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Roy Chew on communication gaps

A kindergarten lesson in communication

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Roy Chew, corporate learning and development manager working at an aerospace company, defines the pitfalls of daily communication styles in the workplace – and the one style that can work.

Communication is one of the key skills in today’s workplace, yet it appears to be one of the most elusive.

Any function that needs a form of human interaction requires communication, more so for people managers, human resources and services professionals.

Even if you work all day tightening screws in a factory, you will still need to communicate with someone, if not with words, then probably through notes, memos, emails, SMS, sign language or Morse code.

Almost everyone can expound on workplace communication, but few are doing it right.

The fact is this is often one-way, half-way, three (or multiple) ways, or no way – rather than both ways. More on this in a bit.

Surprisingly, children are the experts in this field. You need go no further, but to ask a parent whether a baby’s cry means a call for milk, diaper change or attention.

When a child wants an answer, questions will be asked. And believe me, kids have many devices to communicate their intentions to you.

So, let’s take a step back to look at some pitfalls of communications to glean lessons from the little ones.

ALSO READ: You may be heard, but are you being understood?

One-way, half-way, three-way or no way

One-way is straightforward and self-explanatory. Instructions flow from the top to the bottom, much like how water cascades down a waterfall.

The manager speaks and the employee executes. When deliverables are not met, more instructions flow down.

This can continue in a vicious cycle, eventually resulting in information overload, more confusion and flooding of the river banks.

The simplest way to check this would be to ask questions and listen with an open mind, just like curious kids do.

Even if you work all day tightening screws in a factory, you will still need to communicate with someone, if not with words, then probably through notes, memos, emails, SMS, sign language or Morse code.

Half-way could be even worse. The parties speak in riddles, leaving everyone befuddled. Direction is unclear. Where should the ship steer?

Everyone does what they think is right and goes about their own mission. What are the chances that results will align?

Communicators need to be sure of what they want and get their points across, just like how kids have a way of letting their parents know what they want for birthdays and Christmas.

I see three-way miscommunication in three ways. The first is when everyone talks and nobody listens. It’s a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The second is when an alpha employee dominates the communication, and everybody follows. Rather similar to the herd mentality concept.

The third is when nobody talks and nobody listens. No communication. Total breakdown. For times like these, probably a teacher would need to step in to maintain and enforce order.

The aboriginal talking stick could aid in this process, where everyone can figuratively or literally take turns to hold the stick and air their views.

Everyone will have to listen quietly when the one holding the stick is speaking. Learn how kids always get their point across.

Finally, the no-way style is much like one-way, just more forceful down one’s throat. This approach may get things done in the short-term, but in the longer run it can be very debilitating to relationships and motivation.

Would anyone want to work for Adolf Hitler, if he was still alive, or Fred Goodwin, the autocratic ex-CEO from the Royal Bank of Scotland, who nearly bankrupted the bank?

Always look for alternative ways to get your points across. There is often a “third alternative”, as Stephen Covey puts it, where common interests can dovetail if you are open to communicate.

Think about how kids use subterfuge to get what they want, how they often manage to coax their parents to let them put off doing their work for another five minutes to watch television or play.

Communication, both ways

Communication is reciprocating by implication, with a mutual exchange of information to reach a common understanding so aligned actions can be taken.

Even if agreement cannot be reached, we can always agree to disagree. This is a different story, but at least there is recognition and awareness of differences.

In that case, actions can be taken to move things forward for consensus, either through consultation with a higher authority, or through the provision of more definitive supporting evidence.

The third is when nobody talks and nobody listens. No communication. Total breakdown. For times like these, probably a teacher would need to step in to maintain and enforce order.

With work processes getting more complex and technology more advanced, we need to tap increasingly on collective intelligence by communicating with others.

With the generational shift as Gen Y begins to dominate the workforce, communication modes and preferences have become even more diversified.

I believe the points I have made are not new. But just as how feedback and exchange of ideas and thoughts are critical to communication, so are patience and reminders just like this one.

This column is written in a personal capacity and does not express the views and opinions of the author’s employer.



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