“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” -Robert J. Hanlon
In the classic 70s sitcom Three’s Company, many punchlines were the result of misunderstanding: whether it was the late John Ritter as chef Jack Tripper being mistaken as a gay man by his landlord, Mr. Roper, or a later landlord named Mr. Furley overhearing innocent talk and mistaking it for sexual innuendo — we could always count on the laughs to come quick and hard because assumptions bloomed like flowers and careful questioning was out of the, well, question.
Of course, Three’s Company wouldn’t be so funny if more characters weren’t so blind to believe based on their own limited worldview, like Chrissy Snow stereotyped as the “dumb blonde”, a tradition that continues in many comedy shows today.
It’s true misunderstandings can make us laugh in real life, but they also cause a lot of conflict: on the Internet, heated arguments erupt like acne boils into flamewars because two people at odds with each other would rather assume the other side’s position and cast their own filters, instead of being curious and learning. The same is true offline, although the greater bandwidth we have face-to-face gives us more benefit to clarify things with a gentle smile and shrug in realtime. Still, as we’ve witnessed from cultural clashes and bitter battles over little things (that’s how they look to “outsiders”), there’s always much to gain from getting the story straight, and the focus of this thinklet, intent.
What’s the big deal about intent?
Photo by noyava
In criminal law, intention can make the difference between getting a life sentence vs. a few years, or in rarer cases, not being imprisoned at all — as the quote I chose above serves to illustrate, there’s a significant difference between malice (which nets the most serious punishments) and stupidity, which is why wordy lawyers may advise their client to act dumb, or even insane. Or blame foodstuffs.
Outside of a court and in your personal life, no good communicator’s toolbox lacks a robust process to determine intent. It’s true there just happen to be some sociopaths who, in the spirit of The Joker, will never tell you the straight story. But you can’t make possibly make exceptions for every case, so on a practical basis, they don’t count. By far and large, most people will be reasonable and willing to explain their perspective so you both have a better — and mutual — understanding.
How do you do it?
Surprisingly simple. Like this:Advertising
“Please explain what you mean?”
I’m shocked it isn’t done more.
You can vary this in a number of ways, from the two-word “Details please?” to a flourish-filled and elaborate “Pardon my misunderstanding, but could you please shine a light on where you’re coming from?” The exact verbiage depends on your personal style, but the end result is the same: it opens the other person up and encourages them to talk.
Wait — don’t step in yet! Wait until they’re finished. (If you’re in a live conversation. Obviously, this doesn’t apply on a web forum.)
Being a good listener can show respect, but it also demonstrates willingness to learn, even if you feel angry towards them. Missing pieces come into play, and that added information can change the whole “gravity” of the situation.
Good for rude questions too
Have you, especially if you’re a woman, been asked about your weight by a stranger? It’s almost always nosy and intrusive, and you may be asking yourself, “Why are they asking me?” In which case, you might as well say it out loud, firmly but pleasantly:
“Why do you ask?”
Their response will help clarify their intent, their motivation behind asking you. Whether it was out of sheer curiosity or veiled prejudice popping to the surface, you’ll hopefully now know.Advertising
I’ve heard this to-the-point technique used with great effect by several of my friends, and it serves the purpose of putting them in a position to explain themselves, instead of making you feel awkward.
I know when it’s not easy
There may be times on the Net when you’re paragraphs-deep into a response that’ll wear out your scroll wheel and (maybe) prove you’re right. But you know what? You won’t, can’t succeed in changing minds by force. You present why you believe something, and it’s more likely the other person will change their own mind. Certainly, you can be a positive influence, but you aren’t doing a Jedi Mind Trick. (Although some of us wish we could.)
Photo by Zeetz Jones
In really tense times, you may find it difficult to be the better person and humble yourself. You may find it hard to even ask “Why?”, and fall back on assuming the other person is just a jackass.
But oh, how often I’ve been wrong because of that: we all have our bad days. It’s a shame when two people have a bad day and ram into each other (whether physically, textually, or otherwise) and assault each other — just makes the day worse.
(Some people are jerks. But you shouldn’t leap to that conclusion without a quick-yet-reliable “barometer of intent”.)
Truth: it’s unarguably better to brighten someone else’s day, and enrich your own too. Which is another reason why determining intent is so important.
There’s an anecdote I love, and you may’ve heard it before — if so, great! Everyone should keep this fresh in mind:Advertising
A man and his daughter are on a bus, and the little girl is bawling her eyes out and making a racket. Everyone can hear it, and an angry lady in the back goes, “Hmph! What a badly-behaved child. Must be an awful father who can’t control his young.”
So angry lady barges forward and gets into a confrontation. She does not ask. She does not exhibit the slightest iota of curiosity. She barks, “Tell your kid to shut up! She’s disturbing everyone!”
Of course she is.
