By David Frank, Kepner-Tregoe

I was reminded this week of the lyrics to a classic rock song by Led Zeppelin.  

Communication breakdown   
It's always the same
I’m having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!

Looking at my own career and at my clients’ career paths, I am convinced that the single, biggest driver of success and failure rests in the ability of individuals and organizations to effectively communicate. There are so many types of messages, communications media and ways of interpreting information that sometimes effective communications can be really challenging.

Here is an all too common scenario:  Ava receives a text message from her co-worker John. He is recapping the team meeting their manager, Jessica, held today.  During the meeting Jessica relayed the contents of an email from the regional manager, Jose which outlined the annual corporate strategic objectives.  Jose’s email was based on a web conference conducted last week, by Helen, the CEO. Helen was careful to mention that the objectives were a result of decisions made a month ago at the year-end corporate board meeting.

How well do you think John’s text message to Ava conveyed and interpreted the output and intent of the board meeting that occurred four weeks ago? I doubt that John’s text to Ava communicated the strategic objectives with any degree of success, especially as they were so far removed from the initial event.

I certainly haven’t gotten it all figured out however, there are a few career-enhancing items I have learned that can improve communication. Here are eight guidelines can improve your chances—and your organization’s chances—of success through more effective communications.

1.  Make communications timely and repeat key messages. The right time to let people know about decisions that may impact their lives is NOW. Taking days, or even weeks, to convey this information tells the recipient that they really do not matter in the big picture.  When a message is new and it not only needs to be heard, but also embedded and adopted, consistent repetition is key.  A good way to think about this is, “If you’re not tired of saying it chances are, no one heard it.”  On average it takes seven times for a new message to sink in.

2.  Remember to respond – not react. Can you think of a time when you had a conversation or received a communication that just made you angry? When this happens, what do you do? Do you find yourself ranting or sitting down and hammering out a terse email in reply? If this sounds familiar, then you have made a common mistake – reacting emotionally rather than responding calmly. When you feel your blood rising, walk away. Consider how to respond in a rational and considerate way.

3. If your issue requires collaboration or problem solving…have a conversation. Email,  text or chat exchanges are great for quick, documented responses, but they are not effective for collaboration and problem solving.  The amount of time wasted explaining, clarifying and sometimes avoiding difficult conversations diminishes productivity, effectiveness and teamwork.  Pick up the phone, set up a web conference or just walk down the hall to solve an issue now!

4. Don’t avoid the difficult conversations. There are times when you need to give negative feedback. It is human nature to want to avoid these conversations, but doing this can cause more problems as well as let small problems grow into big ones. If someone is not performing at the level that you expect, take action as soon as you notice. Leaving it will just make that conversation more difficult when it does happen.

5. Bad news does not belong in an email. Email has given us an easy way out, but delivering bad news through email is never a good idea. It is impossible to soften difficult messages using non-verbal cues (such as body language) when you are using written communications as your delivery channel. Bad news really needs to be delivered in person, whenever possible. This allows you to pick up on signs that the message has not been understood or that the recipient has taken the news badly. A conversation gives you a chance to try to rectify or minimize the negative effects.

6. Balance the information you are sharing. One common communication mistake is sharing either too much or too little information. It is not always true that the more information you share, the better it will be received – sometimes too much information creates the same stress and anxiety as too little. On the other hand, if you do not share enough information, the person receiving it may not have enough data to understand what is happening or make a decision. This is a balancing act and, it takes time and practice to get it right.

7. One size does not fit all. You simply cannot use a cookie-cutter approach for communication that uses just one style, regardless of the audience or the situation. A standardized communication approach may be fine for teams that meet on a regular basis, but using a casual approach to share information with customers, managers or investors could cause all sorts of trouble.

8. Do not assume understanding. Do you circle back and check that people have understood after you've shared information? You will probably be surprised how often everyone is not on the same page. Make it a habit to follow up meetings with phone calls or emails to clarify the key points of discussion. This avoids key misunderstandings down the line and will save you lots of grief.

Following these simple guidelines will keep you from painful communication breakdowns that are (in the words of Led Zepplin) always the same and driving you (and others) insane!

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