Communication – Its All In the Delivery

In workplaces, the ability to get things done hinges on successful interpersonal communication. It’s a critical workplace skill.

One of the greatest challenges with interpersonal communication is having your message understood as you intended (particularly when giving feedback — the subject of last week’s column).

Successful communication happens when the message the sender intended to communicate is what is understood by the receiver. Misunderstandings occur because we interpret or “decode” messages through our unique human filters: culture (“it’s disrespectful to interrupt”), education, race, gender (think Mars versus Venus), age, health, status (“he’s the boss”), sense of self and our total life experiences — to name a few.

Our entire human history colors how we interpret and make meaning of what we hear and see. We make instant judgments about motives based on these filters (“she’s trying to control me”). Throw in a stressful workplace, an organizational hierarchy, time constraints, competing resources and distractions, and it’s a wonder we ever communicate successfully.

As receivers of messages, we attempt to understand the other by reading faces/body language and decipher (or make sense of) the words we hear. Have you ever said something seemingly neutral to someone and been surprised at their strong emotional response? Or have you noticed how two people can be in the same room, witness the same message and come away with two completely different perceptions? It’s not so much what I say, it’s what you hear, observe and how you make meaning.

To lessen the potential for misunderstandings and conflict, here are a few guidelines that may help:

  • Get clear about your intent before you communicate. What do you want to have happen as a result of the exchange? Communicate your intention (particularly if the message is sensitive or likely to be misunderstood). As a receiver of a message, don’t attempt mind-reading and “assume” intention about the other.
  • Non-verbal communication speaks volumes. Research estimates that as little as 7 percent of a communication’s effectiveness can be attributed to words alone — 38 percent is vocal (volume, pitch, etc.) and 55 percent body movements (mostly facial expressions). People tend to believe body language over words. Eye rolling or crossed arms send cues that can make words almost meaningless. Think of a salesperson who makes verbal promises but won’t make eye contact. We discount the words and equate “no eye contact” to shifty or dishonest behavior. The key is to be congruent — the video should match the audio.
  • Use “I” language versus vague pronouns (“they,” “we” or “you”). When we hear the word “you,” we often interpret this as blame or having a finger pointed at us (“you are unfair”). Take responsibility for your judgments and interpretations. Describe what is going on for you (I think, feel, want …) from the “I” position. Speaking for others is a recipe for trouble (“we all agree …”). Also problematic is speaking about people as if they aren’t present while they’re in the same meeting. Good rules to follow: Address people directly and speak for yourself.
  • Avoid interrupting (two ears/one mouth — use them proportionally) and finishing others’ sentences (a pattern with people who have worked together a long time). Ask what the other person is thinking, feeling or wanting versus assuming you know. Seek to understand: Paraphrase to try to ensure that you get the meaning of what the person said.
  • Choose your words carefully. Words mean different things to different people. For example, “satisfactory” is a word that needs to be well defined in the workplace. Other words have explosive potential, such as “unprofessional.”
  • Don’t assume you have been understood. Managers need to be particularly careful when giving complex or important instructions. Check in for understanding (“You look puzzled. Are you?”). Or if they give you a confusing response, rephrase for clarity. When trying to understand something complex, important or sensitive, state in your own words what you interpreted (“Let me see if I get this …”).

Aim for clarity. Be straightforward, concise and avoid overexplaining things. Too many words can confuse people. Sometimes it’s better to aim for the Reader’s Digest version. If it’s an important meeting, craft your main talking points in advance.

Conflict Avoidance is Bad Management

Conflict is a natural element of high-performing workplace teams. When conflict is managed well, it can be a highly effective means of identifying and resolving tough workplace challenges, often resulting in improved relationships and solutions. Avoiding conflict, discouraging it or allowing chronic unhealthy conflict to remain unresolved can be disastrous to organizational health. There are human and financial costs to conflict avoidance.

Organizations lose countless dollars each year to unresolved conflict in lost productivity, performance, employee turnover and absenteeism. Lost opportunity costs include the improvement or solution that might have resulted from creative collaboration (versus black holes that emerge when employees refuse to deal with each other). Morale also is affected — not only between participants but among people around them. People who are embroiled in conflict often are under great stress. Many report not sleeping well and being unable to focus at work.

Other costs to unresolved conflict:

  • Miscommunication resulting from confusion or refusal to cooperate,
  • Quality problems.
  • Missed deadlines or delays.
  • Increased stress among employees
  • Reduced creative collaboration and team problem solving.
  • Disruption to work flow.
  • Decreased customer satisfaction.
  • Distrust.
  • Split camps
  • Gossip.

As a manager or leader, if you are avoiding conflict, you aren’t alone. The majority of my clients are in the conflict-avoidance camp. Managing conflict effectively is daunting for even the most seasoned leaders. Unfortunately, for many managers, their answer is to avoid it, even if it means that the challenge or situation is allowed to fester at the expense of the organization.

In today’s team environment, healthy debate and difference is vital. It’s a necessary element of discovery and generating creative solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately the debate process can be uncomfortable for many people. We all have different comfort levels with conflict. Some easily get emotionally reactive, others quietly stew and others bow to the bullies — or those with internal political clout — in the room. Most of us learned how to fight fairly (or not) from our parents. A lucky few had great parental role models for conflict resolution and have the skills to foster collaboration and win-win scenarios. Most of us have to learn new strategies to convert workplace conflict into positive outcomes.

