Effective Communication - a key leadership and life skill and how to develop it

Published: Monday, April 25, 2016   /   Categories: Leadership

And when that information is complicated and/or affects a lot of people then it’s easy to get things wrong. In fact, as we all know, even when the message is straightforward there are often problems still in passing it on accurately.

And an inability to communicate
effectively is extremely common – just think of the examples of poor
communication you see every day at work, at home and in your circle of friends.

Then ask yourself “How often do I see this poor communication lead to small, medium-sized or large problems?” I’m sure everyone can think of plenty of examples where they see often substantial repercussions taking place – in terms of money, time, emotional distress and other negative results.

So, we all have a large number of things we want to communicate, we know that it’s easy to get things wrong and we know that getting it wrong (which we often do) can lead to problems, some of them major.

What’s to be done about this? How can someone become a more effective communicator and so a more valuable contributor in their life and their work roles?

Below is a brief description of an approach that I’ve found extremely helpful in making communicating information much more effective, and which is based on asking just 5 questions:

1           Who needs to know about this information?

2           Why do they need to know about it?

3           What exactly do they need to know about it?

4           When do they need to know?

5           What is the best medium for communicating the information to them?

I’ve used this approach myself and helped others learn how to use it, and in every instance it’s been of real assistance in helping peoples’ communication skills become much more effective.

It’s not a universal solution that will work for everyone, and it's certainly
not a style guide on how to write. But I do firmly believe that many of the
concepts will be very helpful to most people.

1           Who needs to know about this information?

This seems to be a ridiculous question - isn’t it obvious who needs to know? 

But think about it – how often have you heard somebody say “But nobody told
me?” Or said the same thing yourself.

Think back over the past week – I’m sure you’ll be able to think of at least one example of where you found yourself out of the loop of what was going on, and where you were put at a disadvantage as result.

So, unimportant though it may sound at first, I definitely want to include this question here. And I recommend that sometimes you may want to take a little time before you start getting in touch with people/groups of people and – where it’s going to be helpful - list ALL of those you want to contact. And remember that this list may be longer than you expect.

On the other hand, you have to beware of communicating to too many people – and I’m not just talking about the example of the e-mail with the giant cc list. Apply your judgment and ask, for example, “Is this something my boss’ supervisor needs to know as well as my boss or do I copy in just my boss?”

2           Why do they need to know about it?

Having a clear idea of why someone needs to know about something provides a key piece of information - it clarifies in your own mind that person’s role in the particular situation that you’re communicating about.

For example, suppose I’m suffering from a medical condition and there’s an important change in my symptoms. In that case, amongst others, I would need to let my doctor know and I would probably want to let my daughter (and maybe other people) know as well.

But the reasons for letting my doctor know and letting my daughter know – the “Why do they need to know about it” – are very different, because their roles in the situation are very different.

With my doctor – who needs to know about it because they’re the person treating me- I’ll communicate the details of the changes in symptom at some length, listing them each in turn (and probably ask for an appointment to see them as well).

With my daughter - who I want to be aware of it because she wants to know how I’m doing and cares about me - but who isn’t treating my condition, I might say, something like "I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather lately”.

So, expanding on this aspect ofthings then leads to the third point….

3           What exactly do they need to know about it?

In my own experience, this is an area where a great deal of time is wasted (sending out too much information to some people) and where a great deal of confusion can arise (sending out too little information to some people).

Taking an example from the business world this time, let’s imagine a delay to a project caused by materials being unavailable. As just a few examples of the different types of “What exactly do they need to know about it?” possibilities that could come up consider:

- The CEO may only want a few lines to know that the delay has arisen, will last “This long” and that steps have been taken to avoid similar supply problems in the future. NOT a long list of the details of what happened and what steps are being taken.

- All of the affected members of the project team will need to know that the delay has arisen and a more detailed account of relevant information NOT a one-line summary, but enough detail to let them know what the situation is and indicating where they may need to be involved in next steps.

