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3 strategies to clarify your communication

This past summer while on an international assignment, the teams I worked with used some good “words” to help clarify and communicate more effectively. Specifically, there were three effective communication strategies I saw employed:
  1. Socialize“:   Whenever there was a new thought or idea, the team talked about “socializing the idea”.  This meant for people to discuss, debate, expose people to the thought, and work together to internalize the idea.
  2. Talking past each other“:  Like calling a time out, either person or even someone listening would say “I think we are talking past each other”. It meant we are not talking about the same thing, or we are not getting anywhere understanding each other.  It meant it was time to reset the conversation so understanding and communication could take place.
  3. My ask“:  Teams succeed by everyone throwing into the conversation, chewing on the options, and talking through the “what ifs”.  However, sometimes the team can lose the summary, and/or not understand what the request was instead of what the suggestions or brain storming were.  By summarizing the conversation by saying, “The ask is…” clears the path to know just what exactly is being sought. Clarifying by using the words, “My ask is” can be a good way to summarize and ensure something needed is not lost in the conversation.
Communication is necessary for success in any environment or initiative.  I saw people using these phrases firsthand – and they were very successful in getting the team moving in the same direction.
Be intentional

Communicating from within the Information Tsunami

“You have 60 unread emails” and it’s only 8am in the morning. Ugh. It’s shaping up to be your fourth Friday* in a row. Why is it that at the most inconvenient time, the pace doubles and the information flows faster than your filter can absorb?

What do you do in that moment to process and “communicate” from within the information tsunami? Think about it for a moment. Communication is the lifeblood of manufacturing. Communication ensures good decisions have a chance to be made, communication enables good prioritization of tasks and initiatives, communication reinforces the team’s direction.

I’ll ask again, how do you filter the information coming and going during a day like this?

Let’s start by acknowledging that email is not the end all be all. Heresy! One time in the automotive industry I watched emails flying back and forth between two of my staff who were sitting less than 15′ apart. I finally had had enough and dragged them into a conference room and said, “Fix it.”

To be fair, we all have a preferred method of communication be it Email – Text – Daily Reports – Phone – Face/Face. But instead of thinking of yourself. Why not flip it and ask yourself, “What does the situation require of you to communicate best in?” In a fluid day, an email may languish in an overflowing inbox whereas a text will be acted upon.

When sending emails, pay attention to your “subject” line wording. Some folks support multiple business areas, so just saying “Yesterday’s meeting notes” isn’t helpful. That is why Miss Grammar created “adjectives” – “Yesterday’s Production meeting notes” is more descriptive. Use key words in the subject including the project, location, etc. Help the email receiver help you.

For the millennials, go ahead and smile, because while I’m a boomer, I think a text message can be the best way to keep information flowing in certain situations. Each company’s environment differs so use this to augment and reinforce the communication for those times when “instant” means now, not an hour from now.

Daily Reports
We all get “daily” reports. Sometimes the Daily report isn’t first on the must read now list. You can filter these as needed to fit your rhythm. Sometimes you may even discern a pattern that you never tend to read a particular report – would it be crazy to suggest removing yourself from that particular thread?

Conversations (Phone or Face/Face)
Fast conversations can prevent a cluttered email box. Let me say it again – conversations save inbox overload.

If an email chain becomes a “back and forth” conversation – either drop everyone else off or better yet pick up the phone. Realize that not everyone is on the computer all the time and not everyone has smart phones. If you need an immediate answer or have time-critical information – don’t use email. Text, call or go find the person.

When you find the information tsunami is in full force, take a moment to be respectful of others and their priorities. If someone doesn’t immediately respond to you, don’t assume they are ignoring you. While you may have 60 unread emails, they may have 100. It’s hard to believe that your priorities may not be someone else’s too.

Plan ahead, don’t procrastinate, allow people time to respond based on the situation.

Be intentional

*I have nothing against those who love Fridays. But after 30 years in the manufacturing world, if something is going to go wrong, it will be on a Friday or the day before a long holiday weekend… That’s when you just have to smile and say, let’s figure it out…

Communication lives at the corner of Expectation and Clarity.

“There’s an elephant in the room – do you think it knows I can see it?”

People seldom state the obvious, or at least what they believe is obvious and that’s usually where teams start to “rub the wrong way”. Team member “A” thinks team member “B” should do X or say Y. Team member “A” thinks, “Don’t they know, it is obvious!”

Expectations start at the beginning, but it is at the end that the failure of communicating expectations becomes apparent. Don’t wait for failure to figure out the communication issue.

What exactly is expected?