But what angry lady doesn’t know is the girl’s mother, the man’s wife, was just in a severe car accident and following an extended stay, they’re on their way home from the hospital. (They aren’t in a car because the family vehicle was ruined beyond recognition.)
The chances of you coming across a situation exactly like that would be rare, I hope, but it concisely illustrates why determining intent, motivation, and context are so important. Intent can be thought of as pre-action, and while I’m sure the little girl didn’t have much control over her emotions at the moment, her tears undeniably happened because her mum just passed away.
But yes, I know it’s not easy.
You’ll have to practice, like I have. It does become easier with experience — doing it lots, over and over. Living life. As each & all of us do.
Photo by Esparta
Remember that: pre-action
Intent includes ideas. Execution of ideas springs forth from that bedrock. Thinkers who intend to do something, then get it done.
The end result may be the “final destination” of the journey of an idea, but is impossible without the road traveled. I’m not being over-philosophical, I’m merely demonstrating the process of human behavior.
We all have feelings we don’t act on. Conversely, we have actions we didn’t think much about (and there’s healthy and unhealthy varieties of impulsive behavior). But somewhere in the middle, towards the beginning, is our intent, and the intent remains valid (and admissible in a court of law, as premeditated murder makes clear), even if an action is carried out. And in case you’re wondering, since it is a famous quip, good intentions only pave the “road to hell” if you don’t live up to your actions.
We can’t easily forget pain. As we continue to unravel the mystery of the human brain, some recent studies have even shown that hurt feelings are worse than pain. Conclusively, we don’t know yet. But I do know that a quick-check of someone’s intent, up-front, will be the fulcrum on which your future communication turns. If someone blatantly doesn’t answer earnestly or insults you back unreasonably, then no shared discussion can take place — at least, not for now. Perhaps they’ll cool down, change their intention to butt heads, and apologize. Perhaps not.
But regardless of external circumstances, the fact remains: you’re in control of yourself, and you can distance yourself and engage in conversations where you’ve determined the intent is beneficial for everyone involved.
“Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated. It operates in spite of the warrior’s indulgence. Intent is what makes him invulnerable. Intent is what sends a shaman through a wall, through space, to infinity.” -Carlos Castaneda
That applies to women, too. I wish the English language had better pronouns.
Best of hope — and in the comments, as I like to say, unleash your stories of intent!
Last Updated on April 11, 2019
How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success
Possessing strong communication skills will help you in every phase of your life. This is especially true in the workplace.
I have personally worked with several leaders who were masters of communication. A few were wonderful speakers who could tell a great story and get everyone in the room engaged. Those of us in attendance would walk away feeling inspired and eager to help with what came next. Others were very skilled at sharing a clear direction and job expectations.
I knew exactly what was expected of me and how to achieve my goals. This was the foundation of an energized and vibrant role I was in. What I have found is strong communication skills are incredibly helpful and sometimes critical in how well we perform at work.
Here we will take a look at how to improve communication skills for workplace success.
Table of Contents
How Communication Skills Help Your Success
Strong communication skills pave the way for success in many ways. Let’s look at a few of the big ones.
Create a Positive Experience
Here are two examples of how well developed communication skills helps create a positive experience:
When I first moved to the city I now live in, I began a job search. Prior to my first live interview, I was told an address to go to. Upon arriving at the address provided, I drove around and around attempting to find the location. After 15 minutes of circling and looking for the address, I finally grabbed a parking spot and set out on foot.
What I discovered was the address was actually down an alley and only had the number over the door. No sign for the actual company. The person that gave me those very unclear directions provided a bad experience for me.
Had they communicated the directions to get there in a clear manner, my experience would have been much better. Instead the entire experience started off poorly and colored the entire meeting.
As a recruiter, I frequently provide potential candidates with information about a job I’m speaking to them about. In order to do this, I also provide a picture of the overall company, the group they might be joining, and how their role fits in and impacts the entire company.
Time and time again I have been told by candidates that I have provided the clearest picture of a company and role they have ever heard. They have a positive experience when I clearly communicate to them. Even when the position does not work out for them, often times they will want to stay in touch with me due to the open communication and beneficial experience they had during the interviewing process.
Strong communication skills will provide a positive experience in virtually any interaction you have with someone.
Help Leadership Skills
It’s certainly a skill all its own to be able to lead others.
Being a mentor and guiding others towards success is a major hallmark of great leaders. Another characteristic of effective leaders is the ability to communicate clearly.
As I referenced above, having a leader who can plainly articulate the company’s mission and direction goes a really long way towards being the Captain of the boat that others want to follow. It’s like saying “here’s our destination and this is how we are going to get there” in a way that everyone can get on board with.
Another critical component of everyone helping to sail the boat in the right direction is knowing what your portion is all about. How are you helping the boat move towards its destination in the manner than is consistent with the leaders’ vision?
