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Clear communication is easier said than done. Here’s how to recognize and build clarity at work.
How often do you ask someone to repeat themselves? How often do you understand what someone is saying the first time they say it? If you’re unsure, go through a whole day, talking to others, and try to truly understand every single word they’re saying. If you’re unsure, ask them to repeat themselves or to clarify. Try to keep count of how often you do this for just one day—I guarantee you it’s more than you think.
This is especially true in the workplace. The way we communicate is informed by myriad intersections in our past—our upbringing, how we grew up, where we’ve worked in the past…which means we all communicate and understand each other differently. What one person reads as a passing comment can come off as hurtful to another.
Communication is hard, but it’s also tricky—and we often just tackle the difficult part of being good communicators. What I mean by this is that we push ourselves to be open and transparent, but we don’t assess if people actually heard what we have to say.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this was because so many leaders think policies and rules are clear. They think their intentions are generally well-articulated, but when I ask how they’re sure, they say something along the lines of, “because I’ve said so in the past,” or “because my staff knows.”
That’s not enough.
I want to break this point down into three checkpoints: stating a thing, reinforcing a thing, and understanding a thing—all three of these things are different.
Stating a thing: The simplest way to communicate an idea. This is simply saying an idea out loud to someone.
Reinforcing a thing: This is finding multiple ways to communicate an idea. This usually entails multiple forms of communication that aren’t just verbal. Having an employee handbook or a checklist at a staff meeting qualifies under reinforcement.
Understanding a thing: This means making sure a person can apply an idea. This can range from role-playing to check for understanding, to asking questions to see if a person can articulate back an idea and how it should be utilized. This is much more complicated.
Stating an idea isn’t the same as reinforcing it. Likewise, reinforcing it isn’t the same as making sure folks understand what it means and that they know how to apply it.
Let’s try an example. At work, there’s a policy where employees can take two weeks of paid vacation. This is stated to employees on their first day at work but never comes up again. No one ever uses them.
In this instance, the idea is stated but never reinforced or understood. Leaders don’t bring up the policy again, and the policy isn’t modeled for employees (if no one takes vacation time, it can actually be internalized the opposite way that taking your vacation days is seen as a negative).
Take it a step further. Let’s say the policy is written down in an employee manual. This reinforces the policy. But employees still haven’t seen anyone else use their time off. Perhaps they assume that if they ask for a paid day off, they’ll be seen as lazy or not dedicated. In this case, a policy was both stated and reinforced but hasn’t been truly understood.
I struggle with this constantly. Even though I know there are rules and policies meant to support me, I feel deeply uncomfortable asking for them. What if my boss thinks I’m being selfish? What if I’m seen as greedy for asking for something even if it’s been stated that I’m allowed to do so?
Relying on written policies and vaguely communicated statements means that they will be interpreted differently by your staff members—hard stop. Your meaning will never be fully understood unless you check for understanding.
Let’s use a slightly different example: sick days. In many states, folks are guaranteed a certain number of sick days. As a responsible employer, you communicate to your staff that you want them to use their sick days when they are sick. But you still observe employees trying to come to work when they feel ill.
What does this say? This says that there is still anxiety and a lack of understanding. This says that an employee is afraid they will be seen in a negative light for taking a sick day even though they’re entitled to it.
When it comes to communication, I try to imagine two dots. One dot represents the idea you’re trying to make, and the other is an employee understanding the idea. Really good communicators understand that the line between those two points needs to be drawn. That line is the why of a rule: why do sick days matter? Why do you want to give folks paid time off?
Ideas don’t matter if you don’t draw that line clearly—and they especially don’t matter if your employees don’t see or understand the line.
If you notice that, even though you have a sick time policy, no one uses it, ask your staff why. Go back to the why of the rule: do you believe that folks will make a speedier recovery when they stay home? Do they know that you have their back if they have to call out a shift? If your staff doesn’t know how or why a rule is in place, and they don’t know how to utilize them, they’re as good as garbage music videos.
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