Are you communicating clearly?

Chances are, whether you’re in school or working, you need to collaborate a bit with others. But most people are poor communicators. And no, it’s not always the other person’s fault! In this post I’ll go into detail mental checklists for effective communication and why communication breaks down so often.

The reason for this post, like all my other posts, is because this topic came up today. To be more specific, I was a poor communicator.

Never assume the other person knows all the background details you know.

So here’s my story. I wrapped up a task at work, and sent it for approval to someone else. Essentially, I am not able to continue on this project until I hear back from them. No problem, I have some other things I can do. But then I complete that, too, and still no word from them. Unfortunately, it isn’t my place to go directly to that person and try to push that task, so I go to my manager and ask, “I’m done submitting all my work for Account ABC. Is there any other work I could be doing?” He doesn’t say anything immediately, so I added, “Anything at all, with regards to this account?” To which he responds, “No, nothing. We just need to wait for the response.”

I walk away from his desk, feeling a bit awkward. Did my manager just tell me that there is absolutely no work for me to do? I did more of the training work I was supposed to do. Now that I had much more time I made sure my assignment was my best quality, then submitted that, too. I just sat at my desk, occasionally checking emails, reading newsletters, and of course looking at where to eat for lunch. But after a few hours the down time transformed into utter, sickening boredom. It was 4:30 and I wanted to go home. I first asked someone else my senior if they thought it was appropriate for me to ask my manager to leave a bit early today if there’s nothing else to be done. This wouldn’t be unusual, and many people do it.

“Hey, I checked with [senior] and she said she had nothing else for me to work on. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t have anything else for me.” My manager smiled and said, “Of course! There’s plenty of work for you. Ask and you shall receive. But it’s 4:45 now so I won’t give anything to you now, but we can touch base tomorrow.” “Okay, sure! I just wanted to make sure I had something for tomorrow.” I replied, trying to hide my surprise.

Freeze frame. So now that I’m looking at this through an outsider’s perspective, it is clear that I did not communicate clearly what I needed the first time. I assumed that my manager knew I had nothing but Account ABC to work on. Looking back on today, I understand that because my question was too closed-ended (it was a yes or no question), he misunderstood me. In a situation where I don’t know all the possible answers, I should ask open ended questions, and give time for the other person to think and respond. 

The 5 Ws and H Method

Normally this strategy is used for reading comprehension, but it can be used to help you communicate clearly as well. They are:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

So how should I have asked my initial question?

I’m done submitting all my work for Account ABC and I don’t really have anything on my plate. Until I hear back from this person, is there any work you have for me to do today?”

Or, if I wan’t to be more certain my manager would give me some work, I could ask:

I’m done submitting all my work for Account ABC and I don’t really have anything on my plate. Until I hear back from this person, if you have any work you can have me start right now?”

Note: In either case, I skip the “Where” since I have a desk job, and wouldn’t be possible for me to work elsewhere!

Bonus story

I learned about speaking in this method before today, but unfortunately have trouble actually incorporating it into my daily life.

At my college library, I needed some tape to put up some club flyers. I went to the front desk and spotted a tape dispenser next to an employee who was helping someone else. I waited for her to finish helping the student because it was too far for me to reach. When she was done, I asked, “Can I have some tape?” She promptly replied, “No, I don’t have any. Sorry” and walked away before I could register what had happened.

I spent a lot of time wondering where I went wrong.

Thanks C.C. for educating me in 2015.

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