Have you ever heard someone complaining about a communication issue he had with another person? Have you ever felt that your partner in communication exchange just messes things up and he is responsible for all the misunderstandings? Have you ever heard a manager getting angry that his subordinate didn’t understand what he told him? If your answer is yes, then you were witness of a common pattern. We tend to blame others for not being able to communicate with us and we forget that in every communication there are two sides and therefore two sides to blame if things go wrong.
Communication between two peers
If there are communication issues between two peers then as a rule of thumb you can say that it is always fault of both of them. You can sometime find that one is more cooperative and communicative than the other but it still doesn’t change the fact that there are many things that the person could do to fix the communication, rather than giving up saying that the other person is impossible to talk to.
So how to approach communication with a peer who doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in successful resolution of a debate? The basic question to ask is what drives his behavior. We all want to be liked, we all want to be successful, we all want to help others and it is usually fear that we will lose one of those things that prevent us from “being reasonable”. So the solution to your problem is to create a safe environment where thoughts can be shared freely without a worry that they will be used against you.
There are various ways how to do that. One of the easiest is to start with show of trust on your part and be the first one who shows his cards. At the same time you need to reassure the other person that you are interested in mutually agreeable solution and you are not shooting for win-lose scenario. You need to be transparent and act trustworthy enough that other will sincerely believe that you are interested not just in your goals but also in his and that he can trust you. As Kerry Patterson writes in a book Crucial Conversations: “The best don’t play games”. They know that dialogue is the free flow of meaning – with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.
The only person in the conversation you have real control over is you so ask yourself “What do I want from this conversation for myself?” “What do I want for the other person?” and “What do I want for our relationship in the future?” These questions should you guide for your next steps. And don’t be afraid to voice them aloud.
“Maria, I see we have run into a stalemate. I would like to get a chicken for lunch and I hear that you would prefer fish. Chickens are important to me but it is much more important that we maintain a good relationship going forward. So let’s talk about what options we have for lunch so we are both satisfied.”
And what if the other person doesn’t want to talk at all? It means that trust is broken, feelings are hurt and you need to be humble and start with apology.
“Maria, I’m sorry for pushing you to eat chicken. In no way did I want to ridicule your taste in fish.”
The key in having a good conversation between peers even on the most difficult topics is to leave your ego out of the equation, be open, but also firm as you are shooting for a mutually agreeable purpose, for a state when both parties in the conversation will leave the table with a good feeling about the outcome.
Communication between a boss and a subordinate
The same applies also to communication between people who are at different level (being it social, seniority, organizational). Though the question of who to blame and who should be the one responsible for successful outcome is much simpler here. If there is a communication issue between a manager and his subordinate it is simply fault of the manager. He acts from position of power, he has the means to make it work and he should have also the skills. And still it has happened to me couple of times in my career that manager came to me and complained that a person on his team doesn’t listen to him. The manager’s hope was that I will talk to the person and somehow fix him. How peculiar. In such situation you should provide him with good feedback and coaching on how to work with his team but in no way should you get involved. A manager who is coming regularly with this sort of problems to you is probably a wrong person for the job. If people don’t listen to him it means he is not managing and not leading and thus not belonging in that role.
If you are the boss, then you need to figure out how to make things work and if even after all your genuine effort things don’t improve then maybe just maybe there really is issue with the team member. Issue, that gets fixed only by him not being a team member anymore. Very good indication usually is that this person has similar communication issues with other people within and without the team.
The actual ways how to fix communication issue between manager and a subordinate is at the end the same as between the peers. The solution should be always triggered by the boss but if it happens that you are the subordinate you can still use the same techniques it will just cost you a bit more effort to get there and you may not be able to do it at one go as your boss may need time to reflect on the situation before he or she is able to admit that there is effort needed also from his or her side.
Twitter type summary: “In every communication there are two sides and therefore two sides to blame if discussion turns into argument.”
How do you deal with communication issues in your team? How do you deal with misunderstandings you have with your team or your boss? How do you make things work?