Alliant Consulting Aligning people, processes and metrics to meet your business goals.

My niece has recently moved to China.  She does not speak the Chinese language, but hopes to learn it while she is there.  Here is the interesting thing I’m observing as I follow her Facebook updates and blog.  She seems to be doing better at communicating with her new neighbors than our clients do in their staff meetings, even though she does not speak or understand their language.

Why would this be?

Research from UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian offers one potential reason, but we want to hear your perspective on this too.  His studies suggest that as little as 7% of communication occurs through words; another 38% through sounds and 55% through body language, making non-verbal communication the primary conduit.

As I read my niece’s description of herself successfully ordering food and asking directions through a communication skill honed through years of playing charades and Pictionary, and compare that image to the last business meeting I observed, I have to agree with the study.  The business meeting consisted of six participants, three via Telepresence, one on a mobile phone and two in the room, with me observing.  Picture the scene.

Those visible to me have laptops open and some have a “smart phone” sitting on the table next to them (or in their hands).  No one is looking at anyone. When one person speaks the others are reading whatever is on their screen, occasionally glancing up at the speaker. The commuter has his phone on “mute” so we don’t know if he is with us or not.

No one is capturing notes (though thumbs and fingers are moving feverishly over keyboards); conversation is tentative; questions are asked about information already shared but not heard. Occasionally a word will capture an ear, out of context and a rather spirited discussion erupts between two individuals, eventually ending with the words, “…that is not what I said…”.

Time is wasted- repeating, arguing, or worse- when parties miss the message and leave the meeting without having heard (or having misheard) the vital information or call to action, causing operational errors that  cost much more than the collective time spent in the meeting.

Herein lays the paradox: Apparently, the more communication channels/devices we have, the less effective we are becoming at communication.

Is anyone else noticing this?  Are we too distracted to see that we are attending coordination meetings but not coordinating anything; talking about next steps but not moving them to accountable action items; spending more time in meetings with diminishing added value; scheduling face-to-face meetings where no one is looking at each other?

Once an organization acknowledges the problem and commits to effective rather than efficient meetings and communication, the results can be stunning:

  • Assignments completed on time and as expected
  • Reduced rework, which equals increased capacity
  • Projects completed in a quality way in coordination with other functional areas
  • Meetings ending early with objectives having been met
  • “Routine meetings” that provide meaningful insight, information and coordination
  • Space in calendars for planning!
  • Customers getting consistent response wherever they go for an answer

Perhaps a good place to start is found in the old adage, “The right tool for the job”.

I’m not suggesting anyone give up their e-mail or texting, or teleconference codes. I am suggesting that we begin by consciously choosing the appropriate tools for each communication event and leave the others to rest until they are needed (at the very least put them on silent or close the lid).

Here is something else you can do right now to move the needle closer to “effective”:  Before you schedule that next meeting, or start that next text or e-mail, or phone call, take a moment to pause, and identify the purpose for the communication- what you hope to accomplish by “talking” with and “listening” to those you are engaging, and let them know too.

You will be surprised how this one simple step, providing an objective and some context for the information to be shared, can illuminate and accelerate understanding and success.

Give it a try and let us know what happens!  Have any of you had success in improving the quality of communication within or between teams?  Share how you’ve done it.

Oh yes, and try adding, “looking” to your listening habits. After all, communication is a team sport. Heads up!

Add Your Thoughts Below

  • Sara B.

    I could not agree with you more. Additional studies point to our inability to communicate at younger ages more and more. The “kids” who are sitting together at a coffee shop (really, I never drank coffee at 14), not talking, just texting. It is no wonder we don’t communicate effectively. Some of my friends’ children will not respond to phone calls, only texts. I agree with your points – consider the messaging/request/etc. and then determine how best to make the communications more effective. I teach graduate courses at UST and had to tell a student (after class, in private), that I assumed his open computer and frequent typing was not to take notes. He responded, “no, I just multi task”. I suggested that he consider the impact of his actions on the other students and also to our frequent guest speakers that would take offense or find it a distraction. I acknowledged that he can probably multi task very well…but that is not the objective while being in my class. I’ve asked other instructors who specifically state in their syllabus that electronic devices are not permitted and if you are focusing on “those things” – you are not present in class and your attendance will reflect this. Businesses need to do the same. A couple of ideas to share:
    – Stand up meetings for updates that are short
    – No laptops out except for the presenter
    – Collection of electronic devices in a box at the door (longer sessions, training, etc.).
    Previously, I had a no email day weekly for my staff at a company that I worked for. Email is harmful for the face to face exchange we all need. After 1-2 boomerangs, get out of your chair and walk down the hall. Enough said….

  • Myra Kania

    Effective communication in a group setting, especially in a corporate environment, often centers around the authority hierarchy within the meeting, or the sphere of influencers who are there. This often creates fear, reluctance, the need to self promote, and in many cases, simply provide a justification for not meeting target dates. Meetings are often the only way people can “headline” and self-promoters will use the meeting as a vehicle for attention – the old see and be seen theory. It’s no wonder that the strip Dilbert often focuses on corporate interactions within a meeting – it’s because we continue to provide Scott Adams with material…
    Communication at the level your niece is practicing is about direct need and response – no posturing, no hidden agendas. And the people she interacts with know that, which enables the interaction to be quick, honest and fun.

  • John U

    I would agree completely with the observations and suggestions made by Myra and Sarah. Having worked most of my career in the public sector (city, county and state government) the proliferation of technology and corresponding software into offices and meetings, along with periodic knitting in meetings has served to further reduce real face to face interactions, diminish interpersonal skills and result in less than productive outcomes and follow through. Alliant has a one page Meeting Planner which I have used to focus and conduct meetings so participants are clearly identified, meeting objectives are spelled out, the agenda items are clear along with the time allocated for each item, materials needed for the meeting are listed and provided and space for identifying Next Steps; no computers, no smartphones, no knitting, no PowerPoint presentations necessarily needed …… Effective group process and meeting facilitation skills are also essential to conducting successful meetings. When those skill are not present and the meeting leader or a strong participant personality assumes the decision maker role, participation shuts down like a light being turned off. The silence which follows is deafening and the effectiveness of the meeting, if there was any to be had, is now over.

  • Toni

    Thanks for these good ideas Sara- I’ve also found that if you are working with teams that have a “laptop or always connected culture”, a good compromise is a “no typing” rule unless its notes. If you HAVE to respond to some correspondence- leave the room so we know what you missed.

  • Toni

    Fair points Myra- and a reason meeting observations are a good place to get a handle on the healthiness of an organization’s culture. Injecting some fair-play, outcome-based meeting norms can be a first step toward establishing a healthier, more productive culture.

  • Toni

    So glad to see I am not the only one relying the meeting planner- most helpful part to me is getting clear about what we hope to accomplish with a meeting and making sure the right people and information are in the room to make that possible.

    I also think facilitators are not utilized as often as would be prudent in business meetings. It is an investment that really does deliver a solid ROI. Maybe this will be a good topic for future blogs- when to use a facilitator. Thanks John!

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