Resources Articles Effective Communication is More Difficult Than It Appears

Effective Communication is More Difficult Than It Appears

Lawyers USA
Pages 4-23
September 11, 2006

Deborah, an equity partner in a mid-sized east coast firm, was having a problem with secretaries.

She hired a secretary whose resume indicated a great deal of relevant experience and skill, but to her surprise, this woman – 10 years her senior – was impossible to work with. When Deborah explained her expectations, the secretary returned a product that made it seem as though she hadn’t heard a word Deborah had said.

Maybe her assistant was used to doing things according to the norms of her previous employer, Deborah thought. So she explained that this firm had a different way of doing things and that she was expected to follow the new protocol.

I had been coaching Deborah on and off for years and I knew her to be quite generous and willing to do just about anything rather than fire someone. But no amount of explaining produced a change in the secretary’s behavior, and Deborah decided she had to let the woman go.

As they prepared to interview potential replacements, Deborah’s partners began offering her management advice. One suggested that her “New York style” might be overly harsh, while another told her to stop being so “nice.”

As the sheriff said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

A similar communication problem plagued Karen, the new managing partner of a small firm, when she led her first meeting of the partnership. She expressed her interest in her partners’ visions for the firm. She asked what they needed from her as a leader.

After the meeting, several male partners were overheard saying, “What kind of managing partner is she going to be: She’s asking us to tell her what to do!”

In both cases, the lesson is simple: in order to communicate effectively we must know what the recipient expects to hear.

That doesn’t mean we have to say what they expect, but in order to communicate effectively we do have to be aware of what they expect.

We are wired to try to fit information into our own framework. Typically, we hear what we expect to hear and what is unexpected may not be received at all. Violating your listener’s expectations can lead to major misunderstandings.

This is the problem that both Deborah and Karen encountered.

Addressing expectations

Effective communication is not just about speaking – it’s about making connections with the people you are speaking to. When it comes to juries, lawyers are acutely aware of this fact. But somehow, when it comes to their co-workers, this awareness often escapes them.

Perhaps this is because office communication doesn’t seem as important. If this is the case, consider this: the international consulting firm, Watson Wyatt, has consistently found a high correlation between an organization’s communication effectiveness and its financial performance – and that the least effective communication is found in service industries.

The goal of on-the-job communication is often to get others to do things. Some, like Deborah, use a direct style. Others, as noted by linguist Deborah Tannen, are more indirect, asking subordinates if they’d like to do a task or inviting their input about how it might best be accomplished. Although these styles don’t fall strictly along gender lines, many people expect women to be more indirect.

Deborah’s secretary seems to have been put off by her boss’s straightforwardness. Deborah’s “New York” style was no harsher than the directives the secretary heard from many of the male partners, but most people have come to expect this from men more so than women.

So the challenge is to understand what each listener expects to hear, and tailor your delivery accordingly.

Imagine how Karen’s partners might have responded had Karen said, “I bet some of you think that I’m inviting your input because I’m not sure enough myself of what to do.” Shining a light on unspoken assumptions can enable your listeners to hear and see beyond their expectations.

The ‘Platinum Rule’

If you want to ensure that your message will be received as intended, follow the Platinum Rule: treat others as they want to be treated. This is why listening is said to be such an essential part of effective communication. Genuine listening – versus preparing your response – enables you to learn about the receiver’s expectations and assumptions.

Attentive listening includes noting the effects of your statements on the receiver. Maintaining focus on the other person’s tone of voice and body language will provide you with cues about the emotional response to your message. You can sense when your words are not having the intended effect and make appropriate adjustments.

Typically subordinates are expected to sense the feelings of their superiors, while those who hold power don’t feel a similar obligation. But the fact is that this kind of sensitivity is a source of power. Without it your influence will be sorely limited.

Your message is also more likely to be heard if the recipient has a stake in receiving it. Good listening on your part allows you to learn about the receiver’s goals and aspirations. If your communication fits with the recipient’s values and ambitions it will have power. Had Deborah only known that her assistant wanted her experience and knowledge to be recognized, she could have tailored her requests to include this acknowledgement.

To complicate things further, more than 90 percent of a message’s meaning is derived from nonverbal cues. When listeners note incongruity between words and facial expression or tone of voice, they “listen” to the nonverbals – and question the speaker’s candor.

Becoming aware of your nonverbal cues may seem burdensome, but will greatly improve the chances that those listening to you will hear (and act on) what you have to say. Otherwise, many of your listeners are going to hear how you say your message and overlook your words.

If you’re not aware of your body language, you essentially have no idea what message you’re sending.

Remember, the goal of communication is not for you to speak – it’s for you to be heard. If you feel as if the message you’re sending is not the one being received, don’t blame the receiver. Instead, re-craft your message so your listener will want to, and be able to, hear.


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