Friday, January 21, 2011

Speak Easy Note #47 - The Boss's Intentions - Common Blunders

New managers often worry that their friends at work will stop liking them when the hierarchy changes and they are no longer peers. Becoming a manager of someone who has been an equal co-worker can be a big challenge. Even experienced managers who have been the “boss” for an extended period of time fail to recognize how many of their preferred communication approaches can be big obstacles to clear understanding and successful outcomes. They are often unaware that they have conveyed something quite different from what they intended.

Here are three types of communications to avoid that frequently backfire:


Managers often tell me that they have given precise and clear directions to someone who works for them and that they’re quite upset about how far from the mark the results were that the person achieved. Even worse, the managers sometimes tell me that the individual paid no attention to their instructions and guidelines at all. When I probe further to determine how a clear instruction was so misinterpreted, I often learn that the managers never actually communicated any specific requirements at all. Instead they have started their clear instruction with,

“Why don’t you do it like this …”


“A better approach to what you’re doing is …”


“I would prefer you to …”

The potential for clarity of description for these is without debate. The manager can express very clear descriptions of how to achieve a task. What is totally missing from this language is the clarity of requirement. Certainly preference is stated. And yet, removal of choice and requirement of action are nowhere stated.

The recommendation to use equal, level, mutually respectful two-way communication is the first fundamental tenet in my book: SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success. The emphasis on avoiding micro-management of employees is valid and beneficial. A manager can communicate in a level way without micromanaging and still clearly convey specific task requirements.


Another communication deficit closely linked to how managers are surprised by unexpected and undesirable outcomes is the tendency they have to ask questions like these:

“Are there any questions?”

“Do you understand?”

“Have I made everything clear?”

In most instances, the immediate answers to these questions are, “No.”, “Yes.” and “Yes.”. What verification occurs with this type of closed-ended questions? None at all, actually. Even when these answers are sincere, they cannot tell the manager if what he or she wanted to convey was actually understood or will be retained.

Much better questions for the manager to ask are:

“What questions do you have about XXX?”

“What are the most important concepts you got from what I just presented?”

“How can you best use the information I have just described?”

“What do you think is most significant about this topic?”


A project manager said to me,

“I know that my team understands what I’m saying because I see that they’re listening closely. I can tell from their facial expression and their eye contact that they’re engaged and attentive.”

This belief that her team understands what she is telling them was in contrast to her low self-ratings on clear communication, team development and obtaining results. For sure, eye contact and facial expression are strong and clear indicators of how engaged people are. People’s engagement can be a preliminary gauge of comprehension. The fact is though that people can listen very attentively and still miss a good deal of what is presented to them. Also presenters can engage people and convey something other than what is intended. Full attention to what is said cannot guarantee desired execution and results.

In addition to monitoring how attentive an audience appears to be, it is critical to incorporate into all business (and social) venues verification of understanding and retention of information though multiple and varied two-way communications.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Speak Easy Note #46 - Phrases to Avoid

It's astonishing how frequently we use familiar phrases that are the opposite of our intended meaning or are completely unrelated to what we actually want to express. Since these phrases are so commonly used, we continue to say them with very little awareness of their potentially less than desirable impact and without recognizing that it would be appreciably better to eliminate them altogether or choose words instead that are much more direct and closely aligned with what we actually want to say.

Here's a list of five frequently used phrases to eliminate from your communication repertoire, accompanied by suggested choices to say in place of them:

I don’t blame you for …
I definitely understand your choice to …

How interesting that we introduce blame when we wish to express understanding and alignment.

To be honest, I …
I …

Whenever people feel a need to proclaim honesty prior to making a statement or expressing a viewpoint, it sets the stage for others to wonder if they've been other than honest prior to their declaration of honesty.

Do you mind xxxx ...
I would appreciate it if you xxxx …. (or) Would you please xxx …

If our request is legitimate, then what's the purpose of asking someone if they “mind” doing something? If we really want to know what a person’s reaction is to our request, it would be better to ask, “How do you feel about doing xxx?”

