How to Win at Communicating: Why focusing on being right is wrong

win at communicatingWhen I work with teams and individuals on the problems they face with clients, bosses, employees (heck, even their own family members) ten times out of nine, said problems are rooted in communication malfunction. Frankly, humans are difficult. We are nuanced, unique beings with a complex make-up of rational and irrational thought; a mixed bag of 21st century adaptation and stone-age reflexes. And to make matters worse, communication (with other humans, specifically) is one thing many of us are never taught.

Think about the hours logged to get certified in a particular industry. Or the amount of time passed in a math class. Or training hours invested in order to understand a new client database. Strangely, even my graduate program—a regularly recognized school for business—didn’t include more than a passing reference to different communication styles. Collectively many hours have been accrued learning the what and the how of the objective areas of business. But what about the subjective ones?

Have you spent anywhere near as many hours understanding the what and how of an ideal conversation with an insubordinate team member who gets his job done superbly yet no one wants to work with him? Or what about the passive aggressive administrative assistant who finds ceaseless reasons to not complete important parts of his role? Or the aggressive sales person that just thinks she is persistent?

For our purposes here, I won’t go into why communication is important. Frankly, if you aren’t aware of the why, you might be part of the problem. Rather, for the next four parts I’ll share ideas for the rest of us who know why, but don’t yet have a mastery of how.

To begin, let’s focus on a central truth that we as individuals want to be right. Even the most benevolent of individuals has chosen such a path based on a belief that it is indeed the “right” one. Consequently, the things we communicate are based on scenarios as interpreted through our lens. Thus, when we focus on being right, it is only our interpretation of what is right. If the other person has a similar lens, no harm no foul. However, problems crop up when his lens differs and then we tell him something that is inconsistent with what he believes to be true.

My contention is that all problems—Every. Single. One—can be over-simplified back to the differences between my lens and your lens followed by me telling you my lens is right and yours is wrong in an ineffective way. What’s worse, is even if I am right, pursuing it in this fashion creates a conflict whereby you are unlikely to come over to my side. Again, complicated human emotion (pride, shame, rebellion, spite, etc.) get in the way of us getting to the right outcome.

Therefore, it’s much better to pursue the right outcome then it is to pursue being right. That simple shift allows us to keep perspective of the long game.  In order to do that, we must  focus on four simple themes: 1) Ask More Questions, 2) Nurture Your Nemesis, 3) Watch Your Words, and 4) Speak Their Language.


1) Ask More Questions

Simply put, if we asked around 10 times more questions of our colleagues (family members, bosses, direct reports, etc.) we would see a dramatic drop in hurt feelings, resentment, team disunity and distrust, and sabotage.  Try it.

My prognostication is that we don’t ask more questions for two key reasons. One, we don’t always know what to ask (a function of that lack of training in the area as previously described). And two, we don’t want to (sometimes out of laziness, feeling rushed, or fear that we might be wrong). Fortunately, it is within our personal control to address both.

Picture this scenario: Sue then manager needs to reprimand her employee, Tom, who made a bad call…again. Most bosses would call Tom into the office, slap his wrist if she wants to keep him, or put a note in his file if she is trying to get Tom out. But what’s gained by this? Tom likely either doesn’t care much for Sue or his work at this time; or he’s learned that her bark is worse than her bite so his behavior won’t likely change. But, Sue was right; Tom screwed up. However, Sue didn’t get the right outcome (Tom fixing his behavior, discovering why he is doing what he’s doing, figuring out if he wants to be a productive part of this organization).

What if instead Sue asked Tom:

  • Tom, would you help me understand your process for deciding to solve the problem the way you did?
  • What other alternatives did you consider?
  • Why did you choose this one over that?
  • What were you hoping would happen?
  • What did you learn from this situation?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • How committed do you feel to the team?
  • What do you find gets in your way?
  • How would you like me to support you?
  • What should I expect from you going forward?

Do you think Sue would have more effectively engaged Tom with these questions than the aforementioned slap on the wrist or write-up in his file? Do you think Tom knows I have higher expectations of him now? Do these questions communicate that Sue cares? And do you think Tom is likely to be more thoughtful in his subsequent efforts? Hopefully yes to all four.

Likely your questions will be different but the idea is that you ask rather than tell. If Tom knows he messed up, Sue telling him doesn’t achieve anything. If Tom doesn’t know, Sue telling him will only reinforce his beliefs about her but it likely won’t change his opinion of himself or respect for/trust in her in any positive way.


2) Nurture Your Nemesis

In helping Tom achieve the right outcome, questioning only works if Sue nurtures Tom in the process.  If Tom feels as though he is before a firing squad, he will act accordingly and rebel (fight) or cower (flight).  Do either of these scenarios get Sue to the right outcome? Obviously, not.

Your mom was right when she told you how you said things mattered. Our tonality, body language, and empathy are critical here. If these don’t come easy to you, practice is essential. If you don’t care enough to incorporate these things, you likely aren’t getting lasting right outcomes from your people. You are missing opportunities for personal growth as well as for impacting (more specifically, you may be inhibiting) the growth of those around you.

Again, I doubt that if you are reading this that is the case. It’s more typically a case of howHow do you sound more empathetic and nurturing? How do you even practice a soft skill? To practice and thus develop sounding (and actually being) more empathetic, catch yourself talking to people you really care about when talking about something you really care about.  Listen to you volume, vocal inflections, cadence. Most likely it’s lower, slower, and more rhythmic as opposed to loud, fast, and unvarying.  Write out your questions and say them the way you would if you were saying them to that person whom you adore.

