New Ways of Thinking about Communication

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a focus group. The topic was advertisements for home mortgages. We watched a number of advertisements, evaluated them, and then compared them. To me it was a silly exercise. If I was not interested in a mortgage, then the content and style were not at all important to me. I told this to the consultant who was running the focus group—and he almost kicked me out.

You may have seen a number of articles on communication in Lab Manager (see references below) and wonder why another. Each of us approaches the topic in a different way, from a different point of view, and from a different experience base—you may find one author’s views more helpful to you than another’s. Further, the timing may be right; you may be experiencing communication problems with your group right now, and that may draw your interest to this topic. You may be interested in a mortgage!

I see communication problems around me constantly! Two people talking about two completely different things and thinking they are communicating. People not paying attention to what the other person is saying—simply buying time to say what they want to say. People trying to influence or impress someone else with their brilliance, and people hoping to influence another person and having no idea how to make their point—and none of these situations results in effective communication.

Be on the same page

My first suggestion: Make sure you are talking about the same thing and with the same level of intensity! Take time to clarify the topic, using a “Let’s review the status . . .” approach. If you are vitally interested in what you are attempting to communicate and the other(s) are disinterested, raise their level of interest if you hope to have any chance of being understood. Before you can make your point, spend more time than you may think necessary to provide background, rationale, history, consequences, etc. After you have laid the groundwork, the chance of your message getting through goes up tremendously. Stand back from the conversation and watch what’s happening. Are you on the same topic? Are you approximately equally involved—invested? What would you do or say as a third party to get this back on track?


Second: Listen appropriately. That may sound strange, but here’s an illustration: have you ever tried to chat, simply hold a friendly discussion with someone who is acting like an investigative journalist? It’s really tough, you are in a mood to discuss a topic that you find interesting and personal, and they probe and look for expanded information. You are pummeled with questions for clarification, references, study statistics, and more while the story you want to tell is about your pastime hobby, which is making jewelry! These conversations seldom progress very far— you and the antagonist are in two different places. (I’m surprised at myself for talking about too much listening, but I have seen examples recently of people applying good listening skills to the extreme and poisoning a conversation.) Learn to differentiate between a setting in which strong listening skills are necessary, paying really close attention, attending (using verbal and nonverbal clues that you are interested and understanding), restatement (repeating what the person just said in a slightly different way for clarification and empathy), and a setting in which too much attention can spoil a connection.

Certainly you as a manager must have a strong set of listening skills, and you need to be able to use these skills effortlessly, but “appropriate use” is my message here. Just because you have a hammer, don’t see everything as a nail, as we used to say.

What is their preferred method of communication?

Third: Identify the most effective methods of communication for important people in your life and tailor your style and methods to match the person with whom you are communicating. Yes, it is your responsibility! This is of greatest importance in communicating with your superiors. How does your boss like to be given information? No, that’s not a rhetorical question. How does your current boss prefer to be told something? Is she more comfortable with written memos? Does he prefer a briefing in person? Are they predominantly visual or oral? Is she better at absorbing information over a couple of days before being expected to respond or make a decision? Or are snap decisions his trademark? Does she like to be given several alternative suggestions and be expected to select from among these? Or does he like to come up with the answer? Is an informal or formal approach more likely to meet the needs of your boss? From my experience this knowledge can be gained only by trying different methods over time. You can ask, and should, but don’t expect people to be able to identify their preferred method accurately. So try some different approaches and see what works best.

Should you spend this time and effort on the people who work with you? That depends. If communication is quick and effective and leads to few misunderstandings and glitches—keep doing what you are doing. However, if you find mistakes and confusion becoming common, take a look at how you are communicating and think about making some changes—using more memos or meetings, explaining in greater detail, or asking more questions for clarification.

“Words with friends”

That’s the name of a popular app that looks a lot like Scrabble, and it sometimes applies in some lab settings. Especially in small labs, but in other settings as well, the issue of communicating uncomfortable topics sometimes arises. You work hard to develop and maintain a close, collegial relationship with your best people, and now you have to correct their behavior, provide specific direction, or tell them some really bad news. How do you do it?

There are really no good short answers to this situation, but here are some things that may be helpful. Try to avoid the situation in the first place. You may have attended grad school together, your families may be close, you may have spent 10 years working collaboratively on a research project, you may have been leaning heavily on him or her during the years you were learning how to be an effective manager, you may have been in competition for the supervisory position you now have—and now you have to talk seriously about some bad habits or a behavior you have noticed that is having a negative impact on your group.

What do you do? First, be cautious in forming and nurturing your relationships; try to be clear about the personal side and the professional side. Ease away from relationships that seem to be testing or crossing the boundaries, relationships where the closeness is starting to be “used.” Keep clear about these distinct dimensions: the personal and the professional. Monitor your relations with key staff members and test in your mind if the closeness is getting in the way of your carrying out the responsibilities of your job. No, you aren’t in the military and the likelihood of your having to order someone into a very dangerous situation is vanishingly slight, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of maintaining a degree of separation between personal and professional. If the other person can’t handle this dichotomy, you need to seriously consider breaking off the personal side.

When you need to have a serious conversation, start by being clear that this is a work issue and clearly separate what you are going to discuss from the personal side of your relationship. With some people you can actually use the personal relationship to gain agreement and a commitment to change. With others, the person may try to use the personal relationship to duck the issue. If that happens, don’t be afraid to identify what you see going on and challenge the other person. Close the conversation by describing the value of the personal side and a commitment to maintain both parts of the relationship.

Building the work-friend relationship and making it work is one of the most difficult issues managers face. It begins when you first take on the responsibilities of leadership and it never goes away.

In summary:
• Be clear about the subject and your expectations.
• Listen appropriately—not too attentively and not too loosely.
• Match other people’s preferred communication styles.
• Be very aware of the personal and professional elements of your relationships.

Borchardt, John K., “Top 10 Management Skills You Need,” Lab Manager Magazine, Oct. 4, 2011. Hayes, Tim, “Leadership Is Communication,” Lab Manager Magazine, April 6, 2011.
Kidder, F. Key, “Communicating Science,” Lab Manager Magazine, Nov. 3, 2011.
Tobe, Jeff, LAB MANAGER ACADEMY: “Words Matter,” Lab Manager Magazine, Dec. 9, 2010.