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“Words have meaning.”
This is an often-used phrase to try and push for clarity. The problem is that words have lots of meanings. What does it mean for something “to be in the cloud”? What are microservices? What is Agile? Our industry is full of buzzwords which rather than clarifying things only serve to obscure conversations, especially when you take into account product vendors wanting to latch on to the latest trend.
Even forgetting about buzzwords, we assume because we know what a word or phrase means to us that it should mean the same to everyone else. We also often feel that we don’t need to state the obvious, but I can tell you after many years in the industry there is no such thing as the obvious. What’s obvious to us as individuals is usually the result of unique chain of experiences and insights that make the obvious less so to different people.
This gets down to the notion of ambiguity and how so many of our professional conversations are riddled with ambiguity. I’ve discussed in a previous blog that most of the time when we’re in meetings where everyone nods their heads in agreement they leave with different understandings of what was discussed and that we need to take ownership to improve this situation.
So how do we take ownership and break past ambiguity?
One of my favorite tools is readback, which can be used to both validate that you’ve understood others and that others have understood you.
Let’s first tackle making sure you’ve understood others as it is easier to control. The challenge for some of us is that we fear looking bad by not understanding things and asking questions. I can assure you we look a lot worse in the end if we make mistakes because we *didn’t* ask questions.
I’ll try to use a couple different techniques. The first is a simple restatement along the lines of “what I hear you saying is…” or “ok, so my understanding is…” and then rephrase what you’ve heard with your own words. This will usually create some back and forth discussion which is good! The whole idea is to keep reading back until both sides feel communication has actually happened.
Taking that further, you can structure with something like “to summarize, you want to do three things….” Quantifying what you’ve heard helps create a quick framework to the discussion. The speaker might think they told you two or four things, so even though it might sound right, there’s a distinction to be clarified.
Now we can flip that around and make sure people have understood us by asking them to repeat back what they’ve heard! Try something like “what were the 3 key reasons for choosing…” to give them a structure for reading back. Or “can you summarize next steps?” Listen closely to the results and push to make sure they really understand what you wanted them to get out of the discussion.
I’ll often close with asking “what didn’t make sense?” I used to (and sometimes still) ask “does that make sense?” The problem with the latter phrasing is that most people want to say say “yes”. If you ask what didn’t make sense, you’re taking on the burden of unsuccessful communication rather than pushing it to them. This approach makes people more likely to actually respond with details. And instead of a yes/no question you’re assuming there’s a more detailed answer which will trigger a better response.
I know some of us don’t like asking questions, that we want to appear like we get everything. However, people will appreciate that you care enough to take the time to get things right, and more importantly, you will get things right rather than just hope that you have.
As often as not, when I get asked for advice on how to handle communication in difficult situations and walk through my approach, the person asking for help is a little disappointed. To be clear, they understand the approach and can see that it will work but they are hoping for a silver bullet to magically make it easy. The reality is that good communication takes work, practice, and most of all, it takes ownership.
If you accept that the role of a leader is to influence others to take action, communication becomes more than an optional “soft” skill; it’s essential to the success of any leader. Yet all too often I encounter people in leadership roles that give it little thought.
As an example, at conference sessions I’ll ask for a show of hands for how many people regularly have meetings where everyone leaves the meeting with truly a common understanding of what was discussed. The results are grim - most of us feel that this seldom occurs. Why do we let this happen? Why do we accept that we’ll walk away with different interpretations and just hope for the best?
We often put the blame on others for not “getting” us. Sometimes it’s a bit of ego or taking pride in the fact that not everyone can understand us. Sometimes we blame the listener for not understanding this and believe we couldn't be any clearer.
These attitudes all reflect a lack of ownership. Sure, there are some situations where a person simply can’t understand what you’re talking about, but that’s arguably rare. We use excuses and blame the listener to protect ourselves from thinking that the fault is in ourselves. The reality is, communication can be a tool, a skill, even a strategy, but unfortunately effective communication doesn’t come from a magic bullet or a mystical cure-all.
Successful communication comes through ownership
We need to be able to listen and hear what people are telling us: their concerns, their needs, their expertise, their perspectives. We as leaders own understanding them and asking questions to make sure we’re clear before trying to get them to understand us. And that’s the second half of the ownership; making sure we’ve been understood. Communication is more than just sending an email. It’s more than giving a single speech. It’s verifying that people actually “get” you, and finding different ways of communicating when people don’t understand you.
Some people that I've coached have felt that this isn't fair and ask why should they be expected to own both sides of communication if other people aren't expected to? The answer is that this isn't about fairness, it's about your success. If you want to be successful in any kind of leadership role you need to be able to communicate effectively, and doing that takes ownership.
It’s hard work at first but it’s worth it.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.