We use two prepositions with the verb ‘communicate’ - ‘with’ and ‘to’.

‘With’ implies dialogue and involvement between communicator and recipient.
‘To’ implies the one way process of informing and has no place here.

The involvement of communicating with someone may have an outward or inward starting point.

Outward communication is about conveying a message and then making sure it has been understood as you intended. You can only be sure the process has been successful by testing the recipient’s understanding. That means inviting feedback.

Inward communication is about finding opportunities to listen to what others have to say, understanding not just the words, but interpreting the feelings that may lie behind them.

We might think of the communication process as being rather like a ship’s Sonar system. Only when the echo has pinged back from the target, do you know you have found it.

Communication in the workplace has become a fashionable subject and attracts elaborate and expensive attention. Some of it obscures the next question we must answer - what is its purpose?

To justify your attention, communication must add value in one of two ways, the practical, or the motivational.

On a practical level, you need to know that your people understand what you require of them.

  • Do they understand their job descriptions in the way in which you intended?
  • Do they share your appreciation of the current priorities of your operation?
  • Do you know that they know when to alert you to situations that vary from the norm?

On a motivational level, your people are likely to be more willing and effective if they can identify with your organisation.

  • Do they share your understanding of how your operation makes a contribution to your organisation’s success?
  • Do you know they know how your organisation brought about its achievements and is addressing its problems?

How do you test their understanding?

By asking ‘open’ questions in conversation with them - "How do you feel about ...?” rather than ... "Do you understand?", a closed question, inviting a "yes" or "no" answer.
They may need to think about their answer, so don’t rush to fill any initial silence.

By listening for contributions in meetings and discussions that indicate differences from your own perception.
Depending on the importance of the topic, you may want to state your own view straightaway, have a quiet word later, or ignore the issue if it’s trivial.

Most people are subconsciously aware of ‘non-verbal’ feedback. As a manager, you need to be consciously aware of it.

  • The person leaning back and looking at the ceiling may be bored, or thinking intently about what is being said.
  • The person fidgeting in their chair may be anxious to contribute, or need the bathroom.
  • The person staring at the floor may deeply disagree with what is being said, or just shy.

Beware the dangers of inexpert interpretation of body language, for just such reasons. However, you do have some knowledge of both the people and the context.

This should enable you to use non-verbal expression as an indicator to find out more, though not to arrive at a (possibly inaccurate) conclusion.

Many outward communications are best made by letter or email. They are either straightforward or contain information that needs to be clearly set out.

If you have a "difficult" communication to make though, do it face-to-face. If that's impossible, do it by phone. Only use a written communication as a last resort, if contact is otherwise impossible.

The "difficult" nature of the subject will almost certainly require a written confirmation, but you owe it to the recipient to communicate with them in a sensitive way – that means the human voice of a manager with the courage to act directly and personally.

Some aspects of communication may be difficult for you to influence because they are dependant on your organisation’s culture on the subject.

You can deal with your own operation easily enough, but your senior management may be less than forthcoming about communicating openly on some of the broader issues.

You will not want to defend or criticise without having all the facts, or simply stay silent. Try to get clarification from your boss, emphasising your concerned interest.

You may have to accept what your senior management regards as sensitive, even if you do not agree.

Give some thought to how you organise your communications. Communicating with people in groups will use your time effectively and encourage participation, if you invite it in a positive manner.

The group situation can be an excellent opportunity for public praise, too.

To provide a base for your communications activity, consider holding a brief get-together on a Monday morning, to review the past week’s activity and preview any particular tasks or events for the coming week.

It can also be an opportunity to emphasise an item or two on your ‘attitude expectations’ list, if it is necessary. With an ‘outward’ starting point, you may well generate useful ‘inward’ contributions.

The meeting shouldn’t last more than ten minutes. Invite feedback on the topics you raise.

Deal with any questions that you or perhaps another colleague can answer quickly.

If an item comes up that genuinely needs attention in more depth, thank the contributor and schedule a discussion separately for those affected.

If someone raises an issue you consider irrelevant or a personal hobbyhorse, invite them to discuss it with you afterwards.

The working day beforehand, you might ask one or two colleagues to address items for you. If you do, rehearse the content briefly with them and make sure they can match the pace you set.

Don’t hesitate to push things along in the meeting, but pleasantly though. You want them to enjoy the delegated task and feel positive about contributing in the future.

Don’t allow your brisk, dynamic update to degenerate into an unfocused ramble. It, and you, will lose credibility.

You could consider holding your get-together standing up.

If someone is absent, ask another colleague to update them when they return, another opportunity for delegation.

Only do it yourself if there is good reason.

Groups are not always so suitable for drawing out individuals’ feelings, though. Don’t press a reluctant individual to contribute in front of their colleagues.

If you believe they have something to contribute or are concerned about an issue, take them aside afterwards.

Suggestions about Communicating With People

  • What are your opportunities for ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ communication?
  • How will you test your communications are a two-way street?
  • Which opportunities are ‘practical’ and which ‘motivational’?
  • How will these opportunities serve a useful purpose for your operation?
  • How will you organise the base for your communications activity?

For further advice on essential management skills, visit www.canyoumanage.co.uk

Author's Bio: 

This article draws its inspiration from the wide-ranging experience of a successful practitioner who has done the management job, from section leader, to CEO and company chairman.
An Economics honours graduate of London University, Chris Gent became a manager in IBM by the time he was twenty-four and later went on to revitalise and lead Teachers, a highly regarded mutual financial services group.

He has also acted as chairman of a number of companies in the business services sector.
With his colleagues, he developed and ran innovative team-building courses in the Welsh mountains.

Now he divides his time between consultancy work and a continuing enthusiasm for improving the working life of managers.