February 25, 2014

Go Beyond Effective Listening, Take a Communication Perspective

commquote3Communication is an intrinsic aspect of our working lives. There is not a single collaborative initiative we pursue that does not require some form of communication with others. And there is not a day that goes by where the interactions we have with other people do not in some way “influence” the quality of our day and the work we produce. In a world of work that is more undefined, virtual, and hyper-competitive than ever, getting communication right is increasingly important. Unfortunately, most of what we learned about effective communication at work was incomplete.

The conventional wisdom about what works with communication at work focuses on what people say and how they listen to each other. In other words, the sender of the message must choose his/her words carefully and the receiver of the message must listen well to decode the message in order to understand what it means. If one or both people are distracted, or if there is too much going on around them, the message cannot be accurately transmitted. The obsessive focus on good “listening skills” has dominated the communication industrial complex, as training programs, workplace learning initiatives, and academic programs have focused on these overly-simplified skill sets and exaggerated their benefits.

Taking a communication perspective is a required pivot to a more inclusive way of embracing communication for what it is: a generative force that literally makes our experiences and outcomes at work. Taking a communication perspective is just a shorthand way of remembering that “communication actually makes things and the patterns of communication and interaction that we engage in at work shape our experience, influence our outcomes, and affect the quality of our working lives.”

A communication perspective at work becomes the lens through which you can see the patterns of communication and interaction you engage in for what they are and what they can be. This is so much more than “sending and receiving messages.”

commperspective resized 600While it may seem simpler to rely on the conventional wisdom of effective communication at work—“Choose your words more carefully, consider the listener as you craft the message, actively listen until they are done speaking, don’t forget about the power of non-verbal cues, build trust through empathy and validation of others’ experience, set aside your own emotions in order to hear the speaker’s message when things get tense, build rapport so you can rely on that during difficult conversations, communicate assertively by advocating for your own ideas without shutting others down, and be ­persuasive by mirroring other people’s style of communication”—these simple ­prescriptions, which are all based on the transmission model of communication and a superficial understanding of organizational dynamics, are just not enough to thoroughly address the difficult challenges of communication. In order to match the dynamic, complex nature of the challenge of communication at work, an equally dynamic and flexible process is needed to address them in the real world of work.

Communication is action, reaction, action, reaction—picking out one thing with the hope of saying “see, this is it” is impossible. Everything is connected to everything else. At the end of the day, what matters is that you see the actions and reactions that make the experiences and outcomes you get.

  • When you say or do something before, during, or after an interaction with a colleague it is a turn. Turns can be fragmented or aligned.
  • When you exchange a few turns that have noticeable starting/ending points, you have an episode. Episodes can be open or closed.
  • If you string a few episodes together that can be described with by a common theme or story then you have a pattern. Patterns can be preferred or unwanted.
  • The quality of our working lives is a reflection of our patterns of communication and interaction.
  • If you want to transform an unwanted pattern to something preferred, you have to get down to the level of turn in order to shift the episode’s trajectory.
  • Overall, if we want a better working life, we have to make preferred patterns that reflect our values, aspirations, and motivation to make them.

The quality of your working life and the outcomes you experience are a reflection of the choices you make in that moment between action and reaction. These are the building blocks of the larger patterns of communication and interaction that you engage in throughout the day. If you want to know whether your stress level is rising or falling, check your patterns. If you want to know whether your working relationships are solid or faltering, check your patterns. And if you want to know about your performance and career trajectory, there are clues to both of these in your patterns. For example, a single day is filled with diverse, often intersecting communication experiences:

You are at your desk, planning your day, responding to messages, and wrapping your mind around what you need to be doing . . . you have casual interactions with coworkers in the hallway, kitchen, and by the water cooler that help you stay connected to what is happening with others . . . your team meets and relationships are tested and forged, information is shared, decisions are made, and actions are taken . . . you interface with a variety of coworkers, customers, and partners throughout the day via virtual and face to face connections to get work done . . . you meet with your manager and get feedback and direction for your work . . . and you participate in companywide meetings that keep you informed about the strategic and cultural direction the organization is heading . . . And finally, you bring the cumulative effects of these patterns of communication and interaction home with you to keep processing, interpreting, and deciding which action to take when you go back again.

In this way of thinking about the nature of a day-in-the-life at work, the rules are simple: You get what you make. You make it in communication. And if you notice and are intentional about the unwanted patterns you have made, you can re-make them into new patterns that produce better outcomes.

One of the fundamental reasons why traditional approaches to communication fail is the inability to see communication as living and continuously changing. Communication breakdowns consistently remain at the top of so many “greatest challenges of work” lists because of the prominence of the transmission model, which casts communication as a mechanistic process with fixed rules, rather than a living thing that is made and re-made every day. Communication as anything but fixed and the traditional approach fails to account for the dynamic nature of communication as a living, changing force that shapes our experiences.

Taking a “communication perspective at work” is a way of remembering that:

  • Communication is substantial and the tangible patterns we engage in represent something meaningful to look at, not just through.
  • Communication is consequential and our patterns create and sustain things.
  • The meaning and results of our experience are not predetermined by external variables but are shaped by the quality and patterns of our interactions with others.
  • We can actually “see” what reality is being made in our interpretive turn-by-turn communication interactions with others.
  • Our working lives—the cumulative experiences and interactions with events and people—are given meaning by our interpretations of them.
  • If we are able to transform our patterns of communication, then we gain powerful leverage for transforming the world of work.

If you are ready to start “re-making communicaiton at work,” Dr. Jesse Sostrin can help your team identify and re-make the critical patterns of communication that sustain unwanted outcomes in your organization. To stop dealing with the burden of unresolved conflict, eroded trust, collaboration failure, and declining performance, start your Discovery Session now to create the conditions for the changes you seek.

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