Practice being nurturing and asking questions in situations where there isn’t much as stake—like making dinner plans or talking to friends about unimportant issues.  If you don’t figure out how to find your nurturing voice when you don’t need it, you’ll never find it when you do.


3) Watch Your Words

Though I said your mom was right because tonality matters, she may have overemphasized that the what-you-say didn’t. Said differently, our words do matter.

Take the phrase “that’s not my job” or insert “our policy” or “my problem”; how does that make you feel when you hear those words? Even if (or especially when) delivered in a sing-songy voice.  Did your blood pressure just increase a few points? Were you jolted back to the last time you heard that?

Our words matter. They matter even when tonality is involved but especially when it isn’t so be extra careful with (read: avoid at all costs) sending emails in a difficult situations.

Some additional trigger words and phrases that I have heard recently and would encourage you to avoid are “interested in”, “what can I help you find?”, “you would love…”, and generally anything where you are assuming something about the other person instead of asking.

Rather than saying “are you interested in meeting about X?” ask “would you be open to talking about X?” “Interested in” implies a commitment, “open to” indicates that we are still exploring.

Rather than asking what you can help me find, for which I will most-definitely respond “just looking, thanks”  without hesitation, ask “for what occasion are you shopping today?” or “where you browsing for yourself or as a gift?” These questions make me think rather than give a knee-jerk, insincere response.

Rather than telling me how I would love your product (and make me feel trapped if I don’t), let me know people who have X,Y, Z problems love your product, but it’s okay if I don’t; then let me self-identify in my time.

Words matter. They matter especially when we are feeling frustrated, irritated, and annoyed. Yet, it’s when we are feeling that way that the right words are hardest to articulate. So again, practice your words when little is on the line.


4) Speak Their Language

In high school I went to France on a class trip. Madame Blanc assured us that speaking French is Paris was a must. But not to worry, once they heard our verbal skills, most Parisians (who knew better English than our lot) would jump in and rescue us in our native tongue. The Parisians weren’t looking for mastery; they were looking for an attempt.

It is my belief that the attempt is what most of us really want. A little effort. A bridge. The opportunity to meet in the middle and to see that you are as uncomfortable as I am.

When we only speak “our language” we rob people of helping us and seeing our vulnerable side. We also rob ourselves of growth and right outcomes. When I coach clients, our organization uses the Extended DISC model. It’s not a personality test, but rather a communication style assessment.

Each of us has a unique way in which we interpret the world. We have a preference as to how we get things done. And those interpretations and preferences can be summarized using two axes. The vertical axis defines if a person sees problems through the lens of tasks or people. For example, if the internet goes down in my organization, am I thinking of which boxes to cross of to get it fixed (call the IT company on record, notify the managers, call top clients)? Or am I concerning myself with the people-aspect (will this affect how people view us, which customers does this impact most, which employees will be best at smoothing over the issue?)

Neither is inherently right or inherently wrong and a well-functioning team needs all bases covered.

Similarly, the horizontal axis addresses my speed and degree of detail that most concerns me. Some people want the overview, the big picture, and tend to get bored with details. These are the “we’ll figure it out when we get there folks”. Then we have our “cross our Ts and dot our Is” crowd. The former usually makes quick decisions in the name of progress and momentum; the latter sees how ill-configured progress just creates more problems.

Again, both are right. And yet, neither are completely right.

If you’ve ever seen inherent friction between sales and operations departments, it is this communication breakdown at play. One group saying it must be done fast; the other saying it must be done right.

I had similar friction with an operations manager who was frequently sending back my contracts for revision and always irritated with me. It was mutual. The shift from disunity to a more united front began when I started calling her before submitting a contract. My approach was to communicate that I thought I did everything accurately, but would she help me by reviewing it just to be sure.

I chose to incorporate a question rather than a demand. My tonality was nurturing. I used words like “help” as not to sound ungrateful or that I wanted her to do it for me. And, by acknowledging that her communication style was exacting in detail and I wanted to do it by her standards, I was creating a metaphorical communication bridge between our very opposite styles. Best of all: it worked beautifully!

She was more helpful than ever. I was less irritated than ever. Contracts continued to flow in and occasionally she did do it for me (because it was her choice and not my demand).

The irony of the whole situation was that the actual process barely changed. The old way was: I sent her a contract. She looked it over. She called or emailed me disdainfully with my errors. I fixed them. I returned the contact.

The new way: I called her to let her know I was sending her a contract and asked her to kindly let me know if I missed anything “before I submitted it officially”. I sent her the contract. She looked it over. She called or emailed me with any errors (and sometimes fixed what could be fixed without me now that we were simpatico). If needed, I made corrections and returned the contract.

One phone call asking for help (me reaching across the aisle) led to her helping me where she could (her reaching across the aisle) and to both of us to enjoying and appreciating each other and our respective roles.

Because I desired the right outcome (office manager and me working more smoothly together while getting contracts submitted timely), I focused on what I needed to do to accomplish that. Rather than focusing on being right (“sales is my job, contracts is yours, do your job and let me do mine!”)

I don’t share this story to say “look at how I do it, I am awesome”. In fact, many more are the stories that I failed to take my own advice. But the laws of communication still stand whether or not I heed them. And other people believe they are right even when we know we are.

So next time you feel a tense situation coming to a head—or better, before any potentially tense situations—incorporate the immutable rules of 1) Ask More Questions, 2) Nurture Your Nemesis, 3) Watch Your Words, and 4) Speak Their Language.

My father-in-law once said “diplomacy is helping other people get your way.” No, sir, that’s just effective communication.



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