- Some of the project team members will need a much more detailed update as to the specifics of the impact on them and what will be expected of them as a result. NOT the same as the message to the project team – this may need to be narrower in scope and at the same time dive very deeply into the details relating to their area of expertise.

- External customers of different sorts may require a greater or lesser amount of background, some will need the chance to discuss the situation with you. MOST, if not all, will require individualized communications and of course none of these will be the same as in the earlier examples above.

As I said, many others might need to be contacted, each with their own needs regarding what they need to know about the situation. 

But the important thing is to be aware that the range of communication required
for different groups could be considerable and it will depend, as mentioned
above, on their role in the situation you're communicating about.

I’d also emphasize another key point here. The “What exactly do they need to
know...?” has two related elements.

Firstly, an informational one. What specific elements of the situation is it relevant for them to know about? (See the examples above).

Secondly though, there is an emotional element. Particularly with ‘important’ news (personal, business or other), there will often be strong positive or negative emotions that will be associated with the receipt of the information.

The way in which the “What exactly do they need to know about it” is selected and presented has to be managed bearing in mind these likely emotional responses: and choosing the best medium for communicating with them and follow up on the initial
communication (see 5 below) can be critically important.

Finally, there are two other parts of “What” that always need to be considered and almost always need to be included.

The first is an indication that you’re willing and interested in responding to requests for more information by whatever is the most appropriate means and/or providing other sources where further information can be obtained.

The second is the provision of an estimation of when additional information will be available, and where it’s likely to be coming from (if not yourself).

4           When do they need to know?

This is sometimes the most important question of all to answer, although it’s always a useful exercise to review this aspect of communication to help in the overall management of your activities, regardless of the situation.

In extreme cases, the “When” is paramount. If you’re in charge of maintaining the schedule of operations for a hospital, and you find out towards the end of the day that one of the hospital operating theatres has to be closed for emergency repairs, there are several people you have to communicate with before they go home…then you can do the others.

As a general rule, communicate earlier rather than later. Also, make sure you take advantage of the possibility of providing an initial notification with the promise (and delivery) of an update at a later (specified whenever possible) time and date.

And do make sure you’re really clear on the answer to “When do they need to know?”. For example, something I find often causes difficulties is that what may be a small issue for me is of great importance to the person I’m communicating with. And as a result, I’ve left it far too long in making them aware of the situation.

5      What is the best medium for communicating the information to them?

Without a doubt, overall there are more lost opportunities for really effective communication caused by lack of consideration of the correct answer to this question than to any of the others.

I could list endless examples - and I’ll give just a few - but we all have
preferred ways of hearing about things. To be unaware of what those ways are
for other people can be insensitive, unhelpful and a recipe for trouble. Some
examples of 'best means' from my own circle:

- I can best communicate most news to my daughter by e-mail, to my eldest son by ‘phone (although he prefers text messages) and my youngest son by either e-mail or ‘phone (he’s fine with both)

- With one or two of my friends, for ‘important’ matters, I know I’ll need to speak with them on the ‘phone or perhaps even see them in person. They just won’t feel comfortable about receiving certain types of news unless they’ve also able to talk immediately afterwards, usually face to face.

- Many people I work with in business would like (for 'important' things) more than one “initial” communication: for example an e-mail for which they are one of the recipients, but an immediate follow-up ‘phone call or face to face chat about how the developing situation affects them. 

The list goes on and on.

As I said above in the third point, “Particularly with ‘important’ news (personal, business or other), there will often be strong positive or negative emotions that will be associated with the receipt of the information.”

So I really strongly recommend making sure you choose the best way of communicating to someone. Meeting peoples’ needs with regard to their favored medium will take a lot of tension out of difficult situations, make them feel respected and understood and maximize the chances of information being communicated effectively.

In summary, I’ve presented an approach to communicating more effectively that involves asking 5 simple questions. These questions won’t provide a 'perfect' approach for everyone of course, but I strongly believe that there are some very useful, easy to use ideas here for everyone to benefit from.

Mark M-G
Pharmaceutical executive coach, life coach and motivational



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