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How to Communicate Effectively

This article references Harvard Business Review Manager's Handbook.

While bike riding with a group of friends, A. and H. began a heated argument. As I got closer to them I heard it was about a bike riding event that took place many years ago, and they each had a different memory of.
Each was convinced their memory was more accurate, and as often happens in such cases, they only listened to each other in order to quickly contradict each other. This wasn’t a dialogue, but two monologues.

Turning Two Monologues into a Dialogue

Our almost natural tendency is “to say things”. As if, the more we talk - the more convincing we’ll be. But the people we talk to have that same tendency, and they too want to “say things”.

And so two monologues develop, as people aren’t interested in hearing the other person and consider what they're saying with an open mind.

In the past I’ve presented techniques for conflict resolution, but not every dialogue is meant to resolve a conflict. Often we just want to communicate an idea.

In the above example, A. and H.’s conversation began out of a desire to share a memory. They failed to listen to each other, and this intensified their “need” to win the argument, which meant reiterating what they’d said.

The way to effectively communicate an idea is opposite.  The more we listen to the other person, the less they’ll resist listening to us and resist what we’re saying. To make people more open to hearing us, it’s best to ask open-ended questions (that is, not questions to which the answer is yes or no). This is a conversational format meant to promote understanding through question asking.

True, this isn’t a magic cure, and won’t always work. The other person might keep resisting, but this is the only way to try and overcome that.

If the other person keeps resisting listening with an open mind, we have one last recourse: say, calmly, that we don’t see a way to continue the conversation with an open mind, and so we must end it.

There is a small chance the other person will change perspective out of a desire to keep the conversation going - otherwise, there really is no point to continue, and it’s best to end the conversation with as few bad feelings as possible.

When a Manager Communicates with Employees

Until now I discussed conversations between people with no hierarchical relationship between them. Like friends or colleagues.

When a manager needs to communicate a message to employees, things are different. The fact that the manager talks and the employees are silent - doesn’t guarantee that they’re listening.

We can’t control our thoughts, and I assume that when you’re listening to a speech, training talk, or even an interesting lecture, your mind wanders. Personally I can attest that my mind wanders even when I myself speak.

This also happens to silent employees while the manager is speaking. Most likely, their mind has wandered far away.

I’m in the habit of summarizing important lectures, just to organize my thoughts and stay focused.

How to Keep People Listening?

There are several techniques to keep listeners focused. I tend to have a conversation instead of a lecture, as much as possible - to ask questions and to use visual aids such as writing on a board.

In The Harvard Business Review Manager's Handbook there are several recommendations on the subject.

Many times, once people lose focus, they won’t be able to refocus. They’ve lost the thread of the conversation, you’ve moved on, and without written references (such as contents written on the board or otherwise recorded) - listeners will struggle to reconnect.

The book’s authors recommend several behaviors, based on research done by John Antonakis Marika Fenley and Sue Liechti from the University of Lausanne:

  • Tone. Monotonous voices sound indifferent, so you should change your tone and volume as you speak. Use your voice to convey emotions, and keep a good pace. Pause to create drama and communicate control.
  • Facial expressions. Maintain eye contact and let listeners hear your enthusiasm - facial expressions communicate your personality and keep people engaged.
  • Gestures. Your body language can emphasize certain points. Hand gestures can demonstrate ideas, for example.
  • Shared values or emotions. Communicating shared beliefs or experiences can be very motivating, and foster a sense of solidarity in your listeners.
  • Contrasts. Either-or, on the one hand-on the other hand, etc. are easy to learn forms that can improve your communication. They create drama, and duality.
  • Three part lists. Three is the magic number. It indicates a pattern, feels complete, and is easy to remember. Use this technique to highlight points.

I assume some of these recommendations will suit you, while others won’t. Either way, the most important point is that the fact that employees are silent while you're talking, doesn’t mean they’re listening to you.

I’m not just talking about a group of employees. This could be true about a single employee while you’re explaining a task, for example. If you keep the talk one sided, if you don’t ask questions to make sure you’re understood, or use another such technique to keep the listeners attention - you’ll probably lose their focus.

Written Communication

Despite all the difficulty you can encounter in spoken communication, written communication is much more complex.

