Being Louder Doesn’t Suddenly Make me Understand You

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This morning I hosted a meeting to kick off a testing cycle. In an effort to bring everyone together on the proverbial ‘same page,’ I compiled a slide deck to guide the conversation. The meeting started out well, but as the hour progressed, the conversation got more and more heated. The Project Manager asked a simple question of what the vendor needed in order to get the test activities started. One of the technical analysts from the vendor piped up and started rambling on and on about some technical jargon, most of which flew over my simple brain.

 

Turns out, it wasn’t only me because the PM then muted the phone and asked if anyone was following what he was saying. Nope.

 

So then asked the guy to reiterate what he said, because “we didn’t quite follow what you said.”

Somehow he took this as a personal attack. He repeated what he said, only louder, and with a crescendo of emotions.

 

 

I scanned the room and saw a bunch of eyebrows raise. “Dude. Calm down,” I said. A smile broke. Situation defused. I then asked a question that moved the discussion forward. And it was business as usual again.

 

We’ve all experienced it. We’re in a meeting. It’s getting confrontational. In the heat of the moment, one person expresses his frustration and repeats exactly what he’s saying, only louder. We somehow think that being louder makes our message clearer. It’s pretty funny when you think about it. What’s interesting is that if I would have done that as the female in an all-male meeting, it might have been construed as ‘an emotional outburst.’ But this post isn’t about gender inequalities, so I’ll leave that alone for now. Plus on the whole, my client is pretty professional that way.

 

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In case you haven’t noticed: when your client asks the same questions a few times over, it’s because they don’t understand what you’re saying. Hence, repeating the same words at a higher volume does not clarify your point. And yes, if you’re going to determine whose fault it is, it’s your fault for not effectively communicating the point. It’s absolutely your fault. If you think anything otherwise, I’m afraid you’re in denial.

 

Here’s the rub. If it’s important to you to have your message conveyed to your client, co-worker, or to whomever you’re talking, it’s on you, not the other guy, to ensure that your message is received successfully. Only amateurs assume that their job is done once they delivered the message. The superstars know that it’s not enough that the message is merely delivered. The money is in ensuring that it is successfully received. If the other guy is asking you questions that you think you just talked about, clearly he doesn’t get you. Sure it could be argued that the onus is on both of you to equally to send and receive the message. But if you want to be a grade above everyone else in the arena, take it upon yourself to be sure the message is not only delivered, but received.

 

 

Choose the Medium that Fits the Message

By observation, I’m sure you’ll have noticed that there are certain levels of communication. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to receive similar to the below correspondence, you really need help in selecting your significant others better.

 

 

 

With the technology that we have today, it’s way too easy to hide behind it in delivering an uncomfortable message. Sadly, while texting may technically deliver your message, it really does make you look like a spineless, yellow-belly SOB. That’s the best way to burn bridges. The right thing to do is to take the hit and deliver the message in person.

 

How do you know what messages should be communicated in person, and which you can get away with over text or otherwise? Well, quite frankly, if it makes you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, it definitely needs to be delivered in person. If you can’t be there in person, Facetime, or video-skype are the next best alternatives…any sort of medium where you can see and hear your partner’s face and voice. I feel like I’m not even adding value when I tell you this. This should be a given! And yet, it floors me how so many people hide behind technology either via text or email when delivering an uncomfortable message. Deep down, I’m sure they know that the right thing to do is to show compassion and enough respect for the other person. Just fricking talk to the guy, already.

 

The Pecking Order of Communication Media

I’ve worked from remotely from my clients a lot in the past 12+ years. Throughout those years, I’ve had to host countless webinars, conference calls, and collaborate with people over millions of phone calls, and office messenger instant messages. None of these communication media are equal. There is a hierarchy of communication efficiency.

 

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As you go down the hierarchy, the efficiency of communication gradually becomes less and less ‘connected.’ Here’s what I mean:

(Note: Obviously there are a lot more means of communication than I list below. I’m only noting the ones that would best apply to a larger corporate setting.)

 

1. In Person (Face to Face meetings)

These are obviously where people are in the same physical location together. They’re sitting across from each other. Knee to knee. In my posts “Insider’s Guide to Reading People“, and “The Simplest Ways to use Body Language to Convey Confidence,” I discuss at length how more than 80% of our communication is non-verbal. Only 20% is verbal. When you’re sitting across from each other in the same geographical location, you soak in everything: their posture, the furrow in their brow, their voice, right down to the meaning of their words.

 

 

 

It’s odd to me, however, that most people who have the benefit of communication in person, don’t much take advantage of the situation. What I often see in meetings is a bunch of people sitting in the same meeting room tapping away on their computers while the meeting is going on. Others are checking their phones, while the meeting is going on.

