Communication during change

I have written before about communication (click here), where I stated the importance of adapting your message to suit your audience, i.e. communicating the right message, to the right people, at the right time. In this post I am focusing on the effectiveness of your communication and providing some techniques for improvement.

How we listen

It is  well-known that, in face-to-face communication, the words we use are less important than our tone of voice and the non-verbal signals we send out, such as our body language. This ratio of words, tone and non-verbal is often shown in the ration shown below:How we listen

Since this research was published in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian, there have been many alternative studies in this area which have come up with different results.  However, whatever the numbers actually are there is no doubt that we listen with our ears just as much as with our eyes. This shows how important it is to have a strong sense of self-awareness when communicating about sensitive issues during a change programme.

Assertive Communication

When you have got an important message to get across to staff members involved in organisational change it is vital that you adopt an assertive style of communication. These same skills can be used when you need to deal with any important issue where you need to be clear and ensure your message gets across.

You may not need to use all these techniques all the time, but they represent a useful set of skills to have in your behavioural toolkit:

  1. Match your body language and tone of voice to suit the message. You need to be consistent to ensure that the words you use aren’t misconstrued because they do not fit with your body language and tone of voice. Getting this wrong can make you come across as disingenuous or patronising.
  2. Use a firm but pleasant tone. When communicating difficult or sensitive messages always be pleasant. This will help your audience remain calm when there is the opportunity to get annoyed or frustrated.
  3. Don’t assume you know what the other persons motives are. It is very easy to make assumptions about the reason behind other people’s behaviours. At best these assumptions could be misleading, but they can also back-fire and result in serious unintended consequences.
  4. Start with “I” not “you”. When you start a sentence with ‘You’, you are immediately putting your audience on the defensive and have the potential to appear critical. It is far better to phrase your message with yourself as the subject.For example, an inappropriate “you” message could be: “You need to change to enable this project to succeed!”. It is far better to say “I would like you to change, because we need to implement this new process.”   It is much harder for your subject to say no because they can’t disagree when you start with “I would like…”.
  5. If you want something…   ask. We, particularly the British, are very good at accepting situations and not wanting to ‘rock the boat’. If there is something you want then ask for it, the worst that can happen is a refusal. Even in this situation you may be admired for raising the point and asking.
  6. If you don’t want something…. say no. Similarly, if there is something you don’t want, say no. Your request may not be accepted, but provided you refuse assertively – see the last point below, then you will not be thought any worse of.
  7. It’s about the behaviour not the personality. In changing situations we often need to change our behaviours but we shouldn’t try to change who we really are. When you are trying to deal with challenging behaviour this is usually because the person is uncomfortable and reacting in the only way they know how. It doesn’t mean they are a bad person. So, when giving feedback always refer to the behaviour and not their personality.For example it is much better to say, “When you operated that machine without safety glasses it was dangerous and reckless”, than to say “You are stupid and should know better than to not wear safety glasses”.
  8. Avoid generalisations. Be specific when giving feedback about a member of staff’s behaviour. Saying “You are always late” is probably not true and is likely to make them angry and immediately disagree. Saying, “You have been late four mornings this week, which is not acceptable” is difficult to argue with. Obviously you need to be accurate and well prepared to ensure you have the evidence you are feeding back.
  9. Compromise. Look for the win-win. Change is seldom black and white and there is often room to manoeuvre, provided you continue to travel in the direction of your goals. A compromise is always worth considering. You should be aiming to ‘win the war’, but need not to necessarily win every battle on the way!
  10. When you do/say …., it makes me feel …. The most powerful way to give someone feedback on their behaviour is to describe the impact of this behaviour on you. When you describe how you feel about something you are engaging that person at an emotional level. This is far more powerful than just engaging at an intellectual level (think hearts and minds rather than just minds). Think about the examples below:

“When you yell, I feel attacked.”

“When you arrive late, I have to wait, and I feel frustrated.”

“When you tell the kids they can do something that I’ve already forbidden, some of my authority as a parent is taken away, and I feel undermined.”

This way of communicating is not easy and requires practice. It is also risky because you are expressing your emotions and you need the person you are communicating with to accept your openness and honesty in a positive way. When done correctly the pay-off is always worth the risk.

Finally, if you are on the receiving end of feedback in this style it is really important that you respond in the right way. You may not agree with what the other person is saying, but you cannot disagree with how your actions made them feel. Feedback is a highly valuable gift so you should listen, accept the feedback and thank the person for what they have told you and then resolve the situation through mature assertive discussion.

The techniques above have been very useful for me when I am facilitating change programmes or involved more directly in the change itself. If you would like coaching in using these techniques or advice on how they could help your situation then please contact me for a free informal discussion.

I’d also be keen to hear about your own experiences, whether positive or negative. Please respond privately or in the comments below.