Team members having a hard time giving or receiving negative feedback? Meetings tend to go on and on without a conclusion in sight? Customer service success rates aren’t as good as they could be? Clients seem confused after you try to explain a design or technology-related decision?
Good communication constantly ranks at the top of must-have skills for employees to have. Communications training is usually one of the first solutions organizations think of when it comes to a myriad of different challenges.
In my experience, however, these training programs are rarely as effective as they could be.
In this article I’m going to share with you what I think most communications training programs are lacking, as well as the missing ingredient we should be focusing on if we want to see better, faster, and longer-lasting results.
The traditional approach to communication skillbuilding
During the summer of 2021, I began talking with a team about organizing a series of communications workshops. Their questions were similar to what I’d heard many times before.
How can we help our people communicate more effectively? How do we get them to give more open feedback? How can they learn to manage difficult situations with clients on the spot? How can we make sure the important messages get through?
The leader told me he has heard a lot about frameworks like assertive communication and nonviolent communication, so perhaps we should do something like that.
One thing to note here is that many trainers have pre-designed materials for these workshops and they usually use slight variations of the same thing.
This doesn’t mean these sessions aren’t useful. I myself deliver a lot of workshops on topics like feedback, conflict management, effective meeting facilitation, client management, etc., and there are certain elements that frequently show up in them because they are so effective for what we’re trying to achieve.
What I’m talking about here is that most classic communications training programs focus on techniques, formulas, and tools, forgetting to take into account the very real human element.
They assume we are always fully conscious of our behavior and are able to rationally choose the best response in every situation.
If you think about the last time you said something you immediately regretted, I’m sure you’ll agree this is not the case.
Addressing the real reason behind communication challenges
Ever since I learned about Radical Collaboration, my approach has been different.
I realized that in situations where people didn’t communicate as effectively as they could have, the problem usually isn’t that they didn’t know what to say or how to say it. In both training sessions and coaching situations, they usually have at least 2-3 ideas about what they could’ve done better. This is true whether they have had previous communications training or not.
What is the problem then?
Why do we say or do the wrong thing on the spot even though we know there are better ways?
Why do we suddenly forget everything we learned in assertive communications training?
Why is it so hard to give negative feedback when we’ve learned all the right phrases to use?
The reason, as Radical Collaboration has taught me, is defensiveness.
What does defensiveness have to do with communication? As one of my training participants so eloquently said, when we get defensive “it’s like there’s an emotional fog in front of my eyes that makes it impossible to assess the situation objectively.”
We don’t always communicate ineffectively because we don’t know how to do better. Often it’s because we are in a mental and emotional state that makes us unable to choose the best response.
As much as we would like to believe that we have a separate personal and professional self, with the latter always acting in the most rational way, that’s unfortunately not the case. We all have situations that trigger us, and these experiences can cause us to react from an emotional state rather than an objective one.
What’s dangerous about getting defensive is that most of the time we’re not even aware of the fact that we can’t think clearly anymore.
This can lead to situations where we start to behave in ways that aren’t in our (or the organization’s) best interest.
Like when the client doesn’t understand a technical solution you suggest so you start overexplaining and end up confusing them even more, when asking one or two simple questions could have helped you understand their concerns.
Or when you stay quiet in a situation where you should have spoken up, and now you have to deal with extra work or do things in a way that you feel is ineffective.
You have a better chance of avoiding situations like these when you are able to consciously choose your behavior instead of reacting instinctively.
Getting better at communication starts with getting better at managing your own defensiveness
I start most of my communications training programs by teaching participants about what defensiveness is and how they can learn to recognize their own signs of getting defensive.
I do this because I believe that by learning to manage your own defensiveness, your ability to respond in a calm and objective manner increases and you consequently become a better communicator.
When you are in an emotionally charged situation, the formula of the assertive message or the steps of nonviolent communication won’t be at the forefront of your mind. But if you can get back to a non-defensive presence where you can think clearly again, you just might remember a communication technique to help you handle the situation better.
But how do you manage something that happens to you unconsciously?
On the spot, we usually can’t cognitively recognize that “oh, he slightly raised his voice when he said that and to me that’s triggering because of this and that, so now I’m going to give him the silent treatment.”
But we can learn to become aware of the signs of defensiveness. In the example above, we can learn to notice that we haven’t contributed to the conversation in the past 10 minutes and that we are sitting with our arms folded. We can learn to recognize this as one of our own defensive signs. And when we do, we can choose to change our behavior and react in a more effective way.
Common feedback I get from training participants is that they never thought of certain behaviors as defensive signs.
Like when you think that someone doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, or challenges a point you made, and that unconsciously makes you feel like you aren’t competent enough so you start intellectualizing and overexplaining (which makes it even less likely that they will get your point).
Or when someone gives you mostly positive feedback with a couple areas to improve, and you start to personalize everything and suddenly think that person doesn’t like you.
Going through this training helps people identify their ineffective behavior and helps them develop hands-on techniques to better deal with them.
Teaching people how to manage defensiveness is foundational for developing collaboration
By becoming aware of their own defensive signs, people can learn to stay in control even in stressful situations. This means they can become more effective communicators much more quickly than if we’d started by teaching them communication techniques.
I’m not saying the things we’re usually taught in communications workshops aren’t valid or necessary. They definitely are. They just have to come later in the process.
I firmly believe that better collaboration for organizations starts with employees becoming more self-aware so they are able to consciously change their reactions, choose more effective behaviors, and actually be able to use those techniques that will produce the results you want.
If this article has made you curious about overcoming defensiveness and the organizational challenges doing so can help you solve, you can learn more about Radical Collaboration here.
And if you think your people would benefit from communications training that is designed for your unique context and goals, reach out to me and let’s have a chat.