Certainly, I have been guilty of this myself at times. But what if we were to take a moment and be completely present. What if we were to be present to only what’s going on in the room. Not only what’s going on in the room, but pay attention to the body language of each and every person there. Mostly you’ll see boredom. But I promise you’ll start to learn more things about your colleagues than you ever noticed. You’ll start to learn to read what makes them smile, what embarrasses them. You’ll learn what pisses them off, even just a tiny bit. As the world gets smaller (and larger and the same time), we are in this weirdo paradoxical space where we are more connected and yet more isolated at the same time.

 

2. Video Conference (Facetime, Skype, otherwise)

As the Buggles said in the 80’s “Video Killed the Radio Star...” Ok, that’s neither here, nor there. A remote second to ‘in person’ meetings is, of course, video calls. Back in the day, there was an MLM company that built their entire product platform on a video phone contraption, saying that it was going to be the way of the future. It is…. except that you don’t need a specialized one-use contraption to make a video call. Almost every social media platform and phone technology now have the capability to do video calls.

 

Nowadays we often conduct interviews and meetings over video. It’s good because you can still take advantage of most of the non-verbal communication. But it introduces an additional dimension to the exchange that sometimes throws you off your game. You get to see yourself in a little square at the bottom. If you’re self-conscious like I am sometimes, I’m constantly glancing over to that little square at the bottom to be sure that I look ok, and that my facial gestures put me in a good light. I find that it often ends up throwing off my train of thought.

If you’re working remotely for a client in another geographical location, video calls are super-beneficial for engagement. It’s amazing how much more you can build your relationship just because you can see the guy, over just corresponding over email and (audio) phone.

On the whole, video calls are super easy to do. It’s also way easier coordinate a physical location. It’s on everyone to find a quiet place to conduct the video conference. You’re no longer limited to geographical boundaries. It’s cheap. And often you don’t even need to wear pants. (Yea.. don’t not wear pants.)

On the other hand, you still need to coordinate a time that works for everyone. Secondly, you’re reliant on the internet. If your connection sucks, it’s frustrating for everyone in the conference. You end up looking like the idiot who can’t use technology.

 

3. Audio Calls

Thank you, Mr. Bell for gracing us with this world-changing technology. However, with the dawn of instant messenger, SMS, and social media, we moving further and further away from this mode of communication. You guys, there’s still a lot of magic in the phone call! I remember when I was selling insurance, we would have ‘phone zones’ where a bunch of us got together and spent an hour calling our contacts. We needed to do this in order to fill our calendars with sales appointments. There were often cop-outs who resorted to texting people to set up appointments. Guess what? They’d get far more rejections than had they picked up the damn phone and called the guy. Rejections aside, there’s no substitute for real-time engagement where you hear the person’s voice on the other end. While you lose the non-verbal perspective, you can still interpret a lot from their voice and how they interact with you.

There’s a TV show to which I’m currently addicted. It’s called ‘Lie to Me.’ It follows the cases of a world renowned lie detection expert and his associates. Every week their skills are put to the test to identify key micro-expressions that communicate what the person is really hiding. A huge part of that, though, is hearing certain inflections in the voice, and the choice of words. Super fascinating. Don’t underestimate the power of the phone call. Voice messages don’t count… which leads me to my next point.

 

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4. Voice Messages

I don’t know you about you, but I have voice messages still sitting unread on my phone from 2014. I just ignore them! My perspective is that if you’re going to leave me a voice message, you might as well text me. It takes me at least three times as long to listen to a voice message and to act on it than it takes to read a text message and to text back. Knowing that I have this habit, I don’t ever leave voice messages for anyone… unless I want to intentionally defer something. I just know that if I want to delay something as long as I can, interacting through voice messages is my mode of choice. (Sneaky. I know.)

 

 

If I actually want a timely response, I’d rather take the effort and call the person again later. If ever there was an inefficient, ineffective means of communication, it’s voice messages. Seriously, though, if you leave me a voice message, you’re just asking me to ignore you.

 

5. Instant Message / Text Messages

With the dawn of the millennium came the era of T9 texting. If you ever wondered how the acronym ‘T9’ originated, here it is.  ‘T9’ stands for ‘Text on 9 keys.’ Remember on the old phones, you’d see ABC on the ‘2’ key, DEF on the ‘3’ key, etc? ‘T9’ allowed you to create a meaningful phrase using just number sequences. There was a database of vocabulary that was pre-loaded on the phone. As you typed in the number sequence, the phone would narrow down to the words that were associated with the number sequence. As immensely inefficient as it was, it was a fun new way to communicate with our friends. That spawned a new series acronyms like “L8r,” and “lol” because it was too fricking hard to type in ‘hahahaha’ using only the 9 numbers on your keypad.

