A CIO's Guide to Communication Basics

By Deborah Gilberg

Imagine sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting to hear about the results of a recent test. The doctor enters and says, “It appears you have a hiatal hernia which may or may not be accompanied by Gastroesophogeal Reflux Disease, or GERD. Not everyone with a hiatal hernia has GERD, which left untreated, can lead to more serious conditions including Barrett’s esophagus, strictures or even esophageal cancer ...”

You have lost track of what he is saying, and only the word cancer sinks in. Did he say cancer? Your heart rate quickens, your stomach tightens, and you feel a cold sweat emerge. You are no longer listening to the doctor, who continues to ramble. Your head spins, and you wonder if you just might faint.

The truth is, the doctor is describing some potential causes and complications of heartburn. He is giving you a lot of information, but as he indicates initially, he doesn’t really know whether it will be applicable or not. He is simply giving you the complete picture—keeping you informed, right? He is doing his job, right? He is communicating, right?

Communication has become a complex concept in our modern, high-tech workplace. We have communication procedures, protocols and programs; communication systems, glitches and failures. But the bottom line is that communication is only as good as its outcomes. In the scenario above, if the patient faints, that is the outcome. And was that what the doctor intended?

Good communication habits help leaders get the outcomes they desire. They are assets in many aspects of life, at work, at home or in the community. Developing good communication habits takes some conscious attention, but once they become familiar, can be the secret to improving relationships, increasing productivity and advancing careers. Understanding and practicing good communication habits creates a foundation for the kind of credible and dynamic leadership sought by most organizations. Here are some basics:

1. Close the Gap Between Your Intentions and Your Behavior.

There is a general rule: We measure ourselves by our intentions; others measure us by our behavior. In most cases, we are the only ones who know what we intend. Others see only what we do. It is also very common for others to infer what our intentions are, and often they infer the worst (“He meant to do that!”). Many of us are unconscious of gaps between our good intentions and our behavior. The physician in the example above had good intentions about informing his patient. But the patient will probably judge him on the belief that what he said made him faint, perhaps inferring a lack of concern on the part of the doctor for the fear felt by the patient.

Once we accept the truth of this human condition, we can work to close the gap. To begin with, we can always state our true intentions up front. We can offer others a peek into our minds and hearts and let them know our intentions when we communicate. Even if we believe our intentions should be clear, it is often best to assume that they are not: “My intention is to give you the range of possible consequences of your heartburn condition if we don’t treat it.”

Another way to close the gap is to ask for feedback about our behavior. Simple questions can do the trick: “Have I given you enough information about the possible consequences of chronic heartburn, if untreated? Is this the kind of information you find helpful?” Asking for feedback gets us the data we need to understand whether we are getting the outcomes we intend. It also signifies respect for the experiences others may be having of our behavior, and can defuse conflict and resistance. The more we focus on closing the gap, the more competent our communication becomes as we start to get the outcomes we want.

2. Learn to Listen.

A friend once observed that communication seemed to consist of talking and waiting to talk. That’s not surprising, given the glut of miscommunications, misunderstandings and verbal brawls that seem to dominate the landscape. While communication problems are often cited as one of most difficult challenges facing many organizations, it is not necessarily because messages aren’t being sent, even repeatedly. The problem is often that no one is taking the time to listen.

While there are many benefits to listening, underlying most benefits is the fact that when we listen, we get to learn something we may not have known—we rarely learn anything by talking. We can ask questions to get others to elaborate, and gather good intelligence about what they care about, what motivates them and what they really want. This kind of learning can give you insight into how to utilize staff more efficiently, address customer demands or position yourself for being the right person for the job. For example, during a job interview you might ask a question like, “Tell me what you think is most important about this job.” The answer may yield valuable information for helping you make the right impression, if you listen.

Unfortunately, listening is not always as easy as it sounds. Many of us experience unconscious barriers to good listening that keep us from recognizing when we are not listening. Such barriers may include a desire to be right, a fear of another’s influence, self-absorption with our own ideas, or apprehension about our ability to express ourselves lest we take our mind off our own thoughts. Learning to listen requires that we focus on the act itself, observing what happens to us while we listen and identifying what barriers we may have. Such barriers frequently loosen their hold on our behavior when we become conscious of their presence. Oftentimes, focusing on the act of listening can be enough to help us start to gain the benefits of good listening. With practice, listening can become an important part of your communication skills, strengthening your leadership integrity and ensuring desired outcomes.

3. Know Your Audience.

This is especially important when your communication can have different impacts on various audiences. Perhaps if the doctor in the example above considered how his patient might react upon hearing so much medical terminology, he might have chosen a different way to deliver his message: “You have chronic heartburn that can cause real complications if left untreated. … Would you like to know what those potential complications might be if we do nothing about this?”

Tailoring your communication to the audience you are addressing will help ensure that it is receiving the message you intend to deliver, in a method it can understand. Messages with highly technical content may be more easily understood by laypeople (and even industry peers) when communicated in simple steps with less jargon, or in association with a more easily understood metaphor. Considering your audience, its level of experience with what you want to communicate and what it really needs to get out of your message may take time and effort; the benefits, however, will be worth the investment.

4. Measure the Success of Your Communication by the Outcomes You Get.

Like any endeavor to change behavior or increase competency, improving communication skills requires that we assess the effectiveness of our efforts. When we keep ourselves accountable to the outcomes we are getting, we can be sure that our efforts are successful. Outcomes can vary. Sometimes the outcome is the knowledge that another has understood your intention and is clear about your message. Sometimes it is improved relationships, allowing for greater trust and more opportunities for negotiated solutions. And sometimes it is about getting what you want—a united department all working toward a common vision, a winning presentation where the audience is engaged and excited by what you have to say, or the acknowledgment of your leadership capabilities by a promotion. Whatever your intentions or desires may be, developing good communication habits as part of your behavior will expand your potential and increase your success.

Deborah Gilburg is a principal of Gilburg Leadership Institute, a leadership development firm specializing in conscious leadership. “Communication Basics,” a booklet published by GLI, can be ordered online at www.gilburgleadership.com.

SUBSCRIBE! Get the best of CIO delivered to your email inbox.