The communication challenge: creating constructive dialogue

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The art of good communication involves much more than having the right message to pass on and the good intentions of the listeners. Focusing on the receivers and messages a more constructive dialogue can be achieved.

My first coaching session with Alison resulted in an empty box of tissues. Alison, a middle manager in a chemicals company, literally cried her way through one hour of our two-hour meeting.

I had been contacted by the human resources manager of the company asking if I would be willing to coach Alison who, he felt, was ‘not coping’ with her workload. Her role as senior engineer was to manage projects from inception to delivery, including all the necessary budgetary, health and safety, time and resource considerations.

The company had several sites and a multi-layered management team working in a matrix structure across sites and disciplines. Project teams were isolated from the staff functions geographically and in terms of insight into the actual work being carried out. It was up to Alison to report back weekly what was going on.

When Alison talked, she did it very fast, jumping from topic to topic, giving large amounts of detail behind each topic and then trailing off, often into tears. It took several sessions for me to get a sense of how she was working, with whom, and what the challenges were.

As we progressed, I began to see that the organisation was set up in such a way as to create all sorts of problems related to its complexity, lack of accountability of key people and general organisational culture. Alison was seeing all this, suffering from it, but seemed unable to get her message heard.

It became clear the problem was not just about helping Alison to ‘cope’. It was about helping her to find a new approach in how to enlighten senior managers about what was actually going on in the organisation in a way that they could hear.

In any communication process there is a sender, a receiver and a message. In different configurations a sender can be a management team or just one manager communicating with a receiver who can be group of people or just one member of staff.

As a sender, Alison was not being heard by her receiver group of two people: her direct boss and the HR manager. Her natural tendency was to think fast and externalise all her thoughts quickly but with no structure. Under stress this was exacerbated so that the receivers were simply hearing a large quantity of detailed, unconnected information delivered in a breathless and anxious way. The lack of positive response from the receiver caused further outpourings and eventually tears of frustration in her side.





Working a way to communicate
Together we picked this process apart. I asked Alison to focus on the actual message she wanted to get across. In this case the risks regarding health and safety due to gaps in accountability created by the existing organisational structure. The sub-messages she wanted to transmit involved the workload of key individuals due to long shifts and the lack of back up, as well as risk factors related to out of date equipment and procedures.

Alison saw it all clearly but could not communicate it. So we wrote it down in three simple statements and then practiced saying those things slowly and clearly without falling into the temptation of elaboration, repetition and personalisation. We also thought carefully about the receivers, what key words would get their attention: in this case words like ‘risk’, ‘safety’ and ‘customer satisfaction’.

The challenge for many people in communicating is that they do it unprepared and in a way that fits their own communication preferences, mood and needs of the moment as senders. By putting the focus on the receivers and messages, a much more constructive dialogue can be achieved.

Often, it seems to be women who suffer most from this issue. Largely because anger and frustration manifests itself as tears in women more readily than it does in men, who tend to raise their voices and adopt a more aggressive body posture in the same situation. Men can be seen as confrontational but seldom as ‘not coping’.

However, the general dysfunction of communication is not just a male/female dynamic. I once worked with a group of lawyers where we filmed them solving a series of practical challenges. One man in the group talked all the time in the background, commentating what was happening and what he was thinking. The group was so used to this in the office environment that they had become good at screening him out – just not listening anymore. But what the film showed was that this man had actually solved the problem about 15 minutes before the rest of the group. He tried to say it but they didn’t listen. Why? Because his voice was just background noise to which they had grown accustomed.

By making them aware of this dynamic we could work with the man to help him develop a more effective communication style – focusing on things which actually added value, told in a clear and direct way. This, in turn, helped the group to be better at listening to his expertise.

Organisations often have communication professionals working on their PR or marketing but seldom pay the same level of attention to internal communication. Sometimes employees need training to understand the communication dynamics taking place and how to adapt in an appropriate way.

Deborah Mattsson Clarke is the director of The Way Forward



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