3 Ways to Positive Communication

When I was a new graduate working in a high pressure hospital environment; I would be in awe of the effortless way the specialists would manage their teams all the while radiating an aura of reassuring competence. Their teams would know what was needed and when the inevitable emergency would come crashing through the swinging doors into Triage; I could feel the atmosphere sharpen into an icy calm of efficiency. 

I gathered enough courage one day to ask one of them how they achieved that harmony. Smiling past my rookie questions she told me if I wanted to manage an effective team I should focus on communicating positively and adapt my leadership style to the situation. Positive communication with your team doesn’t have to be challenging.

1. Be mindful of cultural and generational differences

Regardless of generation, getting the team aligned to the same purpose is essential to be effective. Understand the motivations and values so as to personalize your approach to each member.

A traditional top-down leadership style may be at odds with the open and inclusive approach millenials prefer. They value being heard and feeling appreciated as part of the decision making process.

Where Baby Boomers might prefer to speak directly and Gen-X’ers via a phone call or email; younger generations will prefer online messaging channels. Using the appropriate channels to communicate will ensure both parties are comfortable to engage.

Pre-empting my point on Feedback below; older workers desire more feedback than younger generations said HBR in 2014

2. Actively Listen

I often catch myself waiting for the next opportunity to speak rather than listening to what’s being said. That’s not active listening. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you felt totally engaged and walked away feeling good that you’d been heard regardless of the outcome of the discussion? 

How do I do that?

Chances are they used some of these techniques;

  • Frequent eye contact and receptive body language.
  • They removed as many distractions as possible such as mobiles.
  • They repeated and rephrased your important points and asked if that was correct.
  • You were given the opportunity to speak at your own pace and the conversation was guided to allow time to reflect.
  • They responded to your changes in tone and emotion without being judgemental. 
  • Instead of giving orders or pushing an opinion; they asked thoughtful questions that made you feel included, challenged your thinking and empowered you.
  • Where part of a group discussion, they made sure everyone had an opportunity to participate, asked for clarification and offered examples.

Follow up!

The most important step about Active Listening though is to follow up, act on what you’ve heard and report back. That doesn’t necessarily mean adopting every suggestion or giving up every dispute. It’s more about acknowledging the concerns and views, taking them into account when forming your course of action and being respectful to inform the team on your decision. 

3. Regular Feedback

I find it really hard to thread the needle between sounding critical and offering constructive feedback and have written about it here. I admire those leaders who understand their team members’ motivations and values to frame their negative and positive feedback such that it nurtures engagement, builds trust and productivity. Harvard Business Review has a great article on feedback, I highly recommend.

The hospital workplace was very dictatorial and the hierarchy in place was necessary to ensure fast decision making and appropriate protocols were followed. Nevertheless, it instilled in me the importance of trust in your team and where there’s trust, even negative feedback was immensely valuable as a driver to improve fast and not be the weakest link when lives were at risk.

Delivering useful feedback is hard

When you’re too negative or overly focus on weaknesses; you will trigger defensive reactions that will kill motivation and shut down engagement. Conversely, whilst positive feedback is great to reinforce what’s being done well; being candid about weaknesses and flaws allow character insight and development. Positive feedback should focus on praising effort not ability according to Carol Dweck’s studies.

If you’ve ever struggled to give feedback like me; there are many acronym laden models to adopt such as STAR/AR model (Situation, Task, Action, Result, Alternative Action, Alternative Result) and the BEER model (Behaviour, Effect, Expectation, Result) which is particularly good for correcting poor behaviour. Regardless of the model; just having some structure to craft effective feedback is priceless.

Here’s the Center for Creative Leadership’s SBI model to deliver effective feedback.

The important difference is in describing each aspect without judgement so you as the feedback provider doesn’t feel anxious to give it and the recipient(s) aren’t cornered into becoming defensive.

Let’s add an “E” for Expectation

To close the loop on the impact, the “I” is also for Intent. Asking about the original Intent opens the conversation to move forward to understanding motivations behind the actions and coaching towards resolution. So to share an example;

“ In our standup meeting this morning when we were discussing the workflow for onboarding, Kenny, you interrupted Matt whilst he was explaining his view and said, “That won’t work at all.”. I was disappointed not to hear Matt’s proposal fully and felt a bit intimidated to present my own thoughts with the team. What were you hoping to accomplish by doing that?”

Once the intent is clarified you can guide the conversation to Expectations moving forwards. In the case where the feedback is positive, it’s reinforcing for continued behaviour and where feedback is to correct poor behaviour; alternatives are presented on how to handle the situation.

When do I give feedback?

Reinforcing good behaviour is best delivered in the moment and in a casual or ad-hoc manner whether it be directed to the whole team or members within. 

Conversely, where the outcome is to correct behaviour; a quiet, formal location and adequate time for uninterrupted discussion is better suited. Ensure the environment is comfortable for the employee and they participate in determining how such situations should be handled in the future.

Any other tips for the meeting?

  • I’ve found the least awkward way to deliver an effective feedback meeting is to remain open minded and really listen more than talk. 
  • Sharing your perspectives without judgement, giving them a forum to speak and admitting to any contributions you may have made to lead to this situation will help make the other party more comfortable. 
  • Capture any new information for reflection and discuss your concerns on the impact on the team and organization.
  • A touch of self deprecating humour goes a long way to breaking the ice in a tense or awkward situation.
  • Developing a mutually acceptable plan that achieves the desired outcome for the team and business is the objective; not personal punishment and extracting an admission of guilt. As Richard Carlson famously said; “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” and let the minor things slide.
  • According to a 1979 study by Ilgen, Fisher etal; providing Specific Feedback and Specific Goals will lead to improved performance.

One last point on feedback is that it’s an ongoing process that leads to long term improvement in performance. Following up on previous feedback as part of positive communication practices will encourage a high performing culture and team engagement.

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