In my last post, I talked about the importance of using language effectively when communicating with our clients. I discussed ways to match your communication to the listener’s frame of reference (FOR)—one of three aspects of using language that I have chosen to discuss in this series. I continue here with a discussion of the other two, candor and succinctness.
We all aspire to be straightforward with our clients by clearly stating what we want to say rather than speaking in generalities (and hoping the listener understands what we mean). This level of directness is captured in a number of common expressions:
Given our desire to be trusted advisors, it would seem obvious that directness is a key element in any change practitioner’s communication toolbox. To the contrary, professional change facilitators often pull their punches (e.g., fail to pursue a sensitive topic, give tough feedback, or engage in necessary explicit conversations with clients). There are a number of possible reasons for this. Here are some examples:
Frankness does not always mean bluntness. This depends, of course, on the relationship you have with the listener, the culture in which you are operating, and/or the context in which you are delivering your message. Many cultures value indirectness as a way of allowing people to save face and preserve harmony—it’s important to be aware of and respect these preferences. However, the goal of communicating clearly and unambiguously does not change. Your challenge is to know precisely what you want to convey and then to select the words, tone, and affect carefully to ensure that your listener gets the essence or the importance of your message.
When we are being frank and straightforward, we will:
When we are not being frank and straightforward, we are likely to:
The final element I’ll raise is the importance of being accurate, crisp, and compelling in our communications. We can strive to match the perspective of our messages to the listener’s FOR and be completely candid about what needs to be conveyed, but still fail to convey the force of the intended message. The most effective change facilitators make a special effort to ensure they provide:
These three elements combine to create a signature style of communication, both oral and written, that enables practitioners to have the desired level of impact and influence with their clients. Although their value is obvious to the experienced professional, they each bring challenges that make it difficult to be consistent with their application during critically important change projects:
In situations where we have time to carefully craft a message, such as in a written report or a formal presentation, it’s important to polish the message to increase its accuracy, its crispness, and its potential to be compelling. The highest level of skill, however, comes in being able to deliver communication that meets these standards while thinking on our feet, in front of the client, in a high-pressure situation.
When our communication is accurate, crisp, and compelling:
When our communication is not accurate, crisp, and compelling:
Successful change practitioners convey their observations, insights, and conclusions to clients in powerful, influential ways. To do this, they apply separately and then integrate together the three aspects of sound communications outlined here—matching (applying the proper frame of reference), candor (being frank and straightforward), and succinctness (being accurate, crisp, and compelling).
These are basic elements to practicing our craft that any novice could cite as essential to good communications. Yet, as seasoned professionals, many of us fail to apply them as consistently as we should. I’m sure nothing I’ve raised in this post is new to any of us. The question is, can we be more mindful and disciplined about applying this information to increase our effectiveness?
The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. —Hans Hofmann
As professional change facilitators, we have many reasons to communicate with our clients: listening, learning, educating, informing, persuading, guiding, or simply expressing ourselves. We also have numerous vehicles for conveying our intentions: speech, images, text, non-verbal signals, etc. While the look and feel of our messages and our choice of media are essential parts of our success as communicators, the most critical ingredient is how effectively we use language.
There are many aspects to using language so that we achieve our intended impact. I have chosen three that often challenge those in our profession:
You may be curious—of all the elements that contribute to the effective use of language, why did I choose these? I’ve been training and guiding change professionals for almost four decades, and I can say with certainty that these three components are in short supply among many who aspire to practice our craft. I find few who disagree about their importance, but many internal and external practitioners are unwilling or unable to engage their clients consistently in these ways. Maybe they’ll do it if the circumstances are just right, but, too often, well-executed matching, true candor, and refined succinctness fall prey to political pressure or lack of skill. Whenever this happens, clients get less than they deserve from us.
Even if you consider yourself proficient in these areas, I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to up your game—challenge yourself to be even more aware of when you might emphasize these three facets of effective, change-related communications.
Match Your Communication to the Listener’s Frame of Reference
Each client you encounter looks at the world through a unique lens—his or her frame of reference (FOR). Individuals use FOR as a codebook for interpreting the information they process through their senses. This is shaped by many elements—personality, age, experience, role, etc. Many models can be used to discern a person’s FOR. These can provide the proper style of communications to increase the likelihood the receiver will understand and relate to what is being said. It’s less important which of these models you use than that you have one or more to rely on when tailoring your messages.
As an example, Carl Jung’s work in the 1920s has inspired numerous proprietary models describing differences in how individuals see the world and prefer to receive information. Each of these frameworks has its particular features, but all are variations of the same four basic FOR perspectives Jung first developed:
Regardless of what FOR framework you use, your ability to apply the correct communication style appropriately helps ensure that your messages will have meaning for the listener. For example, if a client is primarily concerned with how a change will impact the targets (Feeler), he or she may not resonate with a message that stresses the sequence in which the change will be implemented (Thinker).
Though people usually have a strong tendency to see their world through a favored FOR, there are many influencing factors that can affect what FOR a person may actually apply in particular circumstances. The listener’s change role (sponsor, agent, target, or advocate), for instance, can influence whether information is seen as relevant or as noise. Information about the organizational benefits of a change that may be extremely valuable for a sponsor could have little meaning for a target who is just trying to figure out the implications of the change on his or her daily routine.
You may be saying to yourself that all this is too elementary for someone with your experience, but the ugly truth is that it is extremely common for change practitioners with many years of practice to let their guard down and start assuming their clients see the world the same way they do. Remember, pilots with thousands of hours of flight time keep themselves in compliance with basic take-off procedures by reviewing them every time they climb into the cockpit. Surely our egos will survive another pass at the fundamentals below.
When we use FOR effectively, we:
When we are not using FOR effectively, we are likely to:
In my next post, I will describe in detail the use of candor and succinctness in effective communication.