There’s just something about communications that’s harder than it should be.
Of all the skills we develop as leaders and professionals, communicating is one that we’ve been practicing since birth. And yet it often gets in our way, causes stress, and leaves us at a loss. We too frequently miscommunicate, obfuscate the point, cause an unintended reaction, or avoid a messy discussion altogether.
Who hasn’t left a conversation thinking, now that didn’t go like I wanted it to?
The comforting news is that it’s a universal struggle, with few escaping unscathed. Remember watching in dismay as BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward stumbled through a series of awkward public conversations after the Gulf oil spill, trying to empathize by saying, he too, wanted his life back?
Just this month Juniper’s stock fell 10% after the CEO’s evasive comments made investors jittery. If we jump to the political side, it’s a gaffe-a-minute watching the debt ceiling debate play out — and that’s without Anthony Weiner to kick around anymore.
And these are professional communicators!
Luckily, for most of us, millions don’t witness our communications mishaps. In my book, Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Engage and Inspire Others, I discuss the common communications mistakes that professionals make that have a major impact on their performance. These communications pitfalls affect your ability to execute, influence, be heard and understood. They also undermine your executive presence.
The good part is there are easy fixes to each of them, and noticing is half the battle. Read on and see which ones resonate for you.
1. Failing to ask for clarification.
This comes up in my work with executives, and it’s evidenced across levels. We walk around with a lot of confusion about what we’re actually supposed to deliver that can be clarified if we simply ask.
Whether it’s a CEO who doesn’t know what the board wants to see at the board meeting, or a junior employee who doesn’t understand what the boss wants in a pending report, the rationale is the same: nobody wants to look incompetent in front of authority. So what happens? We waste time guessing, miss the mark too frequently, and create more work for everyone.
By the way, this works the other way as well. Managers doing the delegating don’t clarify with employees because they’re worried they’ll be micromanaging or quashing creativity. Most employees would rather take a few extra minutes to be clear, and save lots of time and energy to get it right the first time.
FIX: If you don’t understand what success looks like, ask for clarification, specifics or examples. If you ask well-informed questions, you’ll look a whole lot smarter than if you execute incorrectly.
2. Not framing your remarks at the appropriate level.
People at different corporate levels require different levels of granularity, and in general, the higher up the audience, the less detail you should be providing. The CEO of a company needs to know a little about many functions, whereas a functional manager needs to be deep in the weeds of his division. It’s a critical skill that’s also called “top lining,” or pulling out comments that are aimed to the appropriate level for your audience.
Frequently, executives get tuned out when they report to higher levels and provide too much detail about their topic. Conversely, if you’re speaking to a lower level in the organization, you have to be more detailed about what matters to that group. (Not as BP’s Hayward did, discussing what mattered to him — his own personal discomfort.) Professionals who can speak at the level of their audience, and address what the audience needs to know, exude presence and good judgment.
FIX: Cater your comments to the highest level person in the room, and address what he or she will find valuable. Put the details in an appendix or have them ready so they’re available, and you can easily pull them out if asked.
3. Littering your speech with qualifiers.
You can leave much of your power and influence on the table just by using qualifiers such as “I think” or “we might” or “I hope to” before your points. It shows confidence to commit and put a stake in the ground. Consider the difference between “I think we’ll hit our goal” and “We will hit our goal.”
As a bonus, what you declare is more likely to happen. In our CYA culture, it may feel uncomfortable to be so resolute when hedging is the norm. Therein lies its power. And besides, you’re just as responsible for the commitment anyway.
FIX: Start paying attention to how you use language, and if you’re hiding behind qualifiers. Tape yourself or ask a colleague to take note of when you use them, and find a comfortable phrase to replace them such as “I plan to” or “I will.”
4. Being negative to appear analytical.
In any organization, this similar dynamic plays out: one person throws an idea on the table and others jump in to pick it apart. There’s a cultural norm that smart people have an analytical ability to point out potential hurdles. Hence if you want to appear smart, you start by going negative.
This norm serves a great purpose in that bad ideas can be debated and debunked. However, it also kills a lot of good ideas as well. Negative is a default approach. (And let’s face it, people aren’t 100% behind what they’re saying anyway because they haven’t thought about it all that much.)
On a personal level, this approach can get carried too far, and people get labeled as difficult, negative, or the catchall having a bad attitude. While we appreciate analysis, we also want our colleagues to be supportive.
FIX: Stop yourself from first pointing out what’s wrong in a situation, and make it a habit to jump to what’s right instead. If an idea is simply rotten, say how much you appreciate the thought or effort, and explain why you feel it falls short and how it can be improved. If you kill it, provide an alternative.
5. Being overly agreeable.
This is the opposite side of the continuum, and occurs when we want so much to be a likeable team player that we come across as a yes person. Every idea is great, each deadline is possible, and new projects are all upside. This happens frequently in professional services relationships when enthusiastic sales people agree to a client’s unrealistic expectations, only to have the account people cringe at their impossibility.
Of course you know how this plays out, we often can’t achieve what we signed on to do, or deadlines are missed because we’re overextended, and our credibility is damaged. The intention, to be a good colleague, is an honorable one. However, what people respect is honesty.
You’ll build more trust and admiration by being truthful to yourself, and others, by saying maybe or no when that’s the best answer. (Body language tip: continuous head nodding gives the impression of being too agreeable as well.)
FIX: When you find yourself tempted to state agreement even though you don’t feel it, express your true opinion. You can still say this politely, and rather than simply say what you can’t do, let the person know what you can do, and believe to be the best solution for all.
These are a few career-limiting communications behaviors I see in my work, but there are certainly plenty more. What communication missteps have you encountered, or learned to improve? I’d love to hear about them.
(This post also appears in Forbes.com.)