Nearly everyone I work with—along with me—has the same problem: communication. We don’t do it enough, we don’t share the right information with the right people, or we don’t do it in the right way that others can hear us (I’ve been talking and listening nearly my whole life, you’d think I’d be better at it by now). Ask most people who work in organizations, and they will tell you, “The communication around here could be better.” Communication is one of those grab bags of skills that means a lot of things to a lot of people: it might be listening, it might mean transparency, it might mean gathering input, or it might mean sharing timely information. Based on feedback I’ve received from others, including from my wife, I fall well short in all those categories.
Why is communication so difficult in organizations? There are probably a million reasons, but here are a few of my personal favorites.
- We are busy doing, leaving little time for talking. We all have a plate full of tasks demanding our attention, and they squeeze out the time required to share the right information, with the right people, and in the right way.
- We have too many sources. I am covered up in information—email, phone, text, social media, video, websites, intranets, project sites, google docs—you name it and I have both access and expectations that I use all of these channels to get the information I need and to share the information someone else needs. See bullet #1 for why I don’t have the time or energy to use all these sites to their full potential.
- Talking is hard. Because if I’m talking, that means I’m dealing with another human being and all their stuff—like emotions and opinions. Communication is rarely an efficient process when other people are involved; talking to yourself is slightly easier. Plus, how I like to communicate might not match how they like to communicate.
- Email is the devil.
What can we do? It’s a challenge and a necessity, so how can we get better at communicating?
- Schedule enough time. Communicating is just as important as doing. For example, just because you bought a fancy new computer system for a zillion dollars, and spent a year customizing it, does not mean a single person will use it. Cut the customization time in half and communicate the rest of the year and you will be much happier with the results.
- Prioritize it. One of my favorite people, author and retailer Jack Mitchell, puts it this way, “I don’t communicate with people on a need-to-know basis, I communicate with people on a want-to-know basis!” Communication adds to the emotional bank account and rarely takes away from it. Besides, people love making up the worst story possible when they lack information.
- Talk More, Email Less. Email is efficient, but it is terrible for expressing emotion, nuance, and engaging in dialogue. It puts the responsibility on the receiver for reading it, synthesizing it, and acting on it, leaving the sender to wonder why no one reads his emails. The more we can talk to one another, the more likely it is we will be understood, and the likelihood others will take action increases dramatically, which is our whole goal. Rather than wasting time composing the perfect email, we should pick up the phone, or even better, see someone face to face.
Given the difficulty, I fail at communicating effectively every day. But with a little more intent, and a little more time, we can all make a dent in it – at least at work. At home, that’s a whole different story.