 

 

As smartphones and instant messages on computers became more commonplace, texting and instant messaging became way smarter. People started using punctuation to illustrate their emotions. Later on, all that punctuation transformed into actual happy faces, hence emoticons. While it might be a little unprofessional, don’t underestimate the power of emoticons.

 

 

In fact, there was even an episode of “The Good Wife” where Alicia was defending the CEO of a major conglomerate who got sued for agreeing to force out the union. She indicated her agreement via emoticons. Would that really hold up in real-life court? Who knows. But the fact of the matter is that we now often rely on those little yellow smiley faces to help us illustrate our message.

Back to instant messages. While I wouldn’t use instant messenger to communicate a resignation or anything, it really does help keep the communication lines open. In fact, whenever I hosted a UAT (User Acceptance Test phase) that involved 30+ users, scattered all over North America, I would actually require everyone to be on Office Messenger. As a result, my test phase always progressed efficiently.

 

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Email

This is the classic. We rely so much on email that it’s very often misused for something that could have been so much more easily communicated just by talking to the guy in person. My personal pet peeve is when people get upset if their message wasn’t interpreted properly. “Well, it was in my email. Didn’t you read it?” No, I’m afraid you’re not that important that I’m going to sift through my 150+ unread messages today so that I can examine your every word with a fine toothed comb. If it was that important to you that I got the message, walk over to my desk and talk to me about it. Geez.

 

HearSay / Grapevine

This one isn’t technical a medium of communication. Officially it shouldn’t even count. But the reality is that if you co-exist among a group of individuals, you will be a part of the grapevine at some point. As unreliable as it is, sometimes you actually can use it to your sneaky advantage. For example, if you wanted to plant the seed of an idea, you could harness the power of the grapevine. By giving the message the right person, your message can quickly be delivered to everyone. Few have really ever done this before deliberately. I’d be hard-pressed to find it in any communication textbook. But if you wanted to convey a message, definitely the rumor mill can be an effective communication chain.

 

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However, a note of caution. Because you have absolutely no control of the message once it leaves your lips, you need to keep the message simple, short and concise. Ever play the game ‘Telephone?” If you grew up in North America, chances are you have. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this game, here’s how it works. You have a number people stand in a row. You whisper your message to the first person. Then he will turn around and whisper the same message to the next guy, who will whisper to the next guys and so on. By the time the last guy comes around, the message will likely have been transformed into something completely different.

 

We’ve established that the onus is on you to deliver the message such that it will be comprehended by your partner. And let’s say you’ve selected the perfect medium that best fits the sensitivity and importance of the message. How do you ensure that the other guy gets it? I have a few challenges for you to try out today.

 

1. Keep it Concise

The shorter sunbeams are, the hotter they are. People generally have a very short attention span. Myself included. If you want to be sure that your message sinks into their heads, keep it short. Droning on and on might make you sound smart, but after the first 30 seconds, no one cares.

 

 

 

I challenge you to get your point across in 20 words or less. You can have several points, of course. You probably will. But use no more than 20 words for each, and you’ll keep the attention of your audience. I literally instructed one of my ex-co-workers to do this for me. She seriously kept elaborating on how much she knew about a certain topic. I honestly didn’t care. I just needed to know what I needed in the immediate future. I literally said to her one day that for me, you need to explain it to me in 20 words or less. Anything more, and you’ve lost me. We had a much better relationship from that point on.

 

2. Use Simple Words

This might sound a little condescending. However, most people, unless they are confident in themselves, won’t ask what a certain word means if they don’t get it. They won’t! It takes a certain amount of security of one’s self to admit that they don’t understand. If you want to make sure that your message is understood, use words you know that everyone understands… because they usually just might sit there and nod with a blank look on their faces.

 

 

3. Ask Questions to be Sure They’re With You

I remember when I was selling insurance, one of the sales techniques was to ask probing questions. In this case, questions are powerful allies as well. They don’t have to be probing questions, but it’s a good idea to ask subtle test questions to ensure that your audience follows what you say. Here’s the thing. In my post “How to Amp up Your Business Lingo Game” I mentioned that one of my pet peeves is when people ask me  “Does that make sense?”

 

 

Usually, you’ll get a nod, whether or not they really get it. That’s a terrible question to ask.What’s better is to set up a simple example, and test them subtly for their comprehension. The implicit benefit is that you’ll likely spark more in-depth discussion. Then you’ll really know that they get it.

 

Final Words

I get that it’s frustrating sometimes when your audience isn’t following what you’re saying. It’s not about you, though. It was never about you. Your audience truly did want to follow what you said. Calm down. Take a breath, and use these three ways to help you convey your message.

What are your ‘go to’ ways to get your point across? Comment below!


Also published on Medium.

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