10 Ways to Improve Communication at the Office and the Dinner Table

Poor communication often leads to unnecessary disputes. Fortunately, many disputes can be avoided altogether if just one party involved has the skills to connect with people, build consensus, and present their thoughts with clarity. The best way to build meaningful relationships and avoid conflict at the office (and the dinner table) is to communicate clearly, efficiently, and effectively. These 10 tips will help you have smoother interactions, no matter what the subject matter is.

1. Use “I” language. This is the single most powerful adjustment you can make to improve your communication. To use “I” language is to internalize your message and explain it in the context of how YOU are impacted.

Let’s say you supervise a co-worker who is prone to thoughtless, unnecessary mistakes. Many people would broach this concern by telling the co-worker, “You keep making mistakes. You need to pay more attention and do better.” A more effective way to communicate would be to say, “I’m concerned about how often your work contains mistakes. It’s a priority for me to make sure your work product is clean going forward.” By explaining your concern in the context of what YOU want/need/hope, you soften the blow of the criticism and give the co-worker a chance to curry favour with you by doing something that personally benefits you. It’s always a good idea to give people a chance to “help” you. Along those lines, the next time you call a customer service representative, instead of immediately explaining your issue, try opening the conversation by saying, “I need your help.” You’ll be surprised at how much better the service will be.

2. Be specific. If you are requesting something of someone, or explaining how that person’s actions are negatively affecting you, it is best to be as specific as possible. The more vague you are, the more likely your concern will feel to the other party like an attack on their character or aptitude. So instead of telling a co-worker something like, “You should be more prepared,” or “Stop being so tardy all the time,” you should think specifically about what you want them to do going forward, and articulate that. With this in mind, you would say, “It’s important that you bring all the necessary written materials to our meetings,” or “Please make sure you are at least 5 minutes early for all appointments.”

3. Be gentle. Nobody likes being criticized. Some people react to even small criticisms by getting overly defensive, which can often lead to disputes. So when you have to tell someone in the workplace, or at home, that you are upset about something they’ve done, try very hard to leave the judgmental, colourful language out of it. Instead of, “You did a terrible job of this. You’ve really screwed things up and you need to fix it,” try, “This isn’t satisfactory work and I need you to improve this.”

4. Listen out loud. Too many people take the opportunity to consider what they’re going to say next when they should be listening carefully to what is being said to them. Good listeners receive all information directed at them, consider it, and then respond. The really good listeners do even more than that. If clarity is important (and let’s face it, clarity is almost always important) you should try to reflect what you’ve heard, and possibly even reframe it to be forward looking rather than reactive. Think back to your grade schools days. When a question on a test asked, “How did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contribute to the start of World War I?” you were taught to start your answer with, “The assassination of Franz Ferdinand contributed to the start of World War I by…”

So if a supervisor explains to you that a number of changes are going to take place to your company’s scheduling process, don’t be afraid to repeat those changes back to your supervisor and ask if there’s anything else you should know. This demonstrates that it is important to you to understand the details of your job (bosses love that) and it allows them to clarify anything you’ve misunderstood (or mention something they forgot in the first place). Further, if a conflict exists and someone tells you why they are upset (“The deliveries keep coming to the storefront instead of the loading dock”) you could respond by saying, “I’m hearing that you want all deliveries to go to the loading dock from here on out.” Other ways to listen out loud are to say clear, concise things in response, such as, “Yes,” or “I agree,” or “Understood.” Sometimes it can be that simple.

5. Be efficient. Nobody likes to hear someone go on and on when the point has been made and it’s time to move on. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you are in a supervisory role at your workplace. Don’t take advantage of your position and talk everyone’s ear off. It makes people less likely to want to interact with you, and could negatively impact your company’s productivity.

6. Be a PEACH. An effective way to communicate what you want is to consider using terms like priority, expectation, assumption, concern, and hope. Explaining something in terms of it being an expectation is different than if it were a hope. Identifying something as a priority brings about even more importance. Other effective terms are fear, value, and need. If you have a fear or a concern, don’t hesitate to identify it as such. Using these terms brings about better clarity by way of specificity and efficiency.

7. The medium is the message. Consider the format of your communication and how it changes the actual content of the message. Sometimes emails can be best because your communication is put in writing, and thus can be referred to if a dispute arises over what was stated. Emails are also stamped with a date and time, which can be important. However, emails (and text messages) can seem cold and terse if the message is more delicate or requires a personal touch. It can be hard to emote in writing without appearing totally unprofessional (we all know someone that overuses exclamation points or smiley faces). Sometimes face-to-face interactions are the best way to make your point with the proper level of emotion or care. Further, a 5-minute phone call can replace what would have been days of back-and-forth via emails.

8. Ask questions. Open-ended questions are a great way to extract information from someone who is a poor communicator. Asking questions also shows that you are actively listening and that you are invested in the topic. It’s best not to ask questions to which you already have the answer, thus betraying your own intelligence (there is such a thing as a dumb question, after all). That said, if an interaction leaves you uncertain about something, fire away.

9. Don’t apologize for communicating. You have probably sent and received emails that begin with the line, “Just wanted to check in about…” You’ve probably also said, or been told, “Sorry to bother you, but…”

You should omit both of these things from your repertoire. If you think it is important to write an email about something, then do it with confidence. You are not “just” doing anything. You are doing your job. And you shouldn’t be sorry to “bother” someone. Instead, knock on their door and ask them if they have a few minutes to confirm, help, clarify, etc. This shows the appropriate level of respect for them and their time without devaluing the issues or concerns you have brought to them.

10. Smile, dammit! Unless you are delivering news of a dead grandmother or an imminent arrest, you will be well served to smile while you are talking, or listening, to someone. Don’t force it, or you will look like a Batman villain, but try to have what I call an “open face.” Look approachable, look kind. If you are prone to furrowing your brow or avoiding eye contact, grab a mirror and practice looking like you want to interact with people (even if you can’t wait for 5:00 to come so you can go home and avoid human contact for the rest of the day).

Identifying the Barriers

When I was a student-at-law I was asked to appear with a client at a court-ordered mediation. The lawsuit involved an employee who had received a handsome payout from his employer for transferring cities. The payout was part of a simple contract – he would receive the money for transferring, but had to pay back half if he quit the company within a specified amount of time. He quit the company a few months later, but refused to pay back what he owed. I represented the employer and attended mediation along with someone from their human resources department. The employee did not have legal counsel, and attended the mediation on his own.

As a young lawyer looking to impress the client, I prepared by researching the decisions in similar cases in Alberta. This hardly seemed necessary as the facts of the matter were rather cut and dry – the employee had reneged on the relocation agreement and owed my client money. Simple. But I printed and highlighted some case law and legislation nonetheless.

When the mediation began, one of the two mediators suggested that the employee speak first, since he did not have a lawyer in the room. He began by explaining how difficult his personal life had been at the time he left the company. His girlfriend had left him and his father had passed away overseas. He had been diagnosed with depression and felt alone and isolated in his new city. Simply put, he was miserable. It sounded awful, and I was sympathetic, but the lawyer in me regarded his story as wholly irrelevant. His difficulties had no effect on the legality of the issue.

But when I attempted to vocalize that position, the mediators stopped me, and asked me to wait. This was infuriating because the employee’s lengthy tale was effectively costing my clients money, namely in the form of my hourly fee.

Nonetheless, they wanted me to wait, and wait I did. We continued to listen as the employee explained that he had difficulty getting along with his supervisor and often felt unheard and powerless in the workplace. He said that he was unable to sell his Calgary home for the amount he had paid. He said he had considered quitting the industry and going back to school. This all seemed irrelevant. As I listened, I made sure not to wear my frustration on my face.

Finally, after nearly two hours, he was done, and it was my turn. I explained that, while my client and I sympathized with everything he had gone through, our position on the case remained unchanged.

As it turned out, that was all that needed to be said.

He agreed to pay, requesting only a monthly payment plan.

It turns out the employee needed to be able to tell that story, and to receive acknowledgement that he had been heard, before he was ready to settle the claim. Once he had purged all his opinions, feelings, and hardships, and been told that he still owed the payment in spite of them, he was prepared to discuss the mechanics of making that happen. The few hours of mediation ended up being money well spent by the client, because the file was concluded that very day. Had I insisted that we get to the legality of the matter sooner, it may have further frustrated the employee and scuttled any opportunity we had to settle that day. The litigation could have been extended by months, or years.

I recount this story to illuminate the power of mediation, even when it appears to be an unnecessary diversion from the legal issue(s). A good mediator takes into account the people at the heart of a dispute. Each mediation is different, because each person is different. The way people react to disputes is different.

This particular employee needed to be heard. That was his barrier to settling the claim. The skilled mediators that day recognized that barrier, and facilitated a resolution. A different person may have needed the nuts and bolts of the legal issue to be made clear, and a skilled mediator would have interpreted that need and facilitated a resolution in a different manner.

No matter who the party in a dispute is (a corporation, charity, or governmental body for example) they are always represented by people. The decisions regarding settlement are made by people. And if the needs of those people are met, then the dispute can be resolved in an effective, efficient, and lasting manner.

A good mediator will identify those needs, facilitate the appropriate discussion, and help the parties reach the resolution best suited to them.