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Communication basics shape
work interaction

When I was growing up, my family prided itself on the lively discussions we had after vacuuming up dinner in 10 minutes. Our “discussions” were something to behold. Even behind closed doors the neighbors often could hear the noise as we contested each other’s opinions, attacked the veracity of factual evidence and sought to make the winning point. Many an evening discussion ended with the vanquished skulking away from the table only to plot ways to get even with the victors.
You’d think I would have been prepared for the business world. But I wasn’t. I didn’t believe that regular people could or would behave like my family. I was wrong; my family was pretty regular. Arriving in the business world, I found myself surrounded by people just like me. One would have thought they had done an apprenticeship in aggression right at my family’s dinner table.
Think about how most business meetings go. The boss calls the meeting; the team shows up. Niceties, like eating dinner, are ritually gotten out of the way. The meeting attendees then get down to business. What was the thinking behind last quarter’s projections? Mumbling, smirks and rolling eyes indicate that Production thinks Planning put no thought into the projections. Planning, smelling a battle rife with insults, assumes a defensive position. Why have they waited until now to criticize last quarter’s projections? Production pulls out its own ammunition. They say Planning made assumptions without asking Production. Planning says Production didn’t even have assumptions.
Eventually, one side or the other pulls out a poison arrow–damning evidence that the other side missed a budget item or deadline that single-handedly threw the projections off. The discussion, politely termed so, sends the vanquished back to offices licking wounds, leaving the winning side to pat itself on the back and score points with the boss. The victory, however, will be short-lived. There is always the next quarter.
Most social psychologists would say we are, in great part, the product of our life’s experiences. If so, then what does aggressive, rude business behavior say about the way we have lived our lives? It tells plenty. After all, workplaces are designed and run by people who live in your neighborhood and mine, in your house and mine. From the dining room to the board room, we carry ourselves and our habits to each interpersonal interaction.
Those habits have taken a long time to build and will take an even longer time to change because they’ve solidified over a lifetime. We build who we are through millions of interactions over the years from babyhood up to the present moment. By the time we enter the professional world, we’ve come a long way in shaping our behavior and we’re a long way from being able to turn on a dime and change.
But an even greater obstacle to change than the durability of habits is our own unawareness of our habits. They are like the air we breathe. Who thinks about it? We become aware of air when we have a hard time breathing. Likewise, we become aware of habits, good or bad, when we’re thwarted. So if interrupting, for example, always gets us what we want, we’ll always interrupt. When interrupting starts causing loss of friendship and other staples of happiness, we’ll at least become aware that we’re doing something that’s not good for us and might try to change that behavior.
It’s also possible to let good habits atrophy if they’re not recognized or valued. For example, if letting other people talk first, or allowing them to finish their thoughts before responding, is considered weak, then those who want to succeed will start dominating conversations and talking over others.
To improve communication in the workplace we need to look at several issues: What behavioral habits really make a difference in the way we get along with others? How are we, as individuals, helping or hindering effective communication? How are we influencing others to behave? And what can we do about improving interpersonal communication skills?
What really makes a difference in the way we interact is whether or not we have understood and mastered the basic components of communication, which are to send (speak, write, gesture) and receive (listen) messages. The components themselves are neither good nor bad. We instill a sense of morality into communication through our intentions.
For instance, the sender of a message can intentionally confuse a listener by using words or symbols the listener doesn’t understand. This kind of confusion happens when speakers use jargon, acronyms and symbols the audience is not familiar with or that they understand in a different way. An example: When a human-resource specialist talks to a social worker about OD, the social worker probably will visualize an overdose victim. Meanwhile, the human- resource specialist, still back in the office, sees the draft of a strategic plan because for her OD means organization development. While each communicator goes off on her own tangent over one term, the cycle of sending and receiving breaks down.
Imagine a whole meeting, presentation or conversation consisting of unfamiliar vocabulary and symbols. To escape feeling foolish, bored or insulted, listeners will turn off the strange messages. If the listener feels intimidated, she might yield to the speaker in the short run but get even later.
Listeners don’t have to limit themselves to accepting or rejecting confusion, however. They can use listening as a powerful communication tool to clarify the most obfuscated messages. An effective listener pays attention not only to words and symbols, but also asks questions to understand and, finally, closely observe how the message is delivered. An effective listener is intuitively aware that the speaker’s body language and voice communicate most of the message.
As a matter of fact, even toddlers can spot the likes of a snake-oil salesman without hearing a single word. As infants, we pick up the body language of our culture. The raised eyebrow, the cocked head, the half-smile–they all tell volumes and either add or detract from the credibility of the speaker.
Listeners also influence the communication cycle. By pretending to listen, ignoring the speaker, making judgments about the speaker or her message, and planning what to say next instead of paying attention, the listener can keep a speaker from giving full and accurate information. On the other hand, by maintaining eye contact, asking non-defensive questions and reflecting understanding of the message, the listener promotes complete and accurate information sharing. Quite simply, in front of a good listener, the speaker feels safe and accepted and, therefore, willing to tell what she knows and feels.
So how do we evaluate our own skill as communicators? We can tell how we’re doing only by observing the feedback we get from others and interpreting it with a trusted friend and mentor. For example, if the seeker of feedback has a history of conflict with co-workers in a variety of situations with a variety of personalities, he probably lacks self-confidence and behaves defensively. His defensiveness might be showing up in aggressive communication such as making explanations unnecessarily complicated, talking over listeners who want to ask questions or give opinions, speaking too loudly, turning away from a listener who is about to speak, and persisting to speak long after the listener’s interest has waned.
After becoming aware of our own communication patterns, we can improve some of them by watching those who do a better job on those things we find difficult. So if your associate seems to get the respect of the rest of the work team in meetings most of the time, watch him. What are his techniques? Does he listen at least as much as he talks? Does he use plain, natural words? Does he avoid personal attacks? His techniques are simple in concept, complex in execution. They require self-discipline and lots of practice.
And after observation comes practice–as soon as possible and as often as possible. So, back to the supper table. Why make family time an ordeal? What’s the point of trying to impress your 12-year-old by proving he doesn’t know any more than a 12-year-old? Why win the supper-table argument with your significant other only to lose it in the three-day cold war that follows? Practice may not be perfect, but it does make better. Try listening and the 12-year-old might do the same. Try talking with, not at, colleagues and friends, and watch them defer to your ideas.
The dinner table is a good place to practice best behaviors for the next big meeting at work. If you can get your family to agree on where to go for the next vacation or even to agree to disagree, you are using the same skills you will need to figure out why the projections were off last quarter without creating winners and losers.
We develop winners and become ourselves by taking it just one dinner at a time, and it all starts in your house and mine.
(Germaine Knapp is executive director of Sojourner Hall for Women Inc.)

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