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by B.J. Rogers

Just when you think you’re all on the same page. . .

Best I can tell, there are few conflicts or challenges that don’t or didn’t originate by way of miscommunication, unclear communication, or a plain old lack of communication. Once we reach conflict, communication often gets harder – and all the while more critical – as the stakes get higher. 

In my estimation, a significant percentage of communication mishaps – if not all of them – are rooted in our tendency to communicate at a highly conceptual level. That is, though we use all the right words we lean heavily on concepts and rarely speak or write with clarity about our behavioral expectations, whether in our lives, the workplace, or the world at large.

I’ll give you a for instance. 

Once upon a time, I had a staff member who was struggling to show up for work on time. Despite repeated conversations, they just couldn’t get in the door and ready to roll when their shift started. It was frustrating and, more importantly, was impacting other staff and the efficiency of our operations. In a moment of desperation – and on the brink of termination – I opted for an approach that I worried could be potentially insulting: I spelled out, in concrete terms, what it was that I meant by “on time.” 

In my mind, on time meant in the building, uniform/nametag on, and ready to punch the clock and get to work within a minute or two (on either side) of one’s scheduled shift. What it didn’t mean to me was pulling into the parking lot, finishing breakfast in the breakroom, or chatting up a coworker 5 or 10 minutes after the start of a shift. Turns out that desperation can be the mother of invention and this simple but specific articulation of my expectations brought clarity to the situation, established a shared understanding, and effectively resolved the problem.

Never in my life would I have understood “on time” to be conceptual. To me, it was a pretty clear behavioral expectation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was doing my employee a disservice by assuming we understood one another and they’d struggled to understand what I was so worked up about. That all changed when I translated my understanding into clear behavioral expectations. 

Think about the impact of a simple change in communication on a somewhat trivial – if certainly commonplace – employee performance issue. Now apply that approach to things that REALLY matter. Your directive to staff is to “take initiative.” But what the heck IS initiative to you? 

  • What does it really look like? 
  • What behaviors are you asking for? 
  • How will you know it when you see it? 

When you find yourself in a conflict, ask yourself, “Might this challenge be rooted in a communication failure?” Chances are, if you look hard enough, you’ll find the answer is yes. Tease apart the situation and you just might find that a little translation – from concept to behavior – could be the conflict cure (or at least clarifier) that you’re looking for. 

Get more communication tips in our upcoming seminar, Tools for Transformative Communication on October 7-8, 2019 in Pasadena, CA! 

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