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Effective Communication

Neer Teach a Pig to Sing

January 17 2003 - Have you ever had a conversation with someone and walked away scratching your head and wondering what just happened? "Workplace miscommunication is frequently caused by one of two competing factors: (1) you feel manipulated during a conversation or (2) you leave a conversation uncertain of what is wanted from you," says Dr. Lois Frankel, President of Pasadena-based consulting firm Corporate Coaching International. Here are some of her tips for avoiding these kinds of miscommunications - especially when interacting with people senior to you.

Initiating Questions to Others

1. Ask for input only when you are still open to a decision and willing to accept (or at least think about) the response. "Asking for input when you already know what you want the answer to be is like trying to teach a pig to sing - it frustrates you and annoys the pig," Frankel says.

2. Clearly state what you want from the listener. It sounds like this, "I've been thinking about the problem we have with the Baxter account. I'm going to recommend we assign Jason to it and want to get your buy-in before I move forward." Short, crisp, clean.

3. Be clear about where a decision belongs. For example, "An employee recently asked for time off without pay to take a sabbatical to think about her career. We've never done that before and since it could impact our policy around time off, I feel it's out of the domain of my authority to make that decision. I think it would be more appropriate if you responded." Frankel points out two caveats on this one: (1) don't pass the buck; and (2) you can't just be paying lip service and do a bait and switch - when you're given an answer don't argue or debate it.

4. If you're thinking out loud and need a sounding board, say so: "I was wondering if I could use you as a sounding board for a moment. I've got to make a decision about the strategic plan and I'd like to think out loud and see if my thinking makes sense and how it strikes you."

Responding to Questions from Others

And what about those questions that aren't really questions. "Be acutely aware that 90% of all questions are really statements couched as questions. Responding as if they were questions can get you into trouble," suggests Frankel. Here are some things she suggests you consider (and even ask out loud) before responding:

1. Is this a directive? If the answer is yes, and it's coming from the boss, then there's no debate. If you have legitimate concerns about what you've been asked to do, you have to share this as an obstacle to be overcome, not one that precludes you from entirely doing as asked: "I have no problem with doing as you've asked. One potential glitch I see is _____. How would you like me to handle this if it arises?"

2. Are you asking for my input or just thinking out loud?

3. Are you suggesting you'd like me to make this decision?

4. How much involvement do you want once I intervene?

Following these few tips can make you a more effective communicator and prevent unnecessary communication conflicts.

Corporate Coaching International's website is at:

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