Business Communication Archive
Last week one of my friends was concerned about something happening at her son’s school. She wrote out what she planned to say to the school principal and sent it to me to read. Her letter was long, with lots of unnecessary details. I read five paragraphs before understanding what the situation was even about. I revised her letter. My version was three sentences and easy to write. Why? Because it’s not my child and not my situation.
One of the things that makes giving feedback and making requests particularly difficult, is our emotional involvement. We’re invested in the outcome. The stakes feel high. And that emotion makes everything harder.
If you’re struggling with a message you need to deliver, get some help. The person who helps you craft a succinct, specific, and unemotional message doesn’t have to be a feedback expert or a manager. The person just can’t be involved. As long as the person isn’t emotionally involved, they’ll be helpful.
When you ask for help, don’t ask for advice. Instead of asking a friend or colleague, “What would you do in this situation,” ask, “What would you say?” These are very different questions. You want the specific words to resolve whatever you’re struggling with.
Asking someone for help planning a challenging conversation or message begs the question, isn’t asking for that type of help a form of gossip? It could be. So be careful who you ask.
When asking for help planning a message or conversation, ask someone in your organization who is at your same level or above (title-wise) or ask someone outside of the organization. Change the names of the people involved; protect people’s anonymity. And be clear if you are asking for help to plan a conversation or if you are venting. They are not the same.
The most effective feedback and requests are unemotional, factual, and succinct. Sometimes we need other people who are not involved to help us get there.
A professional athlete would never get on the court or field without knowing exactly what will score them points and penalties. But many of us go to work every day without knowing how we’re being evaluated.
If you’ve ever had a performance review or received feedback that caught you off guard or have completed a project and were told your work wasn’t quite what was expected, you didn’t have enough information upfront. Don’t wait for people to tell you what they need and expect (which often happens after breakdowns occur), set clear expectations at the beginning of anything new and ask for feedback as you make progress.
The people you work for and with should tell you what they expect. They should give you feedback along the way. And many won’t. Your career management is in your hands, and that’s a very good thing.
When you start a new job, project, or any responsibility ask the person delegating the work some of these questions:
Career Management Question one: What does a good job look like?
Career Management Question two: What’s the criteria for success?
Career Management Question three: How will you know you picked the right person for the job?
Career Management Question four: Why is this project a priority right now? How will it impact the organization?
Career Management Question five: What kind of updates would you like? In what format, how frequently, and with what level of detail?
Career Management Question six: How often do you want to review my work?
Career Management Question seven: Who in the organization should I work with on this project?
Career Management Question eight: What history, pitfalls, or landmines do I need to be aware of? Has anyone tried to do this before, and if yes, with what outcomes? Who in the organization supports this project? Who doesn’t?
If you’ve been in your job for a long time or have been working on a project for a while, it’s not too late to ask these questions. Simply approach the person with whom you’re working and say, “I want to be sure I’m doing great work on _____________ project. Can I ask you a couple of questions about the desired end results and how we should be communicating as I make progress?”
Lots of people aren’t the best delegators. They give us a project, ask if we have any questions, and provide a due date. Don’t fall into the trap of completing an entire project and then asking for feedback. Even if the person delegating the work doesn’t want to see your progress, ask for that feedback. Schedule weekly or monthly review meetings, present the work you’ve done, and ask for feedback. If you get to the end of a project or responsibility and are surprised by the reaction, you didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning and middle of the project.
People will tell you everything you need to do a good job, if you ask. Take control of your career. Ask more. Assume less.
People don’t like the phrase “negative feedback” because it is, well, negative. So, someone came up with “constructive feedback”, i.e., “I have some constructive feedback for you.” I don’t particularly like that either. The definition of constructive is useful, and I think all feedback should be useful. I like the word “upgrade” instead. Upgrade implies the need for improvement, but it isn’t negative. The question is, which comes first, positive or upgrade feedback?
I always give positive feedback first. Not to make people feel better, but to ensure they hear the positive feedback. Most people want to be perfect. We want others to think well of us. Negative feedback calls our perfection into question and thus is hard to hear. When people get negative feedback, they naturally become defensive. It’s hard to listen when you’re defending yourself. If positive feedback comes after negative feedback, the positive feedback isn’t even heard. The negative feedback is all consuming.
When giving feedback, I tell people, “I have positive and upgrade feedback for you today. I’m going to give you the positive feedback first.” I give positive feedback, then I give upgrade feedback, and then I remind the person about the positive feedback, because I know the person is now consumed thinking about the negative feedback.
Think about yourself. If you receive seven pieces of positive feedback and one piece of upgrade feedback, what do you think about for the rest of the day? If you’re like most people, the rest of your day is about the upgrade feedback. We want to do good work and be thought well of, and negative feedback calls all of that into question and is thus, hard to hear.
Give positive feedback first, then give upgrade feedback, then remind the person about the positive feedback. People can handle feedback when it’s delivered by a trusted person in an objective way.
If you visit family and friends this holiday season. you may receive unsolicited feedback and advice. Sometimes people who care and want what’s best for us, provide input we didn’t ask for.
Unsolicited feedback at best feels like someone is trying to help, at worst it feels like criticism. Underneath the feedback might be the message, “If you were doing this right, I wouldn’t need to give you this advice.” I put unsolicited feedback and advice in the same bucket.
If you find yourself receiving unsolicited advice, you don’t have to smile politely and take it. It’s ok to put an end to feedback and advice.
Simply smile, tell the person you appreciate them caring enough to give you that advice, and say that you’re not looking for advice on that topic at this time. And then smile again. Smiling softens most messages. Say nothing more. Most people will stop talking. What else is there to say?
This method of acknowledging the person talking is respectful and firm. To pull it off, watch your tone. If you can safely add the words, “you dummy” to anything you say, you have a tone issue. Be genuinely appreciative and enforce boundaries. You’re not the 7/11. You don’t have to be open to feedback and others’ input all the time.
If the person continues giving you advice, simply say the same thing again. “Thank you for caring enough about me to share that with me. I really appreciate your concern. And I’m not looking for advice on that at this time.” If the person keeps talking, just say, “I’m going to get a drink.” Then get up and go get a drink.
If stopping unsolicited feedback feels uncomfortable, prevent it. Tell people before you see them, “I don’t want to talk about _____________ (fill in the blank). Please don’t bring it up over Thanksgiving.” You can soften that request any way you like.
Most difficult conversation are preventable. And preventing a difficult conversation is always easier than having one.
Setting boundaries might be feel uncomfortable. But it’s likely not as uncomfortable as having a conversation you don’t want to have and then feeling like you need to avoid someone for the rest of the evening and possibly year. It’s ok to say, “No, thank you. Please pass the pie.”
Hybrid meetings are more complicated and more difficult to run. There are lots of pitfalls. But with advanced planning and preparation, hybrid meetings can be well run and efficient.
Hybrid meetings defined: Some participants are together in-person, other participants attend from different locations.
Some pitfalls of hybrid meetings:
- Can the people attending virtually hear people who are attending in-person, from a conference room?
- Are the people in the conference room ‘talking’ to each other with their eyes while the virtual attendees assume they’re ‘talking’ about them?
- Are people participating equally, regardless of their location (not unique to hybrid meetings)?
- Are people texting each other about their real thoughts versus saying them out loud (also not unique to hybrid meetings)?
- Did the facilitator provide hard copies of documents to in-person attendees and forget to send documents to virtual attendees?
The keys to running effective hybrid meetings – anticipate and practice before the meetings.
Do a dry run of a hybrid meeting before you run one. I run a practice session for all hybrid trainings I facilitate, even with repeat clients and multiple sessions with the same client. It’s not worth leaving anything to chance. Have two people in a conference room and another person attend virtually. Test the sound. Move around the conference room; sit in different locations. Can the virtual attendee see and hear, regardless of where in-person attendees are sitting?
Assess if you need an external camera and microphone. Getting these items set up may feel intimidating at first, but you only need to do it once. Once the technology is set up, it’s ready to use for future meetings.
Most conference rooms – even small ones – will need an external microphone so in-person participants can be heard by virtual participants. Trust me. I’ve learned this the hard way. The microphone in your laptop won’t pick up sufficient sound for virtual attendees to hear in-person attendees. You can buy a microphone for $30 at Best Buy or Amazon.
Plan how you will elicit balanced participation from attendees in all locations. Will you call on people? Consider sharing facilitation of different topics, so people in multiple locations lead different parts of the meeting.
Set expectations for participation when meetings start – using the chat and raise-of-hands feature, microphones on or muted, no distractions, and no messaging fellow participants offline. Don’t assume people know or will follow the guidelines from past meetings. Set expectations at the beginning of every meeting, even recurrent meetings.
When breaking people into groups during hybrid meetings, it’s tempting to put people in groups based on location, putting the in-person people together and the virtual people together. This practice exacerbates proximity bias (a topic for a future blog). While it’s harder to group in-person and virtual attendees together, it is more equitable.
Cameras on or cameras off? Discuss, decide, and tell participants in advance so virtual attendees are prepared.
