Levels of Communication
It’s not a secret that in every aspect of life you need to communicate to have a productive and positive day. In your personal life, you communicate with your family, your friends, the person behind the deli counter at the supermarket. At work, you communicate with your boss, your coworkers, and your clients regardless of your profession.
Where there is communication, there’s also miscommunication. Most arguments stem from a miscommunication due to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Disagreements can certainly arise from differing ideas, but they don’t usually escalate into arguments without lack of communication or a misunderstanding.
Any information conveyed between individuals qualifies as communication, but it’s the manner and specificity in which that information is conveyed that makes all the difference.
Here’s an example:
Your daughter loves to drink tea but sometimes leaves used mugs in her room. You want her to take care of her dishes. There are a few things you might say to her:
Let me repeat that: There is an assumption that more employees can always be hired. So what happens when all the appropriate employees are spoken for and there is no one left to hire for the roles you need? This is the current market.
Level 1: “What did I say about leaving dishes in your room?”
Level 2: “Take care of the dish, please.”
Level 3: “Can you please take this mug to the kitchen?”
Level 4: “Can you please put this mug in the dishwasher?
Level 5: “I need you to rinse out this mug in the kitchen sink and put it in the dishwasher and do it now, please.”
It’s possible that any of these requests might result in the task being completed, but the more specificity in your request, the more likely it is that your daughter will do exactly what you want, when you want it done. Simply saying “What did I say about leaving dishes in your room?” gives no indication of a request. Your daughter may not do anything with the mug – you didn’t ask her to, and she’s likely going to resent the tone in which you brought the subject matter to her attention. “Take care of this dish, please,” or “Can you take this mug to the kitchen?” may result in a dirty mug sitting on the kitchen counter, not in the dishwasher where you wanted it. Ask, “Can you please put this mug in the dishwasher?” and maybe she will do it tomorrow, or she won’t remember to rinse it out first. You’re more likely to have success with your ask if you include the “who, what, when, where, and how” of your request. Nouns and adjectives are always helpful. Try to avoid pronouns if you can.
What: Dirty mug
Goal/how: By rinsing the mug and placing in dishwasher
It may take slightly longer to be more specific and descriptive, but ultimately more time is saved when a second round of communication is not needed and actions don’t need to be redone.
Let’s take this to a management level:
You send out an email saying, “This is due at the beginning of next week. Can you take care of this by then?”
Let’s start with the “who” of this request… Did you copy multiple people on this email? If so, they’re all wondering which of them should take action. Everyone on your team is swamped and hoping someone else will raise their hand. You have that star employee who is always up for another task, is dependable, but this has also led them to take on an unfair share of the team’s work. Maybe they take on the task and are overwhelmed with work. Perhaps the person who should really be taking this task is in a meeting, hasn’t seen the email, but other people feel the need to respond because no one else has. Maybe two people start working on the task unbeknownst to each other, one of them unknowingly wasting time and effort.
You as a manager are not fully managing, and you’re less likely to get what you want. You’re letting your employees self-manage, which in some cases can be a good learning opportunity, but some situations aren’t right for that experience.
To improve this request, start by adding some parameters. “If/then” statements help to guide without micromanaging:
“Whoever is working on the report for Client A, and is not in the training session today, please get a start on this.”
You should also be more descriptive about what exactly is due. Stating “This is due”, without any other information, could mean any number of different things to whoever is working on your request. Is it a full site plan? Preliminary drawing set? Who is it due to? The client or another entity? Is it just for an internal review? Only using “this” as a descriptor leaves a tremendous amount of ambiguity.
“The site plan is due to the client for a 9:00 am meeting on Tuesday.”
“The planning submittal is due on Tuesday. We’re taking the set into the city at 9:00 am Tuesday.”
These are two very different goals that sound very similar when the request is vague. The first request makes the task sound like it is solely the concern of the one designer being given this task. “I just need to complete the site plan and then I’m done.”
The second request suggests (though still does not say explicitly) that coordination is needed with the landscape architect and civil engineer in order to create a whole submittal. The relevant disciplines need enough notice to add this task to their schedules and get documents to the person coordinating. Someone in your office needs to take ownership of organizing the pieces of the package together, still allowing enough time for the print shop to print and deliver the drawing sets.
“Hey Julie, when you’re done with that site plan, know that it is needed for the Planning Package due Tuesday at 9:00 am, and we need to coordinate with the other trades.”
If Julie is experienced, she’ll know to send out backgrounds to landscape and civil, telling those disciplines when she needs their work. She will allow herself enough time to integrate their files into the set, and will know about how much advance notice the print shop will need, and therefore when she should send them the files.
Let’s assume Julie is not experienced. If she’s working on a site plan, and you say that “this” is due on Tuesday morning, she’s likely going to get it done at 8:30 am on Tuesday. She will suddenly realize she was supposed to have prints made and panic when the print shop says it can’t be done by 9:00 am. Julie will need to pick up the prints and rush to deliver them herself to get her work to the city by 9:00. She barely gets there in time only to have the city reject the site plan because it’s not a full planning package.
Who you are communicating with changes how you communicate. Julie is helping on your team, has worked for the company for two years, but just joined this project. You assumed she knew you wanted a Planning Package, and also that she knew what was included in one. Now you’re frustrated, and she’s feeling defeated, lacking, and like she has failed. Had Julie known precisely what you wanted, she would have had the opportunity to ask for any information she didn’t know, and the time to go to someone more experienced for more detail on what a planning package entails. Instead, she took on other tasks, knowing she was almost done with the site layout. She figured she could easily get the plan to you by Tuesday because she interpreted “this is due” to mean just the site plan you assigned last week.
If you’re in an environment where team members come on and off of your projects often, descriptive communication – which is always useful – is paramount. Create checklist templates for packages and reports that need to be completed often. “Hey team, we have a Planning Package due for Project A, and it needs to go to the city by 9:00 am Tuesday. Here’s the standard checklist/flowchart of what we need for that type of package. I’ve attached a PDF of the flowchart to this email. Can you work together to divide and conquer?”
Want to get really efficient? Check out apps like Asana, or Monday.com to find a format that works for you and your staff, or even you and your family!