When we have a conversation, we are more able to notice if someone is losing focus. We can ask questions, have a dialogue, observe body language. But when we send emails, we have no idea what happens on the other side.

Maybe our email arrived at the same time as eighty other emails and will get lost? Maybe the recipient accidentally marked it as “read” and will not notice it any longer? Maybe the email server blocked our email or marked it as spam? Or maybe the recipient read our email, didn’t reply immediately, and forgot about it?

We have no way of knowing.

An Example of Ineffective Communication with an Overseas Company

A few days ago I sent an important email to the CEO of one of the European companies I represent in Israel. The subject line stated it’s about an offer on a big project. I received an immediate response. But later, when I needed to clarify a few things for the potential client, there was no answer.

I waited two days and sent it again, asking for a reply. The CEO answered immediately, apologizing that he hadn’t seen my email because he was busy.

As he is used to, he answered in the body of the email I sent. He answered in detail, but what he wrote made it clear he didn’t pay full attention to what I had written.

The same happens to me sometimes, and I assume to you as well.

This is the way things are, and the question is how to create more focus for our emails. To guarantee they’re read.

What I Do

Some of what I do is probably familiar to you, and you must have your own methods. I’ll share my techniques, and I invite you to share yours in the comments.

My first goal is for email to be seen and read. To achieve this I do the following:

  • I make sure to write an accurate and compelling subject line.
  • When the email is a reply or part of a thread, I try to change the subject line, to make clear that it’s a different email.
  • I don’t send emails between Thursday afternoon and Sunday or Monday morning, unless I know the recipient well and know they’ll read it. Otherwise my email will get lost among many others arriving over the weekend, and the recipient might miss it.
  • I of course don’t stop writing emails, I simply schedule their sending to the start of the new week.
  • When sending important emails, if I worry they’ll be missed, I use Outlook’s “reminder” function, which turns the email red after a set time.
  • If I send an email to someone who doesn’t know me, I’ll always try to call over the phone first. I also try to make initial contact with the office manager, and not the CEO. This way I can phone after sending the email to make sure it was read, and ask what the response is.

In the email body:

  • I try to be as brief as possible. Everyone tends to avoid long emails.
  • When I must write a long email, I try to use a list format.
  • Another way is to highlight the first word or two at the beginning of each clause.
  • I try to use simple, clear language, to avoid misunderstandings. Still, those happen sometimes, and I try to learn from them.

After sending the email:

  • If I don't get a reply, I send a polite reminder.
  • If I don’t get a reply after two or three reminders, and I personally know the recipient, I call them.
  • If I don’t know the recipient, there’s nothing to do. I try a different contact person.

Practical Advice from The Harvard Business Review Manager's Handbook

  • When writing an email, make sure it’s professional and brief.
  • Choose a standard font in black. Anything else might be difficult to read, and will raise questions as to your professionality.
  • Capitalize and punctuate correctly. Especially make sure to capitalize the I pronoun.
  • Include a short and descriptive subject line. Especially if it’s a call to action.
  • Don’t beat around the bush. Present the important information at the beginning, and don’t waste time on fluff - such as praise or apologies.
  • Divide long paragraphs. A “wall” of text is off-putting. Focus on the important parts, and try to limit the length of your email to one screen.
  • Edit your email. Before sending, edit your email to minimize mistakes and optimize wording.

Summary and Recommendations

We like talking. We don’t like listening as much.

We don’t all like writing, but fewer like reading.

That’s why we need to put effort and thought into how we communicate. So that our audience will be receptive and focused.

In conversations, we can usually recognize if our listeners are focused. If we make sure to maintain a dialogue and not lecture, ask questions, and listen in return - we can ensure we communicate, and not just talk.

Written communication is more complicated. When we send emails we can’t know if they were received, read, or considered.

The first rule is “do unto others”. In other words, be your own control case. Recognize what you find interesting or boring and tailor your communication along similar lines.

Since people aren’t copies of each other - once you’ve removed what you find boring, observe those around you with an open mind, and try to identify what people you speak with are bored by.

Even when you're a manager speaking with employees - they won’t listen if you can’t create interest.

We can’t control our thoughts, and just because employees are silent while you speak, that doesn’t mean they’re listening.

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  2. How to Avoid Miscommunications
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