I would be willing
I am comfortable … (or) I’m on board with … (or) I agree to

It's best to omit “willing” from your agreement unless you want to convey that you're doing something that's basically out of your best interests or far from your desire.

No problem
Sure … (or) Absolutely … (or) Of course … (or) I would be delighted to …

As acceptable as this expression is and as clear an understanding of it that everyone has, “No problem” is comprised of two negative words, one of which introduces a problematic premise to your reply.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith
Author of
SPEAK EASY - The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Speak Easy Note # 45 - Pitfalls of Email

People frequently ask me to write about email communication and the pitfalls that we often create or fall into through email misuse. So let’s first revisit the “Top Ten Email Rules at Work” that I posted on August 7th, 2010 and then expand on #7:

#10. Start your email with the person’s name followed by a comma. “Dear” is not necessary. End all of your emails with a closure. It can be simply your name or just your initial(s) or it can be something like “Regards,” followed by your name. Just make sure you’ve indicated an end to your email.

#9. Keep your emails as courteous, concise and focused as possible. Make sure you include personal concern and brief friendly content in your email communications just as you would if you were speaking directly to a business associate, colleague or client. Respond to email promptly.

#8. Keep your business email professional. Use complete sentences, correct spelling and proper language for business email. Avoid using your business email to receive or distribute dirty jokes or X-rated photos. Once you hit “send” your email is out there and can come back to haunt you at a later time.

#7. People often attribute unintended tone and attitude to email communications. Monitor your email carefully and communicate directly with people to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation.

#6. Make sure that you’re not using email to avoid a face-to-face or direct communication with someone. Conflict avoidance often escalates a situation or can bite you on the backside down the road.

#5. Remember that anything you send via email can be forwarded to others without your control. Ask yourself before you send it if you’re comfortable with the potential of your email being forwarded.

#4. Be highly selective when choosing to copy others on a business email. When appropriate, use the blind cc feature to protect people’s privacy and to avoid exposing people’s email addresses when you are sending email to multiple recipients. If you’re sharing the contributions of others or helping others to get recognition, copying key people is a positive action. It’s bad practice to use email to expose someone who has made a mistake, whom you don’t like, or who you think is stupid.

#3. Use email when you need to communicate written dated proof of factual information; otherwise
communicate all other necessary negative feedback or views through personal verbal spoken communication.

#2. Never send email in the middle of an emotional reaction. Give yourself at least overnight to calm down before firing off an email response about something or someone that has upset you.

#1. The company you work for owns your email account and all of its contents. Make sure you’re aware of this and that everything you send and receive through your work email account would be appropriate for your boss to read.


#7. People often attribute unintended tone and attitude to email communications. Monitor your email carefully and communicate directly with people to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation.

It’s striking how often I hear my clients attribute negative emotional intent to an email they’ve received, and I can find none of the same emotional intent when I read that email. What’s the reason for the vast difference in interpretation? Certainly when we speak to one another directly, facial expression and voice tone are major contributors to how communication is interpreted and received. The Second Fundamental of Good Communication in SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success states that:

The non-verbal portion of communication exceeds ninety percent of how communication is received.

Since there's actually no tone of voice or facial expression in email, what occurs is the reader creates an imagined tone and interpretation based on past communications between the writer and the reader as well as on the individual values, perceptions and sometimes insecurities of the reader. Email can take readers down paths that are far removed from the intention or goals of the writer. In the workplace, direct communication is often neglected or abandoned altogether even though it's essential for smooth operations, efficient product delivery, leadership influence, strong project management, and especially superior customer relations. As we become more and more dependent on text and email, we get farther and farther from two-way mutually respectful dialog where there is better opportunity to build rapport, verify intent, answer questions and ensure understanding.

Here are alternative options to avoid these pitfalls of email communication:

1. Get up from your desk and walk down the hall to someone’s office or work station to have a direct conversation.

2. Pick up the phone to speak directly or leave a voicemail message, asking for a return phone call.

3. Write an email with a brief topic description, requesting a return call or face-to-face meeting to  discuss something important.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith