Effective Communications

As an engineering manager in a large software company, one may think that what’s most important to me is technical excellence. It is not. While technical and process excellence are clearly critical to our success – and to the value we bring to the business, consumers and advertisers, the quality and skill I value most on my team is effective communication. This does not involve sending lots of emails or doing lots of presentations; what it does involve is a deliberate and well thought-through approach to effectively conveying a specific message to the recipient, as intended. I value this because it’s rare and yet so powerful. We see thousands of examples daily where mediocre communication hinders us, confuses us, and leaves us generally underwhelmed.

Start with an assumption I fully believe in: every interaction we have only has one of two outcomes. It either raises others’ opinions of us (and those we represent) or it lowers it. There is no third option. My demand for communication excellence stems from this core belief. I want my team to be gaining respect and credibility and never the other way around.

An Interpersonal Gap in communication occurs when one person’s intention does not match the impact he/she has on another person. An Interpersonal Gap is bridged when the impact on the receiver is what was intended by the sender. My argument is that while we cannot 100% control how a message is received, we can own the communication substantially enough to increase the odds that the intended and actual impact are the same.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject is that “we know and judge ourselves by our intentions, while we know and judge others only by our interpretation of their observable actions.”

Take 45 seconds and watch the video below that highlights the importance of the sender and receiver both understanding the same message – I dare to propose that the sender and receiver had best intentions and yet the communication failed, with dire consequences!

Importance of communications video

  • Interpersonal Gaps occur because senders’ intentions and receivers’ impacts are private and invisible.
  • Only the observable actions used by the sender to express intention and by the receiver to express impact are public and visible.
  • These observable actions are chosen and interpreted through sets of encoding and decoding filters.
  • Filters are developed through life experiences and are unique to each individual.
  • Just as intention and impact are private and invisible, so are filters.

There is a fun exercise when you’re trying to prove the importance of communication and narrowing the interpersonal gap. There are two flavors of a letter – each letter has the exact same wording and only the spacing and punctuation are different between them. I use this example to prove the importance of seeming little things when thinking about communication effectiveness. Read Version 1 and Version 2 of these letters. Is it important that Gloria pays attention to her intended message and how it comes across to John? I bet so.

“Woman without her man would be nothing” – what does that mean? Does it mean “Woman, without her, man would be nothing” or does it mean “Woman, without her man, would be nothing”?

“What is this thing called love” – is that representing “What? Is this thing called love?” or perhaps “What is this thing called, love?”

Being effective when communicating requires deliberate approaches to make sure what you want to convey is, indeed, what comes across. There are many ways to consider this and each person needs to find what works for them. Here are some of the things that work for me:

Before the communication is created:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the message you want to convey?
  • Do you have an ask, just sharing information, what’s the point?
  • What is their context and perspective – the default position?
  • What essential context do you need to share? This goes in the “main” part. Background goes in an appendix or at the end
  • Every sentence needs a point and must be essential.

After the communication is created but before it is communicated:

  • How will this person interpret the message?
  • Where have you made assumptions?
  • What ambiguous statements have you made?
  • Read this through their eyes – and revise and repeat as needed

One of the funniest, easy to read, and meaningful books I’ve read on focusing communications is called “Drop the Pink Elephant.” The following are some key points from the book:

  • Be principled in what you say – retain the moral high ground by remaining patient and polite (rather than biting replies and sarcasm). Be sure of your facts and explain them. Give the other person a way out without losing face.
  • Tell the whole truth rather than a White Lie – once you lie, no matter how small, you area liar and have lost your credibility.
  • “Sorry”, “Thank You”, and “Well Done” are sorely lacking in use.
  • Who looks stupid when criticizing in public? Criticize in private only – be constructive, share your expectations and how the person can meet them. Avoid sarcasm – it always is destructive.
  • Avoid words that dilute the message. Stop using words and phrases such as “maybe, hopefully, likely, relatively, probably, fairly, possibly, quite, reasonably, I’ll try..”
  • Use words with commitments – “yes, no, I don’t know”
  • Talk positively about yourself and avoid unnecessary criticism.
  • Know your audience – it’s all relative to their filters
  • Listen first to understand – contribute to conversations in meaningful ways or stay quiet.

And finally, the last big point to make is around effectively predicting thoughts, feelings, and wants. This can equally be applied to yourself when an emotional situation arises, as well as to others who are emotional. Remember – it’s your job to drive effective communication and there’s no better way than to accurately assess a situation and respond in a targeted manner. When faced with an emotionally-charged situation, ask yourself – what is it the other person is probably thinking right now? What is it they are feeling right now? And what is it that they want? The better you can get at accurately predicting those answers, the more effectively you can target and craft your communication. Likewise, when you are upset about something, ask yourself those same questions – if you don’t know the answer to what you want, there’s a very good chance no one else will either!

Attached you can find an example of a sample Powerpoint on Effective Communications, covering many of these items (a pdf version is also available). Feel free to repurpose them for your own use.