Communication is best achieved through simple planning and control; this article looks at approaches which might help you to do this and specifically at meetings, where conversations need particular care.
Most conversations sort of drift along; in business, this is wasteful; as a manager, you seek communication rather than chatter. To ensure an efficient and effective conversation, there are three considerations:
Thus you must learn to listen as well as to speak. Those who dismis this as a mere platitude are already demonstrating an indisposition to listening: the phrase may be trite, but the message is hugely significant to your effectiveness as a manager. If you do not explicitly develop the skill of listening, you may not hear the suggestion/information which should launch you to fame and fortune.
As a manager (concerned with getting things done) your view of words should be pragmatic rather than philosophical. Thus, words mean not what the dictionary says they do but rather what the speaker intended.
Suppose your manager gives to you an instruction which contains an ambiguity which neither of you notice and which results in you producing entirely the wrong product. Who is at fault? The answer must be: who cares? Your time has been wasted, the needed product is delayed (or dead); attributing blame may be a satisfying (or defensive) exercise but it does not address the problem. In everything you say or hear, you must look out for possible misunderstanding and clarify the ambiguity.
The greatest source of difficulty is that words often have different meanings depending upon context and/or culture. Thus, a "dry" country lacks either water or alcohol; "suspenders" keep up either stockings or trousers (pants); a "funny" meeting is either humorous or disconcerting; a "couple" is either a few or exactly two. If you recognize that there is a potential misunderstanding, you must stop the conversation and ask for the valid interpretation.
A second problem is that some people simply make mistakes. Your job is not simply to spot ambiguities but also to counter inconsistencies. Thus if I now advocate that the wise manager should seek out (perhaps humorous) books on entomology (creepy crawlies) you would deduce that the word should have been etymology. More usual, however, is that in thinking over several alternatives you may suffer a momentary confusion and say one of them while meaning another. There are good scientific reasons (to do with the associative nature of the brain) why this happens, you have to be aware of the potential problem and counter for it.
Finally, of course, you may simply mishear. The omission of a simple word could be devastating. For instance, how long would you last as an explosives engineer if you failed to hear a simple negative in: "whatever happens next you must [not] cut the blue wi..."?
So, the problem is this: the word has multiple meanings, it might not be the one intended, and you may have misheard it in the first place - how do you know what the speaker meant?
As with all effective communication, you should decide (in advance) on the purpose of the conversation and the plan for achieving it. There is no alternative to this. Some people are proficient at "thinking on their feet" - but this is generally because they already have clear understanding of the context and their own goals. You have to plan; however, the following are a few techniques to help the conversation along.
Thus we have something like: yes, I see why you need the report by tomorrow; however, I have no time today to prepare the document because I am in a meeting with a customer this afternoon; either I could give you the raw data and you could work on it yourself, or you could make do with the interim report from last week.
You will have to make many personal judgement calls when being assertive. There will certainly be times when a bit of quiet force from you will win the day but there will be times when this will get nowhere, particularly with more senior (and unenlightened) management. In the latter case, you must agree to abide by the decision of the senior manager but you should make your objection (and reasons) clearly known. For yourself, always be aware that your subordinates might be right when they disagree with you and if events prove them so, acknowledge that fact gracefully.
Insults are ineffective. If you call people names, then they are unlikely to actually listen to what you have to say; in the short term you may feel some relief at "getting it off your chest", but in the long run you are merely perpetuating the problem since you are not addressing it. This is common sense. There are two implications. Firstly, even under pressure, you have to remember this. Secondly, what you consider fair comment may be insulting to another - and the same problem emerges. Before you say anything, stop, establish what you want as the outcome, plan how to achieve this, and then speak.
Finally, if you are going to criticise or discipline someone, always assume that you have misunderstood the situation and ask questions first which check the facts. This simple courtesy will save you from much embarrassment.
Suppose you conduct a review of a recently finished (?) project with Gretchen and it goes something like this:
Before your fingers start twitching to place themselves around Gretchen's neck, consider that your questions are not actually helping the flow of information. The same flow of questions in an open format would be: what is left to do of project X, what about the documentation, when will that be completely finished? Try answering Yes or No to those questions.
Open questions are extremely easy to formulate. You establish in your own mind the topic/aim of the question and then you start the sentence with the words:
Silence is effective - and much under-used. People are nervous of silence and try to fill it. You can use this if you are seeking information. You ask the question, you lean back, the person answers, you nod and smile, you keep quiet, and the person continues with more detail simply to fill your silence.
