The Shitty Communicator’s Road to Recovery

Communication is consistently at or near the top of lists of what employers want in new hires, what makes great leaders, and what makes organizations function well.

Obviously, communication is important, but why do business leaders –the ones interviewed in Forbes articles or surveyed for Harvard Business Review studies– continue to express a need for better communicators in their organizations? Because for those running organizations large and small, shitty communication is one of the primary threats to innovation, growth, and success. In other words, if you can’t communicate effectively

–even with that 4.00 GPA or 15+ years of executive experience– you’re standing in the way of someone else’s bottom line.

Plus, you’re kind of off-putting at holiday parties.

To correct this, let me walk you through a few steps that might get you started down the path to shitty-communicator recovery.

Step #1: Recognize that you’re not a great communicator.  

Last week, I had a meeting with VPs at one of the most successful mechanical contractors in the Rocky Mountain region. We were discussing a plan for a workshop I am conducting to help project managers (PMs) better communicate with job site supervisors. These PMs, many fresh out of some of the best universities in the country, knew a ton about mechanical engineering, but had no idea how to handle themselves when talking to superintendents and on-site crews. However, the bigger issue wasn’t necessarily poor communication, but the failure of these PMs to see their role in it. They had yet to acknowledge they were a major part of the problem.

Self-reflexivity is central to identifying yourself as a bad communicator. Unfortunately, it might also be the most difficult step. As someone who works in a Communication Studies program full of shitty communicators with big academic egos (myself included), I can say with confidence that not only is it not enjoyable to discover your own faults; it’s also hard to do.

I cannot offer a quick fix for such narcissism, but I can suggest a few preliminary moves towards self-awareness:

  • Force yourself to remove all distractions for 20 minutes each day so you can just think about you and your relationship to the (professional) world you inhabit. Put yourself in the shoes of your coworkers, your supervisor, or the team you lead. What might they think of you? Why might they think that? And, if you really want to recognize the shittiness, ask them.
  • If you’re interested in taking this one step further, consider meditating. The value of meditation for the professional class is starting to be bolstered by some compelling scientific data, which means that things like mindfulness and meditation are no longer just for the commune or the yoga studio. Plus, some of the most successful (and wealthy) businesspeople in the world admit their affinity for meditation. Getting good at it is tough, but even for the novice it is a practice that forces you reflect not just internally, but also on your connection with others in the world. If this is something you’re considering, Buddhify and Headspace are meditation apps I have used and recommend.

Step #2: Learn How to Shut the F*ck Up

Recognizing that you might have some communication deficiencies is hard, but learning to listen is even harder. And not to sound like a couple’s counselor, but listening is as important to quality communication as talking.

The self-reflexivity exercises mentioned above will get you going in the right direction, but consider trying out these measures as well:

  • Pay attention to the words coming out of someone’s mouth. Often, when someone is talking we are looking at their face and their eyes and thinking about all the other information we know about them (their personality, our past arguments, etc.).
    As a result, we end up paying little mind to what they are actually saying. Try moving in and out of eye contact, something which is acceptable in other cultures even though it can come across as disrespectful in our own. For this reason, you don’t want to completely avoid eye contact, but at times shift your sight to other things so you can let another sense –hearing– take up the operative role in communication.
  • Force yourself to be silent for one second after the other person is talking. This can trigger various responses, including a breath –and thus, reflection– or a nonverbal expression of acknowledgement such as a nod. These responses are immensely important to communication and with some practice, these tactics will come to inform a more habitual listening strategy.

Step #3: Think, Listen, Speak

This isn’t so much a distinct step as it is a call to practice what you have learned. The more chances you give yourself to consider your connections to others, your role in those professional relationships, and areas for potential improvement, the less shitty your communication will be.

The value of your improvements should not take long to show. Your résumé is what will get you an interview, but your ability to communicate is what will get you hired. It is also what will allow you to listen and attend to the needs and knowledge of others when you’re leading a team, building a company, or schmoozing investors.

This stuff has value across time and in different situations.

Take the time to assess and improve your communication skills because no matter how smart or experienced you are, if you cannot hold a professional conversation you’re not an asset, you’re just an asshole.

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