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A wise man once said, communication makes friends; a lack of communication makes enemies. You can break a heart or start a war simply based on the words you choose. We all know communication is important, and yet effective communication can be a huge battle for individuals, teams and organizations. It is important to look at communication as the gateway to clarity, which can be defined as the lifeblood of optimization that helps us go fast and get stuff done.
To ensure we remain clearly aligned in our communication, we must consider how we share and process information. This gets into some pretty nutty areas of neuroscience and behavior. For example, some people are good at active listening, while others are not. How we absorb and digest information is a factor as well. Some process info visually, while others process through sound or touch. Finally, perception based on what we want to hear versus what’s actually said is also a huge factor.
Most of us have experienced a scenario where you have a meeting with one or several people. You have a robust, or at least what appears to be forward-moving, conversation. You break the metaphorical huddle and go to run whatever plays you understand to be correct. You come back together and people are so off course that you have a twilight-zone moment of disbelief wondering, “Was the other person in the same conversation as the rest of us?”
You essentially just experienced the telephone game, where a message is passed around so many times that by the time it reaches the last person, it’s evolved into something else entirely and has lost its original meaning. The telephone game, or misinterpreted conversation, happens unintentionally in business all the time, and is the mortal enemy of tactical alignment.
Conversations can easily be misinterpreted because of a combination of bad communication habits: people are hurried when they speak; they’re distracted and not actively listening; or they simply have a lack of understanding or context to what is being said.
So how do you prevent your team from falling prey to the telephone game? Here are some steps you and your team members can take to prevent miscommunication:
1. Make sure everyone involved understands and realizes that misinterpretations are human nature. We’re all guilty of it. Just because you told someone something, doesn’t mean they got it.
2. Be aware of yourself and others. The more you know about yourself and those with whom you’re communicating, the more effective you will be in disseminating information to ensure you are aligned with someone else. This is especially helpful for aligning with people who are wired differently than you or who come from a very different background where their understanding of something could have a wildly different meaning from what you meant.
3. At the end of a conversation with someone, repeat what you heard. This allows for feedback on whether you understood the message in the way the speaker intended. You will be amazed how many times the other person will say, “No, I didn’t mean that. I meant…” You’ll also be amazed how much time you save by taking this simple step to being tactically aligned.
4. Leave a few minutes at the end of a conversation or meeting to go over next steps. Allow for questions to provide further clarity or context for those who need it. This is especially important if a lot of different topics or ideas were discussed. Context shifting is a heavy task for our brains, so the more topics, the greater chance there is for tactical dissonance.
5. Account for the digital age we live in and be mindful of how you’re delivering your message. Putting an unclear narrative in the form of an email is a recipe for misunderstanding and misalignment. Email is best used to spread information, like recapping action items after a meeting or sharing attachments others need, NOT for in-depth communication. This means no debating, convincing or critiquing via email—save that for face-to-face communication.
The good news is, like anything else, you can quickly build mental muscle memory to be a rock-star communicator who helps bring clarity and alignment to those you lead and work with. It’s worth the investment. Ultimately, you will have less headaches, fewer false starts and shortened communication cycles that all add up to creating a team environment that’s productive and clear in its communication.