Talk about the pitfalls of hybrid meetings with all attendees. Tell people to avoid ‘talking’ with their eyes to fellow in-person participants. Avoid having a camera capture the side of your face while you watch a different screen. Use the blur-your-background feature in Zoom if your background is distracting.
The key to leading effective hybrid meetings? Anticipate potential breakdowns. Prepare in advance. Communicate expectations with participants. Debrief meetings after they end. Make necessary changes. Repeat.
It’s not unusual to wait too long to give feedback. Giving feedback often feels awkward and uncomfortable. What happens if the person cries, or gives us the cold shoulder, or worse, quits?
Working virtually over the past few years has exacerbated the waiting. Many managers who were accustomed to giving feedback in person hesitated to have hard conversations over the phone or via video.
Perhaps you waited so long to give feedback, you feel like you can’t.
It’s never too late. You just need to set the expectation that you’re going to give feedback and why.
One of the keys to being (more) comfortable giving feedback is to know that most people genuinely want to know how they’re doing. Working in the dark is frustrating. Not knowing the behaviors that impact us and our opportunities is also frustrating. Working on a project for months only to find out the work we did wasn’t what the other person wanted is ultimately frustrating.
Most people genuinely want feedback. They may struggle to hear feedback, they may get defensive, they may not take responsibility, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to know.
If you want to give feedback but feel like you waited too long, say so. The conversation could sound like this:
Manager to direct report: “I realized that I haven’t been giving you enough feedback. I’d like to start doing a semi-monthly debrief, not because anything is wrong or has changed. I want you to learn and grow as a result of working with me, and you won’t if I’m not providing regular feedback”
Peer to peer: “I need to talk with you about something and I’ve realized that I’ve waited too long. As a result, I’m feeling awkward and hesitant. Is it ok if I speak freely?”
Talking with someone more senior than yourself: “I want to talk with you about something I’ve been seeing for a while. I should have said something sooner. I’m sorry I didn’t. Can I talk with you about it now?”
It’s ok if you waited too long. It’s ok not to say things perfectly. Authenticity goes a long way. Be real. If you’re nervous, say so. If you’re wondering if it’s ok to speak up, say so. If you waited too long, say so. Relationships are built on trust, and authenticity builds trust. The time to start is now.
When something ‘bad’ happens, my seven-year-old is quick to ask who is at fault, hoping, of course, it’s not him. I’m trying to get him to use the word accountability instead, and to understand that if he has some accountability, he has some control over what happens. If he has no accountability, he has no control. A tough concept for a seven-year-old.
Stuff happens. People won’t give you what you need to complete projects. Things will break. When breakdowns happen, I always ask myself, “What could I have done to prevent this situation?” or “What did I do to help create this situation?”
It may sound odd that I always look at myself when breakdowns occur, even when it’s someone else who didn’t do their job. It’s just easier. When I can identify something I could have done to make a situation go differently, I feel more in control – aka better.
I’m the person who gets off a highway jammed with traffic. The alternative route may end up taking longer, but at least I’m moving. I feel like I’m doing something and thus have more control. Taking responsibility for what happens to you is similar. When you’re accountable for what happens, you can do something to improve your situation. When someone else is accountable, you’re at the mercy of other people and have very little control.
There are, of course, exceptions to the practice that “we’re accountable.” Terrible and unfair acts of violence, crime, and illness happen to people, about which they have no control. But in general, in our day-to-day lives, there is typically something we did to contribute to a bad situation or something we can do to improve it.
Here are four practices for improving difficult situations even when you didn’t create the mess (alone).
- Ask more questions. If you’re not clear as to what someone is expecting from you, ask. Even if their instructions aren’t clear, it is you who will likely be held accountable later.
- Tell people what you think they’re expecting and what you’re planning to do, to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned. This beats doing weeks’ worth of work, only to discover what you created isn’t what someone else had it mind.
- Ask for specific feedback as projects progress. Don’t wait until the end of a project to find out how you performed.
- Admit when you make a mistake or when you wish you had done something differently. Don’t wait for someone to tell you. Saying, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right with you?” goes a long way.
These are really delegation practices.
I am always asking the questions, “What could I have done differently? What did I do to contribute to this situation, what can I do now to make this situation better?” I encourage you to do the same, even when someone else drops the ball. You can’t control others, but you can control you. And your happiness and success is your responsibility.
I had a colleague at my last job, before I started Candid Culture, who was a peer and a friend. We were at a similar level and would periodically sit in one of our offices, with the door closed, talking about the bad decisions our company’s senior leaders made. One day I realized that these conversations were exhausting to me. They were negative and didn’t make me feel better. In fact, they made me feel worse.
