Good communication with employees can go a long way toward managing people better, keeping employees motivated, and improving your business performance. But, like a lot of other entrepreneurs, it’s not a topic that I pay enough attention to. When Adams Media began publishing books and producing multimedia packages on this topic I began to realize the damage I was doing and the opportunities I was losing by not focusing more on communicating better with employees. The following suggestions on communications skills come from the book and multimedia package we published titled Streetwise Managing People.

1. Communication Is a Two-Way Operation

It involves sending and receiving signals. Empowered communicators learn to receive signals so they can be proactive rather than reactive to what they send. When communicating, step into the shoes of the other person. Read body language, tone of voice, statements, and silences. Investigate the employee’s motivation and fear.

2. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Remember, your goal is to get enough information so you can work with the person to resolve problems and increase productivity. A yes/no (or closed) question will only give you a yes or no answer. A question that begins with “why” puts people on the defensive. Think about how you react when asked questions such as, “Why were you late?” or “Why do you act like that?”

Who, what, where, and how questions involve the other person. “What leads you to make that decision? How can we work together on solving this problem? Who else is affected when you’re late? When do you think you can start working toward this new goal?” It takes practice to self-edit and reframe your questioning techniques because we’re conditioned to accuse and assume, not to accumulate information.

3. Listen Intensely and Avoid Solving Others’ Problems

So often our good intentions prompt us to provide solutions to people’s problems when they don’t actually want advice, but instead simply want to be heard. Comments such as, “That must be painful for you. You sound angry. It seems like you’re feeling frustrated,” might seem weak and even ineffectual if you’re used to communicating directly and giving orders. But the up-front investment is worth the results generated by this kind of listening. Once people feel genuinely heard, they’ll entrust you with more information, which is what you want because it gives you control. 

4. Frame Your Responses Using the I-Language Technique

Essentially, you are taking responsibility for your feelings. You are not—I repeat, NOT—blaming the employee for his or her actions, but you are pointing out how his or her behavior affects your feelings. To begin, comment on observable factual behaviors and state the consequences. Finish with involving the employee in a collaborative resolution.

Here’s an example: “When you give me your reports at the last minute (fact), I feel frustrated because I must rush and wonder if I’m not catching errors and I end up barking at you (give consequences that matter to them). I wish you would give me more lead time (ask for behavior change in terms of “start doing X” versus “stop doing Y”) so that we’ll both be less stressed (state the benefits). What do you think?”

5. Match Your Words to Your Body Language

If you’re honest, your body language will confirm it. If you’re feeling angry and denying it, your tone of voice might give you away. Be honest, then do a body check to make sure your words match your nonverbal gestures. Otherwise, you won’t be taken seriously.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Communication is a two-way street.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Open-ended questions will help you get more meaningful responses.