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Two Specific Changes You Can Make Today toGet Better Results With Communication

#1 Say what you mean. And nothing else.

I am amazed at how deeply we have entangled emotion with business dialogue. I spend the most time helping clients understand that it is okay to be clear, crisp, frank and direct.

I’m not sure how this has gotten off track. But I continually hear people burying what they want to communicate in a big giant heaping snowball of fluffy emotion. It goes like this, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, or offend you, because I really like you and enjoy working with you and those cookies you bake for everyone are so thoughtful and your work on that project last week was so amazing and so I’m wondering if it would be okay if I suggest that maybe, if you are okay with it, on this project you use a blue folder because this client really loves blue. Oh and how are your kids liking their new school?

Then I hear, “I don’t understand why she goes off and does whatever she wants. I told her to use a blue folder on that client project and when she handed it to me as I was walking out the door, it was in an orange folder. She’s got time for baking cookies and filling out her kids school paperwork, but can’t take the time to do what I asked!

If it is true that our working memory can effectively hold on to 4 unique thoughts at one time, how could this person possibly hold onto what is ultimately being communicated – use a blue folder for this client.

Let’s break down the exchange above:

Concept One:  “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Responsive Thought One: “Oh no. She is going to say something harsh.”
Concept Two:   “I really like you.”
Concept Three:  “Those cookies you bake are so thoughtful.”
Responsive Thought Three: “I should bake some again. Do I have chocolate chips? I better go to the grocery store on the way home.”
Concept Four: “Your work on the last project was amazing.”
Responsive Thought Four: “What was the last project? Oh yes, it was a beautiful orange bound presentation. Everyone loved the orange. I think I have another orange cover.”
Concept Five:  “I suggest maybe, if you are okay with it, on this project use blue.”
Responsive Thought Five: "The orange was such a hit and there is one more orange cover. I want this kind of appreciation and praise again. When will she stop talking so I can snag that orange cover?”
Concept Six:  “The client loves blue.”
Responsive Through Six: “Yes. But orange was such a hit. Please stop talking.”
Concept Seven:  “How are your kids liking their new school?”
Responsive Thought Seven: “School? Oh my gosh! I’ve gotta print out those permission slips and fill out the school photo paperwork and go to Back to School night tonight. How will I possibly get to the grocery store and make cookies for tomorrow for all the staff. She said everyone loves them. Darn it…and snag that orange folder. I’m so overwhelmed.”


I see this same pattern over and over again - the sugar coating of a request. The failure to be crystal clear and frank when having business dialogue. The intrusion of emotion, designed only to make the speaker feel better, actually clouds the directions.

If the supervisor here had simply said, “On this project, I want a blue cover”, I guarantee you the staff person would have used blue. If she did not, the follow up conversation would be really clear, “I said to use blue. What happened?

In the top request, soaked in honey and surrounded with all kinds of distracting fluff, the staff person could say, “I didn’t hear that”, and they would be right. Their working memory just couldn’t get Concept Five in the door. And it was only a suggestion anyway.


#2 Directive, Discussion or Group Decision?

How many times have you left a meeting wondering, “Did we decide on something?

I spend a great deal of time facilitating conversations where one person moved forward on a project or implementing a policy and then were called on the carpet for advancing. The conversation goes like this:

Supervisor:  “Why did you do that? We hadn’t decided to move forward?”

Staff person:  “What? I spent four hours on this because at the last meeting we decided to do this!” Supervisor:  “I didn’t think we decided. I thought we were just talking about it. Joe, did you think we decided?” Joe:  “I wasn't sure. So I just keep going like I was until someone tells me different.”


Supervisor:  “Well, now we have a mess to clean up.” The simple solution here is to use specific language. And for leadership to communicate clearly about their intention using phrases like:

“I want to have a discussion on how to proceed on “X”. This is a discussion. I will make the ultimate decision and will inform you by ______.” “From now on we will use only blue folders for client presentations. This is a decision.”

“I want to have a discussion about the 2016 holiday schedule and at the end of this discussion we will all vote on the calendar and it will be final.”

If staff doesn’t hear this language, it is their responsibility to clarify by saying, “I’m unclear. Is this your decision, an information seeking discussion only, or is it a group decision?”


When business language and emotions get all tossed together, the end result is drama and confusion. In the work world we really only have three resources:


    • Money
    • Knowledge and expertise
    • Time


Money and knowledge are renewable resources. We can make more money. We can hire more talent. But time spent in confusion and drama is never regained. It is non-renewable. Therefore, time is our most precious resource.