Some people assert that venting is cathartic and makes people feel better. It doesn’t.
I’ll use an analogy I read in one of Deepak Chopra’s books. When you put a plant in the closet and don’t give it light or water, it withers and dies. When you put a plant in the sunlight and water it, it grows. And the same is true for people. What you give attention to gets bigger. What you deprive attention goes away.
Your life is made up of the people you spend time with and what you talk about. What are you talking about?
If you’re complaining, unless you’re planning a conversation to address a challenge or problem, you’re venting. And talking about what frustrates you will only make you more frustrated.
My advice: Do something about the things you can impact and let the other stuff go.
The phrase Quiet Quitting is everywhere since appearing in a Tik-Tok video earlier in the year. Essentially quiet quitting is doing your job – just what is asked – not more and not less. Quiet quitters do good work during work hours, not on weekends and not at night. Quiet quitters don’t volunteer to do work outside the scope of their job, that they’re not paid to do.
Is there anything wrong with doing your assigned job and not more? No. Should you do it? If you want to. Should you use the phrase “quiet quit” at work or even with friends? No.
The definition of quiet quit is widely debated. Does it mean doing you minimal best, clocking it in, coasting, slacking, doing things other than work during work hours? It’s confusing and controversial.
The definition of the word quit is to leave, typically permanently. As a business owner who hires and works hard to retain team members, I don’t want my employees thinking of themselves as quiet quitters. It feels like a mentality – one foot out the door. And while the phrase quiet quit may not mean uncommitted, it has that connotation, so why use it?
If anything has become clear in the last almost-three years, it’s that many people want a different life. Many of us discovered that we enjoy being home, don’t want to commute long distances, travel for work, or miss family and social events because our jobs require it. So, let’s talk about that at work.
Employees – find the words to tell your boss what you need rather than labeling yourself with a controversial and confusing descriptor. Managers, find a way to talk with employees about what they need to be satisfied and stay in a job.
Employees and managers are often uncomfortable talking about the things that matter personally. Employees are often afraid to say what they need, for fear of being sidelined or fired. Managers are often afraid to raise the subject of what employees really need for fear of not being able to meet those needs. So, employees quiet quit and managers quietly hope for the best.
How about doing this instead – managers and employees meet individually, virtually, or in-person, every few weeks. Make a work-life check in a regular part of the conversation. Put the topic on the agenda to normalize the discussion and make talking about how work impacts personal an expected part of the conversation. Then start the discussion with something like, “I want us to be able to talk about how work fits in and supports your desired personal life. I want this job to support the vision you have for your life. I may not always be able to give you want, but I certainly can’t if I don’t know what those needs are.”
The world has changed, we have changed, and our needs have changed. We need to be able to talk about those changes without hesitation, worry, and fear. Instead of quiet quitting, schedule a conversation and open the discussion with something like, “I really enjoy my work here. There are a few things I’m realizing I need. Can we talk about it?”
Every day I’m annoyed that I’m not perfect. I want to be a combination of Mary Poppins, Super Woman, and Kate Middleton, but I’m not. I’m a business owner, working mom, who hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since my son was born, who recommits to better self-care every day, only to break that commitment in eleven different ways by 10:00 am.
Some days are going to be bad. On those bad days, it’s easy to feel like we’re messing things up and that we are indeed a mess. Instead, give yourself a break. The thing to know and remember, in the moment, is that you’re a human being, doing the best you can.
Here is a list of five ways to give yourself a break and as a result, do your best work.
- Set realistic deadlines so you’re not constantly running against time, and overestimate how long everything will take to do.
- Before agreeing to a new commitment, ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this?” Try not to commit yourself to things you know, at your core, you don’t want to do. You’ll just resent that commitment when it rolls around and aren’t likely to do your best work.
- Turn off the alerts on your phone and laptop when you’re working. You’ll be more focused and get more work done.
- Take a day off. Your company offers vacation time for a reason. People do better work when they take time to relax and rejuvenate.
- Say “thank you” more and “I’m sorry” less. “Thank you for letting me know” is more empowering than “I’m sorry I missed that.” I’m guilty of apologizing for everything, so much so that one of my employees and I play a game that whoever says she’s sorry first has to throw a dollar in a communal collection pot. Whatever you put attention on will improve.
Some of these things are business focused, some are personal. You bring yourself – your whole self – to work. It’s why you’re good at what you do. People want to work with real people. And real people over commit, make mistakes, and spend too much time on social media at 11:30 pm. Give yourself a break.