Communicating About Communication

Yes, it's meta. And yes, you need to talk more about talking more.

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Saying a lot of words doesn’t make someone a good communicator.

Years ago, when I was studying to be a teacher, I had a grad school professor who taught our class about communication styles. “One student might respond to verbal instruction, while another needs to experience an idea, perhaps even get on their feet to work out a problem.” She’d pose these theoreticals to our group of teachers-in-training, and then challenge us with different scenarios: Say you’re instructing a 7th-grade math class about factoring, and you have a visual learner as well as a student who needs to talk out ideas to understand concepts. How will you teach them both?

It’s funny, talking about how you’re going to talk to someone. As speakers, many of us assume our intent is always clear, that listeners will understand the exact content and purpose of our speech. But communication is much more nuanced than just yelling words at each other. I think one of the most misunderstood ideas about communication is that you have to communicate a lot to do it well.

Instead, I would argue that successful communication means being able to talk about the way we communicate, actively and directly. It means using perception and empathy to gauge how listeners are receiving our speech. And it means being able to switch modes if our words aren’t having their intended effect. Ultimately, each person’s understanding of the world is unique. Instead of assuming a miscommunication issue is the result of flippancy or rudeness, know that it’s more likely the reflection of a gulf between individual contexts and modes of being.

In my conversation with coffee professional Areli Barrera de Grodski, she said learning to communicate was the most pivotal skill she’s gained as a leader. “I think that communication has been the biggest learning journey for me as someone who has a very similar experience to a lot of our team members.”

Areli is the co-founder of Cocoa Cinnamon, a group of retail coffee shops in Durham, North Carolina, and its coffee roasting wholesale arm, Little Waves. She describes herself as a shy, reserved person, and was able to recognize those same traits in a number of her employees.

“I grew up with a very quiet family—in the sense of when it comes to talking about our feelings. But we're also very loud when we're together; like we're a very joyful bunch when we're together,” she said. “But when we're by ourselves, we're … I dunno … I'm a very quiet person. And I see that in a lot of our team members.”

Areli had to learn to create space for her team members to communicate with her. She knew from her own experience that she couldn’t expect her employees to tell her things unless she signaled that it was safe to do so.

Whether you feel safe to communicate openly depends on what your past has taught you about speaking out. Perhaps your needs have never been questioned. Perhaps your needs have been consistently brushed off. Perhaps your needs have been used to paint you in an unsavory light. In any of these scenarios, these prior experiences will inform how and what you communicate now.

This is an important insight for leaders: When you compound varying communication styles with the complication of power dynamics, a likely result is that some folks will keep silent unless you strive to make communication feel safe for every worker. This is also a relevant consideration for coworkers, and even when talking to your boss. (I hate Managing Up™, or what I think of as the moment when you, as a worker, realize your boss needs you to pander to them to assuage their negative behaviors—and which usually translates to them being nicer to you.)

As a person who frequently interviews people, I like blunt questions. “Are you someone who needs me to ask a question more than a few times?” or “Is the best way to tell you something by calling or emailing you?” or “Do you need to make space to bring up workplace issues, or do you feel comfortable bringing them up on your own?” These are the kinds of questions I wish more leaders would ask.

In our interview, Areli mentioned being comfortable in the meta—the space where we talk about what we’re talking about. It’s my belief that workplaces would become less toxic if we normalized meta communication. It’s easy to assume information is exchanged laterally, like a horse racing towards a finish line. But really, communication is more like a pinball game: many of your shots are going to be gutterballs, and the ones that do make it end up bouncing around endlessly.

The same professor who taught us about different learning styles also taught us to check for understanding. That means we’d ask our students to apply the lesson they had just learned in a way that demonstrated they understood it—usually in the form of a short quiz or an easy task at the end of class.

I’d argue that we should make checking for understanding part of our everyday lives, especially if we’re bosses or leaders of a team. Simple repetition or eloquence aren’t the hallmarks of a good communicator. Rather, successful communication looks like someone who checks to see if their words are landing—and who can adjust their tactics based on the needs of those around them.

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