Tired of communication chaos at work? Adopt these 5 rules of the road

by | Jul 21, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

After experiencing yet another communication accident – no serious injuries other than bruised egos and wasted time misinterpreting the purpose of a reformatted document – I’m again asking: “Why don’t we take the time to create specific ‘rules of the road’ to follow for work communication?”

Let’s face it. We’re much more reckless at work as communicators than as drivers. If we drove like we communicate, we’d be operating our vehicles in a hit-or-miss way instead of following long-standing, acceptable rules of the road. (“Oops, forgot to move into the turning lane. I’ll turn left now anyway.”)

We’d also be driving in circles since we often don’t take the time to think things through and explain ourselves to others. And rather than easily reach our destination, we’d be contributing to fender benders, collisions, and pileups with our exchanges. As for our communication mishaps, they waste time, create friction among team members, and lead to less than ideal outcomes.

How does this happen? When we talk, text, email or whatever, we rely on a combination of our good intentions, years of experience, and personal assumptions, rather than effective signals connected to a sound process. We’ve “road tested” our own communication tools and habits and accept them as our personal truth. But they’re highly individualized, built on assumptions that are often even invisible to us, which makes our communication inconsistent and unreliable.

By contrast, our roads use well-established and detailed “process maps,” such as stated speed limits, stoplights, speed bumps, and other road signs. My thanks to Jamie Flinchbaugh, the author, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Lean Learning Center, for introducing me to this analogy.

In the 2006 book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road Jamie co-authored with Andy Carlino, they shared an observation that has stuck with me over the years: Drivers in the U.S. agree on the rules of the road and follow them. For example, “100 million drivers never sat in a 12-hour planning meeting together, nor do they report to the same boss; but they are able to navigate the nation’s highways with less chaos than most 50-person departments.”

Based on my experiences, if you want to improve how you communicate when your goal is to get things done at work with mutually good outcomes, adopt these five driving principles for your communication.

  1. Navigating.
  2. Respecting others.
  3. Signaling to others.
  4. Using multiple senses and nonverbal communication.
  5. Adapting based on situations.

Here’s a summary:

1.Navigating. When you get in your vehicle, you generally know where you’re planning to go. And if you don’t know exactly how to get there, you consult GPS or a map. By contrast, when you need to communicate something new to others, especially if it’s still uncertain or being designed, you may not yet have a clear picture of what you’re communicating. That makes it even more important that you take time to plan how you’re going to navigate the communication.

Pause to figure out the roadmap you’ll follow. For example, what’s the purpose and context for your communication? What are the “knowns” and the “unknowns” you’re still determining and can mention? What’s the timing and other details can you provide? And importantly, what’s your communication cadence that shows your commitment to keeping people informed?

2. Respecting others. Communication needs to be a two-way street with both the senders and the receivers having responsibilities. Share the road and have a healthy give and take. By having open conversations with plenty of questions and answers, everyone is better prepared to interpret the information in a similar way and follow through effectively on their responsibilities.

If you’re the sender, take time to identify the assumptions you’re operating under and share them. This is especially helpful when you’re asking individuals to invest time to work with you and take part in decisions and actions. Receivers need to confirm that they understand their role as well as the content they’ve received.

3. Signaling to others. Without turn signals found in vehicles, senders and receivers need to find other ways to be explicit with one another at every point. This starts with making sure senders get receivers’ attention, so they’ll grasp the message. Senders can’t assume receivers noticed “the” email when they’re skimming through their hundreds of messages at the end of the day. Other “noise” can hurt receivers’ ability to understand messages, too, such as literal background noise or other distractions that compete with their attention.

And once senders get receivers’ attention, how clear are they about expectations and timing? And are they setting up two-way communication to: Solicit views? Contributions to a mutually satisfactory solution? Feedback on working relationships?

The more exact, clear, and precise the messages are, the better the chances of a successful outcome. For example, I recently thought I clearly requested proofing services to ensure the clarity of a report. However, the individual who was working with me for the first time wanted to demonstrate her marketing capabilities, I later learned. That explained how my “proofed” report transformed – temporarily – into a promotional piece.

4. Using multiple senses and nonverbal communication. Good drivers do more than keep their eyes on the road. They listen for sirens and watch for pedestrians. Good communicators devote significant energy to listening to others, both noticing what people are saying and what they’re not. For example, are individuals staying silent about key aspects of the content you’re discussing? Are they squirming in their seats or showing other signs of discomfort? What about their facial expressions?

5. Adapting based on situations. Just as you drive differently on a dirt road, city street and interstate, you’ve got to adapt your communication to fit your situation. Consider the content of the message, the complexity of your request, and the individuals receiving your message and customize.

In sum, communication and driving are both skills that you learn and can improve with practice. Many individuals take pride in becoming defensive drivers. How about becoming a defensive communicator? This move can help avoid communication mishaps.


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