Clearly state it. If you have to communicate it every hour, or every day, then that is what is required. There is no such thing as “over” communicating. A floor supervisor may need to set the expectation more frequently than a CEO does – but both are responsible for clearly stating what is expected.

Follow up for clarity. It is not enough to think you set the expectation. You have to validate for understanding. A former boss would end each meeting by going around the room asking each person directly, “Do you have any questions about what we just discussed? Are you clear on our path?” Whoa be if you left a meeting and an hour later “forgot” what was just agreed to.

Expectation is a two-way street. While you may have expectations of others, they also have expectations of you. It takes two to ride a seesaw. Team work requires that the team comes to a consensus regarding an expectation of itself. Without a foundation of understanding, team members may flounder and who has time these days to waste?

Make sure your expectations are realistic. Open and honest discussions about expectations and reality can mean the difference between success and failure.

Be intentional

“For the Avoidance of Doubt”

I heard a term this week that lawyers will immediately recognize but for an engineer like me, it was new. It’s a term used in legal contracts: “…for the avoidance of doubt”. I heard that and thought, what a great way to communicate the need for clarity on a particular topic.

When we communicate there are things that are serious enough to demand the communicator goes the extra mile to ensure the “avoidance of doubt”. It is not the responsibility of the one being “communicated to” – they may not know they are about to miss a point. The onus is upon the communication pitcher not the communication catcher to ensure the point is received.

Now apply this concept to your day to day. How many emails, phone calls, meetings, and hallway conversations do you have in a given week? And in that fast paced world, how do we avoid doubt when communicating something serious?

Here are some actions I’ve used to when communicating something where “for the avoidance of doubt” is needed:

  • Have the receiver repeat the message back to you
  • Use multiple formats – words, pictures, graphs, verbal, or charts
  • Approach the subject from more than one direction
  • Explore “what ifs” ensuring the intent and motive are as clear as the content provided. Knowing ‘why’ enables people to execute to the goal and not just compliance to the direction given
  • Discern which topics need the avoidance of doubt
  • Own the communication. You’re the “Pitcher” – Pitch in a way they can catch

I’m sure there are more actions you can take besides these and yours may vary due to your work environment. Yet the idea remains the same. You want to communicate in a way “…for the avoidance of doubt”.

Be Intentional,

An email logic tree for thee…

Here’s an email quiz for you. Sorry, there are no bonus points for the “right” answer…but your team will thank you. And since I only have one question on the quiz…. this should be pretty easy for you.

Are you the kind of person who:
A) Automatically hits “reply” to an email
B) Automatically hits “reply all” to an email
C) Contemplates who should receive the email, adding/deleting folks as appropriate before sending any reply

If you said “C” I would have to admit that’s my category as well. However, I struggle at times in who I decide to add or delete. Adding people means long bulky email streams are born (and take on a life of their own). Removing people means someone will lose the conversation stream.

Everyone talks about email etiquette but since I’m an engineer I’d like to talk about email logic. What’s the flowchart in your mind’s eye that you walk through for every email that comes across your screen? Do you have a process? For me, here are some of my internal checkpoints I use that may help you the next time you are deciding who to add or delete from Email_Logican email chain:

Are only the people I’m communicating with directly on this email?
If your CCs: outnumber your TOs: you may need to rethink your communication strategy. Who really needs this information?

Is this an INTERNAL or EXTERNAL email?
In no circumstance should a supplier or customer be copied on an INTERNAL email. As people respond and “add on”, they may not keep track if the email trail is an INTERNAL or EXTERNAL conversation. Admittedly it can get blurry when you’re in a hurry. So take a breath. Keep communication with EXTERNAL business partners separate from INTERNAL only conversations. Keep EXTERNAL in the TO: line of the email. If something is internal only – label it INTERNAL in the subject line.

Who needs this information?
Take the time to ensure your “Reply All” response is appropriate for the reply – check for confidentiality, internal/external considerations, or level of details that maybe only a few need to know. Take the time to think about if additional people need to know. Maybe the originator did not realize someone else was working on the same thing.

And finally, here’s one that I like to call, “The Jeff Foxworthy* Test”… “If you’re email message is shorter than the list of people it’s going to, yoooouu may be an email rubber stamper.” If this is the case you may want to consider using the blind copy option. There are times a group distribution is needed. Why make everyone scroll down through 50 names to read a couple sentences.

There you have it. My little “Email Flowchart” logic on how I process emails. I’m curious what checks/balances you use in your Email flow. Feel free to comment below and let’s help each other out. Thanks.

Be Intentional,

*Sorry but I can just hear his voice, hence my name for it.