For anyone working in a team based project environment, be it co-located or virtual, single or multi cultural, developing a comprehensive communication toolkit, one comprising different communication styles and skills, is an absolute necessity.
Many of us have a single communication style, one that we have had since our early years. For some this single style will work well in most situations, for others, in only a few.
Over the years, we develop skills in additional styles of communication, while still having a favourite tool we will revert to. If this tool is a subtle and flexible one, we will generally get by OK, however, if our default communication style is confrontational, one that some may find overly direct and hard, it is time to go back to shop class and learn to use a few of the smaller tools in the kit.
To further complicate this situation, you may well have a communication style which is highly developed to work in your native culture. This style may not translate well across cultures, if you find yourself in a different cultural location or working with multicultural teams, you may well find that your tools are no longer appropriate.
Trying to Work With A Default Communication Toolkit
To assume that you can communicate with everyone, even those from your own culture, in the same manner is a major oversimplification of the complexity of interpersonal relations. But, to presume that the same approach can be taken with personnel from different cultures and nationalities is at best naive and, at worst, simply delusional and potentially destructive to any team environment. Yet, time after time, I see otherwise extremely talented people who simply don’t get it.
There is a saying which I believe sums up this situation beautifully, “give a child a hammer and the whole world is a nail“. Putting this into the communications context would be for individuals to take the same approach to communicating with every member of their project team. So this article tries to outline, in a metaphoric sense, a few suggested “tools” to try and when it is appropriate to use them.
We all have our favourite communication tools for some it is a hammer, a cleaver, a rubber mallet, spanner, blow torch or a fine adjustment screwdriver. All of these have a place in the overall communications toolkit, but a good communicator needs to carry as many of them as possible and know how and where to each them all.
A Standard Communication Toolkit
So, as some examples of the tools we need to carry, develop and, to borrow a term from Stephen Covey “Keep sharp”, I would suggest the following minimum tools for your toolkit;
- Spanner – Used this form of communication to tighten loose connections and bring things together. Keep in mind however, that while appropriate use of a spanner to tighten loose things is all well and good, over use can cause stress fractures which may eventually result in a sudden and catastrophic breakup, this can happen as readily with your people.
- Screwdriver – This communications tool is used for fine adjustments and to align things. In many fields this is the most used tool in the box, and rightly so. It can be used frequently when applied with care, and is capable of very precise work. The communication equivalent would be regular minor reviews and short conversations, with a little coaching and mentoring included in the mix, to ensure your team remains closely aligned and well adjusted.
- Hammer – The hammer in your communication toolkit is used to drive home a point and to fix things in position. The hammer must be used sparingly as it can be both rough and imprecise and we all know how much it hurts when you miss the nail and hit yourself. Similarly, unthinking use of a communications hammer can bruise your team, leaving relationships damaged, and may event result in you suffering personally.
- An oil can – In communication terms, the oil is used as a lubricant to ease things along,to prevent or reduce friction and to free up a frozen component. In just the same way, knowing how and when to have supportive, positive conversations with team members to help them work better together, resolve disagreements and, on occasion, to free a stuck mind is a skill that takes many people years to develop. Knowing how to lubricate communications is a delicate skill but one that is definitely worth building.
Some additional tools to consider, but to use only in cases of extreme emergency are;
- Blow torch – With a blow torch in your communication toolkit you are really playing with fire. There are times when you need to apply heat to something to allow adjustment, remove a stubborn nut etc. Applying heat can be harmful to whatever you are working on and can lead to serious damage and potentially a piece of equipment that may not work again. Similarly, in a communications sense, if you “apply the blowtorch” to members of your team, it may help you with a short term problem such as getting a deliverable out to meet a deadline, but it may well damage your relationship with the individual to the point where they may not want to work for you for much longer.
- Sledge Hammer – Used in construction to remove obstacles but more often seen in demolition, these tools can be highly destructive and must be used with extreme care. The communication toolkit equivalent would be resorting to screaming and shouting at colleagues and staff. As with the blow torch, use of this tool will likely render the recipient unwilling to work with you in the future, so take care, this tool can be highly destructive.
Each of these tools have their own place in the communicators repertoire. Some will be used frequently, others maybe only once or twice in a whole career. As with any personal toolkit, I am sure I have missed a few out, so please do let me know if you have any additional suggestions.
Share your experiences
Do you have any tools you would add to the list, if so, we would love to hear from you.
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