- Why it is that we have disagreements?
- Why do we find a perfectly reasonable statement is taken in the wrong way?
- How your instructions or suggestions are not understood or are totally misinterpreted?
Great communicators do and it can be as simple as not considering how the recipient will actually receive what you have passed onto them.
During a board meeting of a championship football club where I was the Chairman, I once had a conversation with our high profile Manager, which I considered was direct, clear and forceful but not personal. Our manager had a similar view of the conversation and so to us there was no problem, even if we did aggressively disagree on the course of action, which I was demanding. However, the rest of the board were uneasy. When the manager had left I asked why they looked so gloomy?
The board were shocked because they perceived the conversation to be aggressive and as a result they were concerned that we were in danger of the manager not following the agreed action plan or worst case, losing our manager at quite a crucial moment in the season.
I assured them that the Manager, whilst not agreeing with the instruction not to award a hefty contract increase to one of our players, had understood the boards perspective, and would carry out our instruction. Furthermore, it would not have crossed his mind that the conversation was in any way fatal to our relationship, or his performance.
My assessment turned out to be true, but why? What was it that allowed for an assertive (aggressive to the board) conversation to take place and yield a positive result?
Simple, I understood the secret to unlocking communication blockages and depersonalising the conversation. I had implimented what I learned almost 30 years ago when I was an assistant manager for Safeway supermarket’s in Bournemouth UK.
It was a Saturday around 10am and our manager, one John Alibone (an early hero) was about to sneak off early for his two-week summer holiday and I was going to get my first chance at playing BOSS.
Although I had only been his assistant for several months I was not at all fazed by the responsibility of managing around 100 full and part time staff. In fact I could not see what all the fuss was about.
John did his best to prepare me, talking me through what needed doing, how to prepare for the regional managers inevitable visit, how to schedule staff in an emergency, order placing, stock control, security and much more.
I remember his final words before he left. “Now Rikki remember you are different to most of the staff here and you must make allowances”
I was not sure what he meant, so I smiled, told him to have a great holiday and not to worry about anything. All would be good; I even boasted that sales would be up.
What happened in those two weeks was to teach me a lesson in culture management that I have never forgotten.
The store got exceptionally busy around 11.30 (John had only been gone an hour or so) and we only had two thirds of the checkouts open. There were around 5 cashiers on a tea break (I had screwed up the scheduling) and I asked a supervisor to get the cashiers back to their tills immediately. As they came back to their positions customers were complaining, the queues seemed to be getting bigger, one of the cashiers demonstrating that she was not happy said “this would not have happened if John was here”.
My response was similar to the one I used 30 years later at the football club but had a devastatingly different outcome. I almost caused a walk out of cashiers and had to work hard to convince them to stay at their positions. I also found myself visiting some over the weekend to ensure they would return to work on the Monday.
Although during the two weeks sales were up, feelings amongst us were good and I received a glowing reference from my manager, I had to work ten times harder than I would have if I had handled the situation a little better.
So what is that I learned all those years ago?
I learned the importance of differing cultures and in particular that when I “throw a word” it does not necessarily get “caught with the same meaning” my northern (I’m from Liverpool) approach which is, let’s say naturally direct, along with my choice of words, was to some, unnecessarily abrupt. Whilst all I wanted was the customer service restored to the correct level, what I conveyed to my colleagues whose help I needed was that the problem was someone else’s, theirs!
Ever since that episode I have strived to understand the context in which any conversation is taking place. I do not always get it right but the fact that I try means I win more than I lose.
Going back to our football manager, he was from the same background as me, which made the conversation easier. He had demonstrated that he understood what was required but also that he did not agree with the decision. I knew that this would not stop him carrying out the plan.
I guess you could say I passed the ball a bit awkwardly, he received with a glare, and scored.
To demonstrate that what we throw is not always what is caught; try this exercise:
Get together with 4 or 5 friends, family or work colleagues. Tell them you are going to say a word and that you want them to write down their first 3 or so instant responses to what the word means to them. Explain upfront that there is no right or wrong answer.
You are just be making the point that the word you will throw will not necessarily be the word which is caught, which could leave a lack of understanding as to what should be done.
Although some may have the exact same word in their lists, it is highly likely that not one will have the first three in the same order, which could effect the outcome.
Understanding what is required of us or making sure our communication has been received how we intended, has become more difficult in our global society. It can be difficult enough communicating between the north and south let alone different languages, cultures or beliefs.
When we “throw” a word it is important that we endeavour to understand how the recipient of what we have thrown will “catch” it. We need to check the recipients understanding, allow for differing values and be prepared to change how we communicate with each other. Equally when we receive a word we need to be confident that we have understood it.
We intuitively modify our conversation with young children; we seem to accept they may not understand but we seem less prepared to do so as adults.
If we want to get the best out of each other we need to do the same with all of those we communicate with.
We know that soundbite TV and Radio as well as headlines in newspapers can be misleading, we should not be surprised therefore, to find instruction without context will have the same effect and reduce our chances of success.
It takes seconds to check we are on the same wavelength. It is a strength not a weakness, to want to be.