Talking Does Not Mean They’re Hearing: Communicating in the Workplace

By Rick Forbus, PhD.

In a recent coaching session, a “star” manager shared the frustration of unclear, inconsistent and untimely communication in the organization where he manages. Actual deliverables in this organization are above expectations and money is good. The problem is that mixed signals come from the top and he feels insecure. The head leadership is bright, successful but unskilled in communication.

The above case is one of many regarding frustrating communication. Many times the issue is the “back noise” in the workplace and management is unsure of what is actually reality. What I mean by “back noise” is gossip, disloyal behaviors, no team spirit and general employee unrest.

Shawn Smith, a lawyer and the owner of a consulting firm says, “Ask most managers and executives what is standing in the way of greater effectiveness in their businesses, and they will include in their answers, ‘We need better communication.’ Sometimes clients tell me that their organization has communication problems, and hope for an instant, off-the-shelf remedy for their troubles.

Poor communication does account for a multitude of workplace woes– including interpersonal conflict, wasted money and effort, poor productivity, legal exposure, low morale and high turnover– but the types and causes of communication problems vary as widely as their impact.”

Trove, Inc. and our professional training efforts include two powerful workshops that address communication issues. In the workshop, Communicating for Clarity and Impact, we use an easy-to-remember device to help drive home a point regarding speaking and listening.

  • Talking does not mean someone is hearing.
  • Hearing does not mean someone is listening.
  • Listening does not mean someone understands.

Also, it is not the mechanics of communication that usually hurts managers and employees, as seen from my experience as a coach. It is thoughtless communication, poor timing and bad human behavior. In other words, if most leaders would be careful to communicate to employees with respect and according to their “listening style” many problems would be solved. However, communication goes out without regard to how the listener may hear it.

“Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.”
Gilbert Amelio – President and CEO of National Semiconductor Corp

Communication plans are good ways to help keep everyone well-informed, candid and within the proper protocols of communication. Simple is good, and less is better when using a communication plan. Certain logical systems can make quick impact on organizations. This article is not the place to reveal sample communication plans but it should suffice to say that any simple system is better than reckless abandon when it comes to organizational communication.

“Leaders who make it a practice to draw out the thoughts and ideas of their subordinates and who are receptive even to bad news will be properly informed. Communicate downward to subordinates with at least the same care and attention as you communicate upward to superiors.”
L. B. Belker

Communication comes from the Latin word “common” meaning “to make” or “to do.” To communicate is to “make something common.” Without clear communication, all other elements of high-performance teamwork within a project or organization will not fit together properly. Excellent communication is the nexus of highperformance teams and high-impact managers or leaders. Powerful and clear communication is the means of cooperation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain purpose, mission or vision without clear communication.

Take a minute and list or think about the qualities of excellent communication. Did you list words like:

  • accuracy and honesty
  • openness
  • completeness
  • clarity
  • active listening
  • timeliness
  • concise
  • respectful
  • Face-to-face?

You may have listed a few more items that define good communication for you. Are you delivering those things to your employees? What about to those to whom you report? How would you describe how your team, company or organization communicates? Are you finding reoccurring issues?

When communication is clear, accurate, written and repeated the solution is improved, and better yet, the organization begins to employ effective communication. When in doubt, revise, repeat, clarify and put in writing. Hone your listening and questioning skills. Communication is the ingredient that can make or break your relationship with your team members and make or break the efficiency and the effectiveness of any project.

“The basic building block of good communications is the feeling that every human being is unique and of value.”
Unknown

With the dizzying proliferation of communication technologies, varying from e-mail and instant messaging to paging and teleconferencing, it is easy to imagine a time when we will not have to meet “in person” to conduct business. Yet face-to-face communication has taken on more importance than ever.

If you have doubts about this, consider the catastrophes that can erupt when you are communicating with someone else using a less personal medium such as e-mail. A funny story or casual comment that might have scored a hit in a personal face-to-face conversation not only falls flat in the e-mail but worse, offends the recipient. A long thick block of text leaves readers confused or impatient. This outcome ultimately means
ineffectiveness in communication.

Nuances in meaning never make the transition from sender to receiver. Of course, this implies that relationship building and understanding another individual on the emotional level may never take place. Communication in its best form is full of relational and emotional factors.

“Be amusing: never tell unkind stories; above all, never tell long ones.”
Benjamin Disraeli

Meetings are the topic of another article, but deserve a mention here. One of the leaders I was coaching told me sincerely, that he thought he simply could not face the next monthly meeting. I could tell he was beyond frustrated, desperate and miserable because of the poor communication of the monthly meeting. I asked what was so bad. He simply said we attend without an agenda prior to the meeting. We sit and listen as leadership “waxes eloquent” (his words) for an hour and a half and then we leave. We never get to share ideas, ask questions or disagree.

This is almost as bad as it gets. Probably, the leadership in this case has little clue at how poorly the communication is received by management. Also, in some cases apart from this particular incident, I have seen great talented managers leave an organization to find a better culture to work in. Sometimes great communication will define a great culture. In others words, even when finances are down, deliverables are not as successful as before, great communication will keep the culture alive and honest. Communication has to be clear, honest, open, timely, simple, free of politics and consistent. Listeners’ behaviors have to be taken into account and the communicator’s style needs to be identified. Consider making some changes this week and seek to listen and understand.

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”
James Humes


2 Responses to “Talking Does Not Mean They’re Hearing: Communicating in the Workplace”

  1. Josef says:

    Very well stated. As a mediator getting people to effectively communicate – active listening and authentically participating is a very valuable skill to discover resolution to conflict. Being clear and concise honors those with whom we wish to communicate. I for one have much to learn in this regard. I enjoyed your article. Thanks!

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