Make communication your top priority now or you’re in trouble

How healthy is your organization? How healthy are your key relationships?

These may sound like tough questions, but they’re quite easy to answer. The health of any organization is directly related to the quality of the communication in that organization. And the same thing is true of every relationship you have at work and at home.

Unfortunately, many organizations and relationships suffer from a LACK of communication or a BREAKDOWN in communication. That became clear in a university class on “Emotional Extremes” for psychiatry students. The professor asked, “What’s the opposite of joy?” One student replied, “Sadness.”

“The opposite of depression?” the professor asked another student. “Elation,” he replied.

“The opposite of woe?” the prof asked a young woman from Texas. The Texan replied, “Sir, I believe that would be giddy up.”

We can laugh at that example, but as we all know, bad communication is often anything but funny.

So what does it take to create healthier organizations with better communication? A few of the basics would include the following.

► 1. Increased openness and fewer secrets


Education scholar Dr. Roland Barth put it this way. He said “The health of an organization is inversely proportional to the number of non-discussables:

the fewer non-discussables, the healthier the organization; the more non-discussables, the more pathology in the organization’s culture.”

John Barrymore, the poet laureate, said the same thing when he said, “We are as sick as we are secret.” In other words, you can’t have a healthy relationship, team, or organization if your communication isn’t open, honest and frequent.

When I’m working with a team to help them improve their communication, we typically set up some ground rules that they can all buy into. One of the most effective ground rules has been, “No meetings after the meetings.” In other words, you aren’t healthy and you can’t get healthy if people say one thing in your meetings and something else out in the hallways after the meetings.

► 2. Re-emphasize face-to-face communication.


Yeah, yeah, I know. We live in an electronic age and there’s no way to get around it. But the fact remains that the total meaning of a message comes from both the verbal and the nonverbal message. If you take away the nonverbal … the facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice and all the other nonverbals … you take away MOST of the cues we use to interpret a message. So the chances of miscommunication rise dramatically.

Even the broadcast industry has come to recognize that. Paula Kerger, a television network executive, says, “The next generation of leaders need to be encouraged to work with colleagues face-to-face and not hide behind e-mails.”

► 3. Use lots of eye contact.


Of course, different cultures place different emphases on “proper” eye contact, but in most business circles … eye contact is important and valued. As the old expression goes, we trust people who “look us in the eye.”

So you wonder, where exactly should you look? Look people in the eye … not at their shoulder, chest, hips, or around their head to see who else is in the room. Or if it’s a bit more comfortable, look at the bridge of their nose.

When you meet or greet people, make a special effort to look them in the eye. When they come into your office or place of business, try to establish eye contact, even if you’re talking with someone else in person or on the phone. Make a concerted effort to look people in the eye when you shake their hand.

When you’re speaking to a group, look at individuals — in their eyes — and hold their eye contact for two seconds. Your eye contact will appear much more genuine than flitting your eyes across the group from side to side.

That’s one of the things I taught last week when I was speaking on a cruise ship to 450 people … “Renew Your Ears: Secrets of Super Effective Listeners.” My calendar is fairly full, so if you’d like to talk about me speaking at an upcoming meeting, give me a call soon.

► 4. Pay attention to your vocal tones.


It matters. It really does. Nonverbal communication expert Dr. Albert Mehrabian says 38% of a message’s meaning comes from tone. And if your tone does not match your words, then your words become irrelevant and people only react to your tone.

And you know from experience that some people’s tones tend to irritate you or turn you off. You may have even said, “It’s not so much what she said as the way she said it that gets me.”

Get some feedback on your tone. Ask a few colleagues, friends, or family members how you come across. What kind of tone or tones do they hear come out of your mouth? And which ones are inviting and which ones turn them off? You’ll probably be surprised by what you hear, but what you learn could be invaluable.

► 5. Clarify. Clarify. Clarify.


You can’t assume somebody else understands you. Every word in our language has several different definitions in the dictionary. So the chances of the other person picking the same definition for every word in your conversation is about nil. It’s not going to happen.

To avoid lots of communication misunderstanding, IF YOU’RE THE SPEAKER, ask the other person to tell you what he heard you say … in his own words. You’ll be able to spot almost instantly whether or not you’re on the same page.

That’s what one overweight patient should have done. His doctor said, “I want you to eat regularly for two days, and then skip a day. Repeat this procedure for two weeks, and the next time I see you, you should have lost at least five pounds.

When the patient returned, he shocked the doctor by having lost nearly 30 pounds! “Why, that’s amazing!” the doctor said, “Did you follow my instructions?”

Weakly the patient nodded, “I’ll tell you though, by the end of each 3rd day, I thought I was going to drop dead.”

“From hunger, you mean?”

“No,” responded the patient, “from skipping all day!”

Likewise, IF YOU’RE THE LISTENER, you have to clarify what you are hearing. Paraphrase. Say something like, “If I hear you correctly … or … What I think you’re saying is … or … Are you trying to say…?” It will tip off the speaker as to whether or not he’s getting through.

Bottom line? Don’t ever assume you totally understand what people are talking about. In fact, you’d be better off assuming you don’t know what they’re talking about. Take nothing for granted.

Communication is difficult. Misunderstandings are rampant. After all, our language is funny — a fat chance and a slim chance are the same thing. But you’ll have a better chance of actually communicating … and communicating effectively … if you use the tips I’ve outlined today.