Stop Assuming, Start Asking!

It’s no secret that there is a plethora of different communication styles that vary greatly based on age, experience and individual circumstances. Yet recently, in the workplace, I’ve come across a great many professionals who assume their preferred way of communicating is the same as everyone else’s. And, as a result of failing to look beyond themselves, they create a great deal of miscommunication with colleagues, clients, bosses and employees.

Case in point one of my clients was complaining about a lack of effective and efficient communication with his team. When I asked how his direct reports liked to communicate—emails, texts, phone calls, in person meetings etc.—he had no idea and had never even thought to ask. Embarrassed by the obvious oversight, which would have eliminated a significant amount of frustration, confusion, anger and wasted time, I assured him that his was a common mistake, transcending I.Q., E.Q., title, years of experience and pay grade.

Of course, as I told my client, merely asking people’s preferences will not eradicate miscommunication altogether. It’s extremely important that you get specificslike how they wish to receive time sensitive information, what is the best time of day to reach them, and what their usual response time is for less urgent requests. Then, check in regularly to confirm that communications are running smoothly, making adjustments as needed.

Along with familiarizing yourself with the communication preferences of others, you also need to clearly express your own communication style and expectations. In my experience, executives have a tendency to assume their employees can read their mind, inevitably leading to unnecessary chaos and frustration in the office. For example, one seasoned executive was livid that his direct reports sent him verbose, often rambling emails—or tomes, as I like to call them. When I asked him how he dealt with this problem he brusquely responded, “I don’t. I simply refuse to respond to any email that doesn’t get straight to the point within the first two sentences.”

My initial response was disbelief at how unprofessional and immature he was being; work was being delayed and his team was ready to mutiny. I knew immediately the only way to solve this was to have him sit down with his group and provide a set of communication guidelines to help them understand the best ways to reach out to him in order to get timely responses without flooding his inbox with unnecessary detail.

At our next session he sheepishly admitted, “Well, I guess I should have known that my office communication problems could be resolved with some open communication.” His team agreed to keep all emails brief—one-two paragraphs max—and that anything requiring further elaboration would be done in person. In addition, the team assured him they would be more descriptive in their email subject lines and would notate at the top of each email whether a response is required immediately, within 48 hours or by the next week.

So what’s the bottom line? No communication style works across every circumstance and just because it works best for you, doesn’t mean it does for everyone else. Using your colleagues’ preferred communication styles, and being clear about your communication preferences and expectations will greatly reduce the opportunity (of which there are many) for communication mishaps and meltdowns.

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