How do you help someone become a skilled, competent communicator?

How do you help someone become a skilled, competent communicator?

“All great changes are irksome to the human mind.” – John Adams (1776)

Consultants are usually hired to help organizations revolutionize their way of doing business. Sometimes the solutions are readily apparent: A lack of management strategy; a failure to be clear about job functions; a need to share information among employees. As outsiders, consultants can ask the questions that people don’t ask: “Why is this done this way? What is your reasoning? Did you consider other options?” As outsiders, the consultant’s job is to challenge the conventional wisdom.

And as outsiders, it’s often easier. Consultants diagnose and treat these specific problems to the best of their ability. But organizations shouldn’t depend on outsiders to ask challenging questions. Insiders should be able to ask those questions, too.

I have spent much of my career searching out the tools to help people engage in this kind of straight talk – tools that help bridge differences in style, tools to mediate conflicts, tools to help people understand one another, tools that enable change. was designed to put all these tools in one place, to help anyone in an organization become a skilled, competent communicator.

What do we mean by a competent communicator?

We mean more than the ability to use language well, or to articulate one’s thoughts and feelings clearly. We mean more than knowing how to get a message across. We mean more than being able to listen well, though that, too, plays a part. When we talk about competence in communicating, we really mean three things:

    • First, we mean understanding and appreciating how our different styles of communicating affect everything we say. It means understanding the implications of our individual styles. It means acknowledging that each of us brings a unique frame to what we say and hear – and that these frames can lead to misunderstanding.


    • Second, we mean understanding and avoiding the pitfalls in the way we process information. It is understanding that these pitfalls occur in a moment’s time and that we are thus unconscious of them. It is acknowledging that how we process information can be changed and made more effective by challenging the way we think.


  • Third, we mean applying a set of ground rules that allow us collectively, whether as a couple or as a group, to acknowledge these barriers and overcome them. It means recognizing that competence in communication does not come easily. It means acknowledging that ground rules, just like rules of the road, are necessary if people aren’t going to crash into one another while they try to communicate.

Fundamentally, then, competence in communication means challenging and changing the ways we listen and talk to one another.

It means turning some of our traditional ideas about communication upside down. At the heart of straight talk is the idea that competency in communicating is different from competency in any other field. That’s why it’s so hard.

We’ve all experienced what happens when two unskilled communicators get in a room together and fling assertions back and forth like ping pong balls.

Ping: “That’s how we do things at XYZ Corp.”

Pong: “Well, that’s not how we did things at ABC Corp.”

Ping: “Well, that’s how we do them here.”

Pong: “That’s not the way it should be done.”

Asking questions – especially good questions – is a sign of competence in communicating. Flatly stating your opinions is a sign of incompetence. Curiosity is a reflection of competency. Mastery is a reflection of incompetence. Competent communicators know that knowing all the answers isn’t a sign of competence. It’s most often a sign of incompetence.

Where we’ve succeeded in introducing the tools of straight talk, we’ve seen surprising results.

Management teams become more adept at thinking and managing in innovative ways. Companies become more skilled in managing difficult projects. One organization experienced a 20-percent increase in profits the year after we introduced these tools – and their managers attributed the increase entirely to their new way of working together.

If straight talk were easy, there’d be no need to write a book about it. But straight talk is hard. Most people are lazy communicators even in the simplest situations – managing their time, laying out a task, setting their goals. People communicate in clumsy ways because it’s easier than communicating expertly.

If we communicate ineffectively in normal situations, imagine how we behave in a challenging situation. Imagine what we do when the topic is “Where is my business going?” or “What is happening to our industry?” In those situations, we’re very likely to respond in ways that are exactly contrary to what is needed. In the situations where straight talk is most needed, it is most likely to be elusive.

Think of the costs of this inexpert communication. Think of the lost opportunities, mis-directed resources, and under-utilized human capital. One CEO totaled up the bill for his organization’s ineffectiveness and put it at 15 percent of total revenues. In his case, that meant $45 million in lost revenues each year because his company didn’t communicate about key issues head on.

As you start to learn the tools and principles of straight talk (, discuss them with your colleagues. Try them out in your meetings. Above all, trust these tools to work for you. It may mean changing your way of thinking. But at the heart of straight talk lies a willingness to accept that change is the only thing that we can count on.

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