodeling. He is a member of the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Richardson is the author of the best-selling book, How Fit is Your Business?, and a forthcoming book, Business Themes to Live By. He can be reached at [email protected].

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