Personal experiences and learned behaviors establish our primary response toward conflict. To work through conflict effectively, start by identifying feelings. The potential for unprofessional reactions to workplace conflict results when we allow our emotions to rule us versus letting our emotions inform us. Being aware of your feelings is a good thing; emotions help us determine the importance of a situation. The danger is when individuals allow their extreme emotional reactions to drive their behavior. Being aware of one’s natural reactive tendency and being able to deploy self-soothing strategies can go a long way toward reducing emotional reactivity.

Teaching employees practical tools for dealing effectively with conflict, disagreement and difference is smart business. Many managers have never learned effective conflict-resolution tools and find great benefit from skill development and training in this area.

There are many useful approaches to dealing with workplace conflict that can be taught — through training, skilled intervention and mentoring and coaching.

But what if you are dealing with a truly difficult situation or are stuck in a conflict you just can’t seem to resolve?

First, acknowledge the conflict honestly. Just how damaging is the conflict? Identify costs, both realized and opportunity costs. Remember as the boss, you get what you tolerate. How far are you willing to let this go? For effective conflict resolution, the boss will need to play a critical role in establishing organizational expectations, including behavioral boundaries and consequences of meeting (or not meeting) those expectations.

Effective leaders create an environment that allows open and constructive exploration of conflict issues and avoid the “he said, she said” tendency. While some leaders have exceptional skill in managing through highly conflicted scenarios, others do not. In this case bringing in outside help can bring much-needed relief and resolution.

We all need help and support from time to time. Just like you call in a plumber for a stopped-up drain — there are specialist resources and conflict facilitators that will help in highly charged conflict scenarios.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email:

Conflict Thrives Without Clarity

Most workplace conflicts are the result of misunderstandings.

We all have a unique perspective. How we receive and interpret communication is a result of our mental models, beliefs, values, culture, religion, gender, life experiences, health — even whether we are having a good day.

Misunderstandings often occur as a result of how words and actions get filtered or “decoded” by the receiver. We hear (selectively) the words being spoken, appraise the tone and body language we observe and then instantly process that information and apply meaning to the message — all based on our personal experience and perception. It’s our interpretation of the message that determines how we react emotionally; no one makes us “feel” anything. Yet we often walk away from a misunderstanding blaming the other person for how he or she “made me feel.”

John Wallen astutely noted, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact.” Wallen’s practical “interpersonal gap” theory helps us recognize the great potential for misunderstandings. He describes the gap that often occurs in communication when the private intentions of a “sender” of a message don’t equal the result or “effect” of the communication on the “receiving” end of the message. In other words, the message I intended to convey is not what was received.

Many things influence interpretation — tone, words, facial expressions and our unique perception of the world. For example, a boss’s comment, “You weren’t at your desk this morning,” may have been intended to convey concern about your health yet might be interpreted as a nasty reminder about your tardiness or confirmation of your paranoia that the boss is out to get you. We often incorrectly ascribe “motives” around the other. Most conflicts are a result of that interpersonal gap.

How do we close the potential for interpersonal workplace gaps?

  • Provide clarity regarding your intention. What are you trying to accomplish? The more clearly you communicate your intentions, the better your odds of being understood.
  • Consider the potential for misunderstanding. Ask yourself, how could someone interpret this in a way that does not reflect my intention or the message I am trying to deliver?
  • Avoid sending double messages, and refrain from using sarcasm and passive aggression.
  • Don’t assume. We are often surprised by the reaction of someone to what we thought was a straightforward communication. A strong reaction often means there has been an interpersonal gap or misinterpretation. In such a case, you’d better work at closing the “gap.”
  • Don’t underestimate the “impact” factor. Both action and inaction have impact. A highly sensitive situation, poorly handled, can transform a small misunderstanding gap into a full-blown chasm.

What do you do when you are in an interpersonal gap?

  • Work it out quickly. Time is of the essence. If ignored, the gap grows.
  • De-escalate. Take a deep breath. Listen, paraphrase what you heard and acknowledge the other with empathy. Most people who believe they have been truly heard will calm down.
  • Don’t get personal. Instead, try to impartially roll the video and simply report what you heard and observed. Describe the behavior that leads you to your interpretation. Handling a challenge with just the facts instead of judgments will almost always have a better outcome.
  • Speak for yourself. Let the other know how you are affected by their message — including how you feel. “I’m angry to hear you call me unprofessional,” or, “I was hurt when you didn’t return my phone call.”
  • Verify your interpretations. Check in with the other to see if what you assume is correct. “By the tone of your voice, I’m guessing you are angry with me, am I right?”
  • Ask for clarification of anything that is unclear (particularly work instructions) or seems unreasonable (maybe you are just interpreting it wrong). Paraphrase your understanding of what was said.

For major problems, for example, your top performer is threatening to quit get an expert like me to help you.

One of the worst culprits for creating the potential for misunderstanding is our increasing dependency on e-mail, text, chat etc as our primary communication channel. There are no facial expressions or tone of voice to help the receiver interpret the message correctly — only words (many of which are loaded or inflammatory and may be interpreted in many different ways by the recipient). A good rule of thumb: If the message is sensitive or the potential to be misunderstood is great, relay your information face to face or by phone.

Bottom line — to clarify and work out misunderstandings, people need to talk directly to each other and work to close their “gaps.”

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: