Communication: More Than Content

Engaging and motivating co-workers means respecting their need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Sounds easy, but is it?

It can be, with good communication. In this blog, you’ll learn why good communication is more than just delivering content, and how you can improve your communication as a leader to boost engagement in your co-workers.

4 Levels of Communication

We communicate on more than one level each time we say anything.

Four levels, to be precise.

– The “Content” Level: This level is about the objective meaning of the words we choose. “I need a new desk space,” to illustrate, could mean just that.
– The “Self-Disclosure” Level: We also reveal a little about ourselves whenever we speak – whether that’s because we’ve chosen certain words or even when we choose to say them. “I need a new desk space,” could be understood as “I’m tired of this desk space,” or even “I deserve a new desk space.
– The “Call for Action” Level: Our words are intended to influence others, and sometimes people see them as a call for action. Sanjay the intern, for instance, might understand our desk space sentence as: “Sanjay, please order me a new desk and chair.”
– The “Relationship” Level: Lastly, our words could convey a further message – how we view or feel about others. Poor Sanjay might even interpret “I need a new desk space,” as “Why haven’t you, Sanjay, ordered me new office equipment yet?” Tulia, who sits next to you might even think you don’t want to sit next to her!

With awareness of the potential message that we send on the content, self-disclosure, call for action, and relationship levels, leaders can try to avoid a workplace challenge no organization is immune from – miscommunication!

All Communication is Subjective

So, everything we say is open to interpretation – and here’s why.

The Inside

Everything we say comes from (what I call) The Inside. Here’s where our real intention lies, based on what we’re feeling, thinking, or even what we want.

Only you can really know this when you first speak – maybe you mentioned your desk space because you want a new view; perhaps it’s too low for you.

The Outside

The Outside is your behaviors: your tone of voice, body language, and more. If you glare at Tulia or while you’re speaking, she might be more inclined to take offense. Less so if you stretch, grimace, or hold your back to express lumbar pain.

The Other Side

Then we have The Other Side – an element over which we have less control. Another person’s mood, their past experiences, and a whole host of factors can impact their interpretation.

Say Sanjay has already been called ‘lazy’ twice by another team leader – he’s likely to negatively construe your sentence.

The Inside, Outside, and Other Side all interact to make communication quite nuanced, as we can see. But with this understanding of the elements at play, we’re in a superb place to start communicating consciously so we can respect other’s essential needs as humans.

How To Avoid Miscommunications

All is not lost, however – far from it. Here are two ways to reduce the risk of misinterpretations when you’re in a conversation with your co-workers, based on everything we just learned.

1. Transparency is Key

Remember that a little preparation can save you and your team plenty of time later. Take a bit longer if necessary to think about how you can be as clear and unambiguous as possible.

You can do this by adding some additional context, detail, or explanation to your message. Mainly giving transparency about your intention is key. So in the example above about getting a new desk space, add why you are saying this, and make the reason behind it – the “Why” – explicit.

2. Clarify with Feedback

Let’s talk about Sanjay again for a second – imagine he heard your comment and felt anxious or hurt. By rephrasing your sentence or asking questions (providing feedback), he could also help clear things up: “Did you want me to order you a desk and chair?” or “Does your back hurt from sitting there?

It works the other way around, too, if you’re the listener. Super simple!

Over To You

It’s not a secret that misinterpretations happen; conversations go wrong all the time. But if you as a leader can pinpoint why that happened, you’re better equipped to avoid the same mistake in future. When you view great communication skills as an important part of respecting other’s SCARF elements, you can see why they’re worth developing!

When is the most recent time that you had a miscommunication at work? What level of communication was playing out that time?