If you’re a manager or work in Human Resources, you know that mediating disputes between employees, addressing inappropriate attire, even handling an issue as seemingly benign as an employee who applies perfume with a hose, is not easy—not for anyone. And these conversations certainly aren’t pleasant, no matter how silver-tongued and judicious you are.
Every tough conversation has its own set of intricacies you’ll have to negotiate, but being armed with your softest pair of kid gloves and the right attitude is where it all begins.
5 Ways to Step Up Your Employee Communication Skills
1. Begin with Empathy and Respect
Life is complicated, so let’s get back to basics. Effective employee communication begins with the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The adage seems lightweight, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s a simple fact that people respond in kind. The Golden Rule, though, goes beyond what we say.
Consider linguist Henry Calero’s suggestion that 55 percent of the messages we transmit to each other come from body movements and 38 percent from the voice—inflection, intonation, volume. Here’s the kicker: A mere 7 percent of the messages we transmit come from words. What this seems to suggest, then, is that effective employee communication has little to do with what you say and a lot to do with how you say it.
2. Pierce the Heart with Guilt—Not Aggression
In his book One Hundred and One Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, Paul Falcone suggests that guilt not aggression is your greatest asset when having a tough conversation. There’s something to this, I think.
One of the worst ways to begin a difficult conversation is by embarrassing the other party. Not only will employees respond aggressively, but they will, as Falcone suggests, “resist the change that’s being forced on them.” It is always best practice to give others the courtesy of an explanation, but also the opportunity to assume responsibility. Aim to pierce hearts through guilt—not aggression.
3. You Can’t Demand What You Don’t Give
This one has just as much to do with what happens before “the conversation” as it does during “the conversation.” You can’t suddenly demand respect and open employee communication if you’ve never effectively engaged in these practices yourself.
If, however, you’ve cultivated relationships with your employees, “tough conversations” won’t come with pent up resentment or underlying issues completely unrelated to the one at hand.
4. Always Be Honest
If you keep in mind Henry Calero’s suggestion that a mere 7 percent of the messages we transmit come from words, being honest isn’t really as hard as it sounds.
In his book, Falcone gives us an example of a termination email that addresses the employee in an empathetic way—but without having to sacrifice honesty. Here is a brief excerpt from it:
I appreciate all of your hard work and effort over the past three months, but we’re at the end of your probation period, and I’m sorry to say that this just isn’t working out for us. I know how hard you’ve tried to improve in light of the discussions we’ve had, and it is my guess that it’s not a “love connection” on your end either, but I don’t believe this was a good match of your strengths to our needs.”
Notice that the sender of the email made two subtle, but wise decisions: She acknowledges that Janet did work hard to improve her performance; she also acknowledges that that Janet did have talents and strengths, even if they didn’t happen to be the ones that the company could properly utilize. In addition to this, the author frames the email in such a way—“it’s not a ‘love connection’ on your end either”—that Janet’s termination seems mutual rather than exclusive.
Sure, the email may contain slight euphemisms, but it doesn’t sacrifice honesty to save face.
5. Preface Yourself With Subjective (Not Objective) Language
Consider the difference between these two words:
Subjective: statements pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation.
Objective: not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.
Prefacing difficult conversations with subjective language—“I feel, I understand, it is my belief—suggests that what you are about to say is open to interpretation and that you are interested in hearing your employees’ perspective and will keep him or her from feeling defensive.
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