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Communication Rules for Survival and Success

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“A manager’s role, and by extension any leadership position is characterized by overload, ambiguity, and conflict.” -Linda A. Hill, Becoming the Boss

Who doesn’t like a bit of overload, ambiguity, and conflict in their days?

Managing, especially from the middle of an organization’s food chain, is one tough job. It also offers an incredible opportunity for the right individuals to create and build. If you’re committed to living in the triangle of overload, ambiguity, and conflict, nothing matters more than your communication skills. Nothing.

Early in my career, a mentor suggested, “You will go as far as you can communicate.” It wasn’t until years later I fully understood the meaning of his words. It turns out, every forward step, every accomplishment, everything you do as a manager is punctuated with challenging conversations and confrontations.

A Day in the Communication Life of a Manager

When you ask for help, resources, budgets, changes to procedures, or exceptions to rules, you are negotiating.

Dealing with a difficult coworker or boss? Your ability to manage yourself and your emotions, while tailoring your message and gain support, draws upon all of your communication faculties.

Performance feedback offers myriad nightmarish challenges, as well as unparalleled opportunities for growth and development—if you get it right.

And then there’s the issue of change. Whether you are proposing a change, implementing changes dictated by others, or thinking about changing something in the workplace, you are walking the thin, razor-sharp line that tilts to mind-crippling fear with your team. Your ability to engage mind and hearts for change is directly tied to your communication effectiveness.

Last and not least, anyone striving to propose new ways of doing things or new investments faces criticism—both constructive and destructive.

That’s an extensive menu of challenging communication topics, and you must learn to be at your communication best at a point in time when your brain suggests it’s time to fight or flee.

Survival and success as a manager depend in large part upon your ability to master three legs of the communication stool. You must learn to:

  1. Manage your message
  2. Manage yourself
  3. Leverage positive persuasion tactics

Successful managers draw upon these communication skill sets (and toolsets) daily when engaging with team members, peers, senior managers and executives across a variety of challenging circumstances.

Facing a Moment of Truth

Consider Amy’s challenging communication situation: In this case, Amy, the firm’s senior product manager and team lead, is proposing a new investment idea to the senior leadership group in her firm. Everything was going great until a jealous peer took a verbal shot at her. “Amy, what makes you think this project will work any better than that disastrous program you led last year?”

Pause for a second and think about how you might react to this frontal assault on your credibility.

Sure, the perpetrator looks like a jerk. However, you face a communication moment of truth. Follow through on your instinct to launch back at the individual, and you risk losing credibility with your audience. Go to ground and ignore the incursion, and doubt will likely creep into the minds of your audience.

While fight or flight are typical reactions, neither are the proper response to the situation. Instead, Amy drew upon the three legs of the communication stool to save and win the day.

Her core message and supporting information were solid and had been well received. She managed her message.

However, she needed to manage herself in response to this unexpected challenge. Amy recognized the situation for what it was—an attack—and immediately kicked into a brain and body reboot process to retain control. She relaxed her shoulders, dropped her arms to her side, looked away momentarily from the perpetrator, and focused on breathing while repeating an internal mantra: I’m here; I have this; I will turn this around.

While that sounds like a lot to do, in reality, we are talking seconds here. Amy had practiced this process in a workshop and with a role-playing partner in the workplace. Instead of fight or flight, she had trained her brain to choose a different path—one that allowed the executive control center to retain control.

Instead of responding in kind, Amy decided to use Bob’s negative energy against him. “Thanks, Bob. It’s good to revisit that project. You and your team helped us navigate that crisis, and we all learned a great deal. We’ve had nothing but a string of successes in the past year, and in part, we have you to thank for this. That issue is in our past. The team has proven repeatedly we will not have to revisit those same lessons.”

Lessons from a Confrontation

Let’s parse what just happened here.

Amy was confident in her overall messaging thanks to her planning. The core message or elements of the proposal were not under fire. However, she was.

Amy did not do what I probably would have done and launch at the individual trying to devalue her in front of an influential audience. She retained control and avoided the flood of adrenaline with her well-practiced reboot process.

She used empathy as a tool of persuasion, thanking Bob for raising the issue. (OK, that takes presence of mind.)

She walked down the positive path a bit more, by offering that Bob and his team had helped them navigate the crisis and translate the negatives into lessons learned.

Last and not least, she frosted this very positive response to a negative incursion with the reality that the firm and teams had efficiently executed ever since.

How do you think her executive audience reacted to her approach?

Very positively, of course.

Amy created a positive situation with her approach. Her positive approach created a mirroring effect in the room and with the group. Instead of watching a firefight, the audience had a chance to appreciate a much sought after good experience.

Developing as a Master Communicator

Since most of us lack the convenient background education and knowledge of psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuro-behavioral scientists, we’re left to wander through the wilderness of learning to communicate in these difficult moments. I spent too much time responding to meeting and boardroom challenges in an aggressive communication style. Others become shrinking violets in those settings.

And while the advanced degrees would be convenient, learning, practicing, and applying some fundamental rules and tools will help all of us immeasurably with our challenging conversations.

6 Rules and Tools to Help

1. Map and test your message. If you are presenting or asking for something, you must take the time to plan your message. I recommend mapping and testing your message. My maps consist of crystal clear core or center message, three or four significant drivers, and evidence to back each driver. The hard work of developing a clear, core message forces you to think through your ideas from the perspective of the audience. Working on this core message, key drivers, and supporting points helps you lock it into your brain. A carefully developed, well-practiced message frees your brain to focus on the audience and to adjust and adapt accordingly in the live setting. Pre-testing the message identifies gaps in your thinking or data.

2. Create a message map for everything. Did I mention how important and ultimately useful this process is? It bears repeating. Create a Message Map for upcoming presentations, feedback discussions, internal negotiations, requests for resources and every situation you can think of where you are asking for something. Managing your message is mission critical for communication effectiveness. Prior planning prevents poor performance.

3. Rewire your brain to respond properly to communication confrontations. Most of us respond at the moment. We’re at our worst when we need to be at our best. Creating, practicing, and owning a method to maintain control of your mind and body during unexpected workplace challenges is critical to your success. Learning to be calm under pressure and turn challenges into opportunities is a skill that will pay dividends for a career.

4. Facts and figures are good, but empathy and emotion gain support. Savvy communicators understand persuasion is achieved more through emotional appeals than logic arguments. Facts and figures are necessary, however, people change their minds for other reasons. Everyone processes through the filters of, “What’s in it for me?” or, “What does this mean for me?” Most people are seeking respect and reassurance. They want to “feel felt.” Empathy may be the single most powerful tool in your toolkit for melting resistance and moving people to the listening and considering stages in the persuasion process. (The final step is: doing.)

5. Uncover and emphasize interests over positions. We argue over positions and design approaches to meet interests. Most every communication situation you face in the workplace is steeped in positions. “I want . . .” or, “We need to . . .” Your job is to deftly apply questioning techniques to uncover interests. Once you understand the interests of others, you can construct messaging and propose approaches to meet mutual interests. Otherwise, you’re just engaging in an argument.

6. Focus on positive persuasion. For workplace negotiations, my goal is always to help create excellent outcomes for all parties. Playing “I win/You lose” at work might gain a momentary victory, but it comes at a high cost for future dealings. I prefer to play the long game at work and create influence by helping others achieve their goals while I am working to do the same. Strive to always employ positive persuasion.

Remember, you’ll go as far as you can communicate. While much of our communication work is spontaneous, a deliberate, disciplined approach to managing your message, managing yourself and persuading others will take you far.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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