If you have a boss or a manager that can show you what it takes for not only you to be successful, but also how your performance helps the company’s success then you’ve got a winner. A boss with superior communication skills.
Build Better Teams
Most of us work in teams of some sort or another. During the course of my career, I have led teams up to 80 and also been an individual contributor.
In my individual contributor roles, I have been part of a larger team. Even if you are in business for yourself, you have to interact with others in one manner or another.
If you have strong communication skills, it helps to build better teams. This is true whether you are in an IT department with 100 other fellow programmers or if you own your own business and have customers or vendors you communicate with.
When you showcase your robust ability to communicate well with others while interacting with them, you are building a better team.
Now let’s jump in to how to improve communication skills to help you pave the way for your workplace success.
How to Improve Communication Skills for Workplace Success
There are many tips, tricks, and techniques to improve communication skills. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information, so let’s focus on the things that will provide the biggest return on your time investment.
Most of these tips will be fairly easy to become aware of but will take time and effort to implement. So let’s go!
Ever heard the saying you have two ears and one mouth for a reason? If you haven’t, then here’s the reason:
Being a good listener is half the equation to being a good communicator.
People who have the ability to really listen to someone can then actually answer questions in a meaningful way. If you don’t make the effort to actively listen, then you are really doing yourself and the other person a disservice in the communication department.
Know that person who is chomping at the bit to open his or her mouth the second you stop talking? Don’t be that person. They haven’t listened to at least 1/2 of what you’ve said. Therefore the words that spill out of their mouth are going to be about 1/2 relevant to what you just said.
Listen to someone completely and be comfortable with short periods of silence. Work on your listening skills first and foremost.
2. Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience is another critical component to having strong communication skills. The way you interact with your manager should be different than how you interact with your kids. This isn’t to say you need to be a different person with everyone you interact with. Far from it.
Here is a good way to think about it:
Imagine using your the same choice of words and body language you use with your spouse while interacting with your boss. That puts things in a graphic light!
You want to ensure you are using the type of communication most relevant to your audience.
I have lunch with a business associate about 3 times a year. We’ve been talking for several years now about putting a business deal together.
He is one of those people that simply overwhelms others with a lot of words. Sometimes when I ask him a question, I get buried beneath such an avalanche of words that I’m more confused than when I asked the question. Needless to say this is most likely a large portion of why we never put the deal together.
Don’t be like my lunch business associate. The goal of talking to or communicating with someone is to share actual information. The goal is not to confuse someone, it’s to provide clarity in many cases.
State what needs to be stated as succinctly as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some pleasant conversation about the weather too.
The point is to not create such an onslaught of words and information that the other person walks away more confused than when they started.
4. Over Communicate
So this probably sounds completely counter intuitive to what I just wrote about minimizing your communication. It seems like it might be but it’s not.
What I mean by over communicating is ensuring that the other person understands the important parts of what you are sharing with them. This can be done simply yet effectively. Here’s a good example:
Most companies have open enrollment for benefits for the employees in the fall. The company I work for has open enrollment from November 1 to 15. The benefits department will send out a communication to all employees around October 1st, letting them know open enrollment is right around the corner and any major changes that year. There’s also a phone number and email for people to contact them with any questions.
Two weeks later, we all get a follow up email with basically the same information. We get a 3rd communication the week before open enrollment and another one 1 day before it starts.
Finally we get 2 emails during enrollment reminding us when open enrollment ends.
There’s minimal information, it’s more of a reminder. This is effective over communication.
5. Body Language
The final critical component to how to improve communication skills for workplace success is body language. This is something most of us have heard about before but, a reminder is probably a good idea.
When I am in a meeting with someone I am comfortable with, I tend to kind of slouch down in my chair and cross my arms. When I catch myself doing this, I sit up straight and uncross my arms. I remember that crossing arms can many times be interpreted as a sign of disagreement or conflict.
In general, the best rule of thumb is to work towards having open body language whenever possible at work. This means relaxing your posture, not crossing your arms, and looking people in the eye when speaking with them.
When you are speaking in front of others, stand up straight and speak in a clear voice. This will convey confidence in your words.
Possessing strong communication skills will help you in many facets of your life and most certainly in the workplace.
Good communication helps create better teams, positive experiences with those we interact with, and are critical for leadership.
There are numerous tactics and techniques to be used to improve communication skills. Here we’ve reviewed how to improve communication skills for workplace success.
Now go communicate your way to success.
More Resources About Effective Communication
- Conflict Management Styles for Effective Communication at Work
- How to Master Effective Communication Skills at Work and Home
- How to Work with Different Communication Styles in the Office
- 13 Best Communication Books for Stronger Social Skills & Relationships
Featured photo credit: HIVAN ARVIZU via unsplash.com