In any organization, "meetings" are a vital part of the organization of work and the flow of information. They act as a mechanism for gathering together resources from many sources and pooling then towards a common objective. They are disliked and mocked because they are usually futile, boring, time-wasting, dull, and inconvenient with nothing for most people to do except doodle while some opinionated has-been extols the virtues of his/her last great (misunderstood) idea. Your challenge is to break this mould and to make your meetings effective. As with every other managed activity, meetings should be planned beforehand, monitored during for effectiveness, and reviewed afterwards for improving their management.
A meeting is the ultimate form of managed conversation; as a manager, you can organize the information and structure of the meeting to support the effective communication of the participants. Some of the ideas below may seem a little too precise for an easy going, relaxed, semi-informal team atmosphere - but if you manage to gain a reputation for holding decisive, effective meetings, then people will value this efficiency and to prepare professionally so that their contribution will be heard.
It is wise to make this expectation known to everyone involved well in advance and to remind them at the beginning of the meeting. There is often a tendency to view meetings as a little relaxation since no one person has to be active throughout. You can redress this view by stressing the time-scale and thus forcing the pace of the discussion: "this is what we have to achieve, this is how long we have to get it done".
If some unexpected point arises during the meeting then realize that since it is unexpected: 1) you might not have the right people present, 2) those there may not have the necessary information, and 3) a little thought might save a lot of discussion. If the new discussion looks likely to be more than a few moments, stop it and deal with the agreed agenda. The new topic should then be dealt with at another "planned" meeting.
The agenda states the purpose of each section of the meeting. There will be an outcome from each section. If that outcome is so complex that it can not be summarized in a few points, then it was probably too complex to be assimilated by the participants. The understanding of the meeting should be sufficiently precise that it can be summarized in short form - so display that summary for all other interested parties to see. This form of display will emphasize to all that meetings are about achieving defined goals - this will help you to continue running efficient meetings in the future.
Whether you actually sit as the Chair or simply lead from the side-lines, as the manager you must provide the necessary support to coordinate the contributions of the participants. The degree of control which you exercise over the meeting will vary throughout; if you get the structure right at the beginning, a meeting can effectively run itself especially if the participants know each other well. In a team, your role may be partially undertaken by others; but if not, you must manage.
As always, once you have paused to ask yourself the questions: what is the purpose of the meeting and how can it be most effectively achieved; your common sense will then suggest a working method to expedite the proceedings. You just have to deliberately pause. Manage the process of the meeting and the meeting will work.
Avoid direct criticism of any person. For instance, if someone has not come prepared then that fault is obvious to all. If you leave the criticism as being simply that implicit in the peer pressure, then it is diffuse and general; if you explicitly rebuke that person, then it is personal and from you (which may raise unnecessary conflict). You should merely seek an undertaking for the missing preparation to be done: we need to know this before we can proceed, could you circulate it to us by tomorrow lunch?
If a participant strays from the agenda item, call him/her back: "we should deal with that separately, but what do you feel about the issue X?"
If there is confusion, you might ask: "do I understand correctly that ...?"
If the speaker begins to ramble, wait until an inhalation of breath and jump in: "yes I understand that such and such, does any one disagree?"
If a point is too woolly or too vague ask for greater clarity: "what exactly do you have in mind?"
If someone interrupts (someone other than a rambler), you should suggest that: "we hear your contribution after Gretchen has finished."
If people chat, you might either simply state your difficulty in hearing/concentrating on the real speaker. or ask them a direct question: "what do you think about that point."
If someone gestures disagreement with the speaker (e.g. by a grimace), then make sure they are brought into the discussion next: "what do you think Gretchen?"
If you do not understand, say so: "I do not understand that, would you explain it a little more; or do you mean X or Y?"
If there is an error, look for a good point first: "I see how that would work if X Y Z, but what would happen if A B C?"
If you disagree, be very specific: "I disagree because ..."
The tower of Babel collapsed because people could no longer communicate; their speech became so different that no one could understand another. You need to communicate to coordinate your own work and that of others; without explicit effort your conversation will lack communication and so your work too will collapse though misunderstanding and error. The key is to treat a conversation as you would any other managed activity: by establishing an aim, planning what to do, and checking afterwards that you have achieved that aim. Only in this way can you work effectively with others in building through common effort.
Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by any other method found here