April 6, 2022
I often find that those who try and fail (and use failure to improve and try again) are some of the best advice givers. In that vein, I may be qualified to talk about communication not because I manage a team of almost 20, but because I’ve learned how not to communicate (read here, “made mistakes”). Here’s what I’ve learned, and I hope it’s as useful to you as it has been to me.
Actively listen and observe
People tell us all the time how they communicate; we just need to listen. This is helpful for not just knowing what to talk about, but how to talk about it, too.
Is your colleague direct and to-the-point? Be direct and to-the-point, too. Are they long-winded and tend to go on tangents? (Guilty.) Let them know up front how much time you have for the conversation (“I have a hard stop at 11am because I have another meeting to get to.” or “I’d love to catch up, but I need to get this assignment completed…lets chat after work!”) and draw them back to the subject at hand.
Unsure of how someone communicates? I find it helpful to test the waters by starting with friendly small talk before moving on to the subject, tuning in to how my colleague reacts.
And while some workplaces don’t have clear shared language, pay attention to the meaning your colleagues put behind words, phrases, and concepts. It’s extremely helpful to communicate with mental models and language that you know people in your workplace share and the best way to learn is to simply listen.
Maybe equally as important is to…
I remember when I first moved into my new role at America’s Future. In my previous role, I became so accustomed to that team’s strong shared language and mental models that I took communicating for granted. I was so ingrained in that common language that I had to almost completely relearn how to communicate so my new team could understand. I learned very quickly that the best way to navigate was to ask a lot of clarifying questions, because often my former and new teammates could say the same thing but have totally different meanings.
This is important not only if you’re new to an organization, but also if you’re bringing on new teammates. It’s especially helpful for the short-winded colleague that tends to answer a lot of questions with “yes” and “no”, but not open up much beyond that.
Which brings me to my next point: we must learn to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions means we need to be thoughtful about what we’re discussing, and ideally do the work before the call, meeting, or email to ensure we get the best information possible and that your colleagues are heard. (i.e. “What does it look like to successfully complete this project?” or “I noticed you didn’t get x assignment in on time, what can I do to help?”)
Do not offer feedback unless asked*
This is especially difficult for those of us who want to be helpful and enjoy problem solving. Some of my worst communication blunders revolve around offering feedback that no one wanted. Unless it’s something that could hurt the organization or individual (in which case, you may want to discuss with your supervisor or HR before saying anything), it’s best to wait for someone to ask your opinion. If it’s feedback that you think could help your colleague or that your teammate would want to hear, ask them if it’s okay to offer some constructive feedback. (“I was thinking about your project the other day and thought of an idea you might like. Could I share it with you?”)
*Unless you’re communicating with someone you supervise, but then you should have already set expectations with them as to how the feedback process works on your team.
Keep it professional
Every organization and person are different, but I recommend to air on the side of caution and not discuss your personal life in the workplace (especially if you’re new) until you have a better grasp on the environment and team (in which case, listen and ask questions). Maybe you’re someone who wants to have friends at work (some of my best friendships have developed in the workplace), in which case pay attention to how your teammates interact with each other. Do they make plans to spend time with each other after work or on weekends? Do they give personal context in conversations? How do they respond when you ask them how their weekend was? Read the room and dip your toes into the personal life discussions carefully. And remember to watch out for these three things: 1) don’t discuss politics, religion, or sex (unless that’s your industry of course!), 2) don’t ask invasive or personal questions, and 3) don’t ever feel pressured to discuss your personal life if you’re not comfortable doing so.
There’s rarely anything more frustrating to me than to be on a team where there is little communication. Regular communication helps hold people accountable, helps manage expectations, generates ideas, creates a sense of culture and community, builds trust, and helps ingratiate the team to the organization’s mission. Be sure to ask about the communication norms on your team. How often should we check in? Should we email, text, Zoom, or call? How often do your teammates and/or supervisor need updates? What platforms should we use to collaborate?
This guest blog was written by Rhachel Toombs as part of the NeW 2022 Professional Development Week Blog Series. Toombs is the Director of Community at America's Future. She has years of experience in clergy and advocacy, with a focus on community organizing. As a trainer, Toombs has educated hundreds on important issues and activism. She received her bachelor's degree in music from Rollins College and resides Jacksonville, FL, with her three rescue dogs.