Communication Breakdown

7 rules to radically and immediately improve your communication

by Erin Urban

Personal and business correspondence have drifted sharply away from in-person conversation or even vocal communication—almost exclusively to written messages. Texting, email, instant messaging, Twitter and Facebook, for example, enable us to rely on the written word even more.

Written information has immense importance in our culture and I am an avid book-lover. When it comes to conveying information or gaining alignment on an action, however, the written word might not be your best tool.

Like so many, you might believe that technology improves the efficiency of your communication. Don’t get me wrong—email, text and instant messenger have many valuable benefits when used appropriately. But think about it: Have you ever emailed someone who works on the same floor as you (or in the cubicle next door)? Or, instead of picking up the phone when someone didn’t quite grasp the information conveyed in your email, you just sent another email?

The issue isn’t that written messages are bad. The real problem is we are trying to rewrite thousands of years of effective communication evolution in less than 30 years. Words are only a small portion of effective communication. The rest lies in tone of voice and body language, neither of which can be conveyed well in a written message, no matter how many emoticons you use.

The written word is powerful, but humans have evolved to effectively communicate and build relationships in person. Rest assured, I’m not a dinosaur advocating that we throw out email, social media and texting. They are great tools. We get into trouble when we use them as a crutch.

I’ve seen too many projects, relationships, work processes and entire business systems completely botched by insufficient and ineffective communication. Stop the insanity and have an open dialogue! An open dialogue isn’t an app found on your phone—it’s a conversation between two or more people, and there are a few rules.

Rule one: Be brief

It’s fine to chat about the weekend and catch up—if it’s just two of you. But in a group setting, keep the meeting brief and get to the point. Otherwise, it defeats the point of communication efficiency and you are disrespecting other people’s time. Use an agenda to stay on track—it’s essential for any meeting.

Rule two: Be open

The purpose for having the dialogue session shouldn’t be to talk about just your point of view. Set aside your opinions long enough to objectively consider what others have to say, and be open to changing your mind. If you are showing up just to be heard, rethink your intentions. Effective dialogues are a collaborative effort.

Rule three: Actively listen

Allow others to speak freely without getting too far off topic or taking a detour on Pity Parkway—no one wants to sit through a complaint session. Establish the topic before you begin, agree to stay on topic and listen to what others have to say without cluttering your mind with what you are going to say next.

Rule four: Ask ‘why’

Ask reflective questions to better understand the message or subject being discussed. If you are dealing with an issue, asking “why” will help you discover the root cause in lieu of jumping to the first easy solution. The more facts you have, the less likely you are to make a wrong assumption. I’ve never heard that assumptions were a good source of sound decision-making.

Rule five: Ask for opinions

Don’t hesitate to poll the group for thoughts after any statement. This encourages the spirit of open dialogue and may loosen the tongues of those hesitant to contribute. A tip to improve your communication is to wait until everyone else has voiced their opinions before expressing yours. This allows you to build consensus, interject your perspective and honor other contributions to gain alignment.

Rule six: Paraphrase

It’s OK to repeat what you thought you heard or understood for clarity. You aren’t being cheeky—you are simply making sure you have a consistent understanding of what was said or decided. This is particularly critical during group dialogue. If you aren’t 100% certain what was intended, paraphrasing your understanding of what was said is essential.

Rule seven: Determine action items

Before the dialogue ends, ascertain any actions that must be followed up on and ensure someone is responsible for each item. It’s best to get volunteers for action items, but don’t be afraid to assign them if no one speaks up. Don’t forget to set a due date. I find it useful to defer to the person taking the action item to set the deadline. That way, he or she feels more in control and is more likely to accomplish the item.

Immediately improve your communication

How would you feel if you were the person who achieved better outcomes when it came to important decisions? Or the manager everyone knows is engaged with his or her employees? You can hold people accountable without it being a chore and spend less time clarifying miscommunications.

If you are suffering from the illusion that emails, texts and instant messages are more efficient, let me illuminate your mind. Not only is an email, for example, missing key points of human communication, but studies show that it is dramatically less efficient than in-person dialogues (conversations).

Leverage a proven centuries-old tool designed by evolution: the powerful in-person conversation. People will find you more approachable and feel that you value them. If you want to radically and immediately improve your communication, don’t leave your message open to chance. Funny how just talking to people makes all the difference. Unfortunately, as a society, we don’t pause to breathe often enough and we fall victim to the illusion that “digital” means “faster.”

Erin Urban is a lean Six Sigma Black Belt, certified career growth and leadership development coach, and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. She is the founder of Urban Professional Performance Solutions in Houston. Urban has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Longwood University in Farmville, VA. She is a member of ASQ.

This is an excellent communication article. You mention evolution many times in your text. Faith in a creator is my foundation for any evolution evidence and is considered by me to better speak to others.
--Sherry King, 05-27-2020

Excellent article; content is incredibly applicable to the real world.

In the same vein as this article, my current engineering director gave some advice regarding communication via Slack, "Always assume the person sending a message sent the message with the best of intentions; you can always follow-up with the sender to confirm."
--Chris Cunnington, 01-05-2020

Average Rating


Out of 2 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers