3 Key Tools for Workplace Communication

Practical tips to try and common pitfalls to avoid

By Joshua Freedman – November 19th, 2019, originally published February 11th, 2011

Communication in the workplace is a constant challenge. The pressures to perform and the chaos of constant change often create an environment which makes a “meeting of the minds” seem like an oxymoron.

Fortunately, research on emotions and the brain has helped clarify key communication tools. Paying attention to emotional subtext will build a deeper person-to-person communication. If you learn to listen from your mission, you will leap ahead in problem solving. Finally, make sure you know “whose ‘but’ ‘should’ be on the line” to ensure that communication is a two way process, not an assertion of power.

1. Pay attention to emotional subtext

You know how you can coo to your dog in a really sweet, loving voice, “Oh you stupid mutt I am going to get you for chewing up the sofa again,” and he hears, “good boy, sweet boy, good boy”? The dog hears the emotional part of the communication and not the words.

In our human-to-human communication, the dynamics of emotional subtext are complicated by our assumptions, cultural differences, and by the pervasive pressure to ignore emotions. I was recently in China observing coaches in training. My perception was the coach was impatient, and after the session, I asked. “No, I’m just focused,” she said.

If I were in my own culture & language, I’d be confident about my assessment, but here I’m uncertain. Did I misinterpret the cues, or is the coach ignoring (or denying) the underlying emotions? Or somewhere in the middle?

If you dare, it’s easy to see the power of emotional subtext by watching politicians at work. Turn on a congressional debate, and notice when a representative stands and says, “I would like to disagree with my esteemed colleague…” We all can hear just how “esteemed” the colleague is at that moment — but the speaker pretends he is being polite, and the “esteemed colleague” is often provoked to respond to the emotion under the words.

In an often-misquoted seminal study, a researcher named Albert Mehrabian studied how the emotional part of communication is conveyed. If you break an emotional communication down into component pieces, he showed that around ten percent of the emotional message is the words. Most of the emotion is conveyed is the tone and other “paralanguage.” And while we frequently manipulate the words (lie), even a 5 year old child can accurately spot a lie in less than 10 seconds.

Why does it matter? After all, in most of our daily communication, we work hard to build clarity and to be tactfully truthful. Usually the issue is more confusion than deliberate obfuscation. One source of that confusion is the reality that we usually feel more than one emotion at a time. Another, perhaps the biggest obstacle:

We interpret others’ emotional signals through the filter of our emotions and experiences. In fascinating research about the brain which he shared in this insightful book, Your Brain, the Story of You, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the neural structures that contribute to this self-referential interpretation. At the core of our brains, the thalamus and amygdala work together to monitor all “traffic” and assess threat. Incoming data goes to the thalamus, then is routed to other parts of the brain for processing. All good, except:

There are many many MORE neural pathways going FROM our memory to the thalamus than visa versa. It means the majority of the neural signal is coming from our existing data… assumptions, biases, past learning, mood… are shaping all our perceptions. 

To avoid this pitfall, perhaps the most essential tool is for me to be clear on what I am feeling — or more accurately the blend of emotion I am feeling — and ensure that my spoken communication does not contradict that palette of feelings. If I can not align my thoughts, feelings, and actions, I will need to postpone the discussion until I can be more completely clear.

2. Listen from your mission

There is no effective communication without effective listening. Listening is the tool which turns words into communication. Right now, you could be reading this article and no matter how clever or useful these words may be, if you are thinking of something else entirely and not “listening,” the words on this page will not enter your brain. Physiologically, there is a part of your brain — the hippocampus — which determines your focus. The hippocampus is like a great receptionist in the office of your brain. It looks at the “phone” in your brain, sees three lights on, and says, “no way that brain is going to take another call – I’ll just get rid of this guy.” And like a good receptionist, the hypocampus is highly sensitive to what’s going on in the office, sees how tense people are, how busy, how concerned, and, together with the thalamus and amygdala, evaluates incoming traffic.

Also like great receptionists, you can not fool these guys. You say, “I am ready to take the call,” but mean, “I can’t believe I’ve got to take another call now, this is totally insane, I am still…” and your hippocampus-thalamus-amygdala knows. The result is a partial brain shut down — a “tune out” that can also turn into depression, anxiety, withdrawal, fatigue.

It turns out that a major mechanism for getting your hippocampus to pay attention is emotion. When you actually care (or feel anything strongly, or when there is a lot of variety for your brain), the hippocampus “tunes in” and you pay more meaningful attention.

So if you want to actually listen, you have to go beyond the outward steps of “active listening” we all learned as rote procedure for dealing with conflict. You actually have to care; to commit.

You might not care about the person, you might not care about the conversation, or the issue, but you do care that your behavior helps you meet your real goals, your objectives.

In other words, we each have a personal mission — it might not be written, but each of us is pursuing certain goals — and in almost any communication you can ask yourself, “how does my communication right now help or hinder my personal mission?” If you don’t have that mission written, now is a good time: writing your personal mission is like having a compass when you are reading a map.

For many people, their personal mission includes some kind of problem solving, some kind of learning, some kind of personal accountability, some kind of making the world better. This “outer-directed” thinking makes it easier to connect with people while communicating — it gives you a context of caring. It’s a useful resource — and without it, your communication is doomed to shades of mediocrity.

Perhaps this capacity is one of the reasons that emotional intelligence is such a critical part of success. People who can bring their hearts on-line are able to listen to the message beyond the words. They are able to turn the conflict into a learning opportunity. To persevere in spite of the complexity, the messiness, the frustration.

3. Whose ‘But’ ‘Should’ Be on the Line?

Conversations frequently occur against a backdrop of shifting power. The concern over who gets to have the final word is as old as the perennial 3-year-olds’ cry: “You are not the boss of me!” So between “Well our data shows,” and the “In every case I’ve managed,” and “I was just speaking with…” we have a tremendous range of not-so-veiled statements that mean, “I deserve to be listened to.” “I have a place at this table.” “I am right.”

We also have learned a host of more subtle words which help grab power. The problem is that power grabbed is not usually lasting — and bludgeoning employees with our own status does little to generate collaboration and rarely moves us closer to actually solving a problem or meeting a challenge.

Two of the most pervasive power-grab words are “but,” and “should.” Personally, I learned them from my grandmother. “Josh, you are such a good, smart, creative young man, but why aren’t you a lawyer? You should be a lawyer — or a doctor.” I love my grandmother, and I forgive her, and I know that is part of a grandmother’s job. At the same time, it is not my job in daily conversation.

When I say “but,” I am actually saying, “everything before the word ‘but’ is not actually important to me.” “It is a good proposal, but…” “You’ve been a great help, but…” “I love the model, but…”

An alternative to “but” is “and.” “The report is good, and unfortunately I don’t think it is going to fly.” There is no need to totally eliminate “but” — sometimes it is exactly what you mean: “These are all valid reasons, but I am going to take the risk anyway.”

The “should” means that I have the right — even the obligation — to set your priorities for you. Often this feels like the case; you might feel perfectly entitled to set your assistant’s priorities. But (ah, hear that?), don’t then turn around and ask why he is not a self-starter, why he lacks initiative, why you always have to spell out the agenda. So far more valuable than “should” is “could with feeling.” “You could do the filing first, and that would help me.”

As an experiment, pay attention every time you say “but” or “should” and ask yourself if that is the word you really mean. Ask yourself if you are using the word to control the situation, hold onto power, and be right — or are you using it to create a shared understanding.

What’s the goal?

Remember, the goal of communication is not for you to deliver your idea. It is to build a bridge between two people and meet in the middle. When you’re there, you’ll get a better view, be more powerful, and feel better too.

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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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