Think communication, and we inevitably think of words. The words we choose, and how we use them, are incredibly important. What we say, quite obviously, holds immense power.
But what about what we're NOT saying?
Focus on the importance of communication skills has underlined the impact of other ways we communicate (non-verbally, for example). There are times that we trip ourselves up or tie ourselves in knots trying to convey a message. At these times, we can do damage to our best interpersonal communication efforts. Even when we recognize the importance of our words, the things we're not saying might impede our relationship building.
To keep our communication clear and consistent, self-awareness is necessary. We often don't realize our own habits, and they might not get pointed out to us. So, how can we begin to know if we're being undermined by the unspoken?
Start by asking if your physicality is compromising your message. We discuss the impact of physicality, or what your body is communicating non-verbally, a lot — often in reference to a presentation. However, even in your everyday conversations, your physicality comes into play. These small, daily interpersonal moments can build and enhance (or diminish) your relationships.
Eye contact is a major piece of your physical communication. You want the person you're speaking with to feel heard, valued, and seen. Even if you know this, you might be committing a faux pas in a way you think is no big deal — by focusing on a screen. If someone in your office approaches you for a discussion, avoid the impulse to just send that text or glance at that email while they tell you something. Yes, we're all busy. But what you're NOT saying is that whatever this person has to say isn't important enough to warrant your full attention.
So, what's a busy professional to do? Put down the phone, turn away from the screen, and focus on the person. If you absolutely can't step away from your technology that's ok. It happens. Momentarily look away from the screen and tell your colleague, "I want to give you my full attention. Can we discuss this in half an hour/five minutes/after lunch?" Give them a time frame. You'll communicate that you care.
This is one small (yet prevalent!) way your physicality can send a different message from what you intend. Remember that things like shaking legs, crossed arms, and bodies-turned-from-speakers all say something, too.
Secondly, are you attempting to sugar coat, and causing confusion? This blunder usually comes from a perfectly good intention — you're trying to take into account how someone else might feel about your information or input. In doing so, you may be dancing around what you really want to say. The danger here is that you leave colleagues confused in your wake, potentially leading to bigger problems later when smaller issues compound and don't get solved.
The key is to remember you can be kind, compassionate, and clear. Disagreements, disappointments, and negative feedback are a part of life, and not just at work. Instead of saying, "No! Wait — this is, well it's great, well, really good, it's just not...it could be a little more aligned with the client's intentions, but I mean, it kind of is..." simply saying, "I appreciate your efforts, but this isn't on target" is far more clear. Constructive feedback doesn't have to be cruel, and being direct can actually be helpful.
Lastly, and this takes us back to the fundamentals of communication, be aware of the basics. I've seen the foundational words of respect and politeness (thank you, you're welcome, excuse me) get overlooked. They matter. People notice when you're NOT saying these things. That goes for experiences outside of the office, as well: interactions with waiters or your favorite barista, the morning bus driver, your building doorman. We forget, and it's a detriment to our relationships.
To me, one of the biggest overlooked phrases is "you're welcome". It gets replaced by words that may have the same intention, but communicate a slightly different meaning. I have a colleague that's trying to break the "no problem" cycle. She says "no problem" in an effort to tell the person their request, or the task she's just performed for them, wasn't a burden. They didn't put her out by asking. They can feel comfortable coming to her with responsibility. It's easy! It's "no problem".
But "you're welcome" means something different, and possibly more impactful. You're welcome to ask for my help. You're welcome to this assistance. You're welcome to this time I've just given you. Your needs are important, as is this interaction. You close the gratitude loop the way it was intended at the start. And you're not leaving anything to chance with what you're NOT saying.
Have you every felt the impact of what's not being said on a business relationship?
Let me know in the comments below.