January 2, 2019

Planning, Clarity and Boundaries – Key Communication Tools

We can all learn to be better communicators

One of the most common coaching topics for people in my practice is building better communication skills.

People often seek coaching because they recognize that they are having difficulty communicating.  It may be that there are others around who are difficult themselves, or that the client has trouble saying what they wish they could say in the moment.  They may want to think better on their feet and quickly come up with ideas, retorts or humor.  Sometimes they wish they could be less tongue-tied when they are nervous.  And sometimes they don’t know how to ask for what they want.

Here are three tips I share with clients that can help us all improve our communication skills for these and many other situations.

Plan ahead

Many people never think of planning ahead for a critical conversation, meeting or interaction.  This is usually where I start with my clients.  I ask several questions when helping plan for a conversation:

  • What is your ultimate goal for this situation?
  • What would it look like if, at the end of the interaction, everything had gone exactly the way you wanted it to?
  • What do you know about the other person and her or his communication style?
  • How will you manage their style relative to your own?

Thinking about these things ahead of time will allow you to rehearse key points of difficulty in the upcoming conversation, and this process will allow you to develop strategies for the biggest challenges.

People can be surprised at this step, because they think it takes too much time.  My answer is, “how much time do you spend worrying about this conversation? Is that time better spent planning than worrying?  If so, it will likely take less time to plan than to continually ruminate and put the conversation off.”

Practice extreme clarity

I find that many of us (myself included) are not always clear about what we are trying to say.  We want to appear nice or agreeable, and so our message comes out garbled.  It is far better to take the time in planning (the step above) to get very clear about your goal, and then to practice articulating that goal.

For example, if what you want is to remove yourself from a project, don’t go to a meeting with your boss and say, “I guess I’ll take this new assignment, but I am really overwhelmed,” when what you really want to say is, “I’d be happy to take on the new assignment, but I need to negotiate with you about coming off of this other project.  If I try to do both, I will be overcommitted, and neither project will be done with the quality I would expect of myself.”

Another example might be a situation where a co-worker talked over you in a meeting and co-opted your idea.  Inside your head is a storm of emotions, including anger and frustration.  What comes out of your mouth is … nothing.  You sit in the rest of the meeting and seethe about the experience.

What if, instead — in the moment when it happens — you could say, “I’d like the opportunity to finish what I was saying and to expound on the idea I brought to the table.”  People will notice, and you will send a clear signal to others that you recognize what happened (whether it was intentional or not), and that you will speak up for yourself.

Finally, in a negotiation meeting, when someone asks you what is important to you in terms of what you want in the negotiation, don’t say, “I guess a bit more money would be nice.”  Be very clear, as in, “My current salary is X; I’d like to make 15% more than that current salary in order to take on the increased responsibility and oversight required in the new position.”

Clarity is your friend.  And you will be surprised how quickly you get very good at it if you practice.

Set boundaries

The third tip I share is to set clear boundaries with others.  If someone shows up late for a meeting routinely, make it clear that the meeting will start on time, and this person will need to catch up to what has already taken place on their own time, outside the meeting.  If people aren’t reading email communications, let it be known that there are three ways to get key information — read the emails, come to meetings where action items are being discussed or talk with a colleague outside the meeting time.

If people are using language that is inappropriate, it is absolutely acceptable (and should be expected) that you will say, “What you just said makes me uncomfortable because … ”  “I would appreciate it if you would not make such generalizations” (or jokes, or comments).  In many organizations, if the language is egregious, it is not only expected that you say something, but you may be expected to report it through formal channels as well.

If someone is bullying you in a conversation, is touching you inappropriately or is making sexual advances or innuendo, this is not acceptable workplace behavior and also requires that you speak up.  “It is not OK for you to speak to me this way (or touch me in this way, or make comments like that to me).”  And in these situations, you definitely should report the actions through formal channels.

Setting boundaries is crucial to your participation as an equal partner in a conversation or communication.

How do you handle planning, clarity and boundaries in key conversations?

Please share your thoughts in our comment section below.

Last updated January 2, 2019