We've all had one of 'those' conversations. The kind that falls flat at best and cuts deeply at worst. Sometimes we walk into those conversations feeling prepared and rehearsed - knowing the key points you want to get across, focused on listening to the other person, and still it does not end the way you imagined. Other times, we rush into communicating without any thought at all and everything is beautiful.
Why is it that some conversations do not land well and others are flawless?
What I have experienced is that exceptional communication can be boiled down to 5 simple elements. Person. Place. Time. Tone. Content. Easy? Not always. Doable? Absolutely.
When you have all 5 right, you'll hit it out of the park almost every time. Really, even if you can get 4 of them nailed most of the time, you're doing pretty good!
It all comes down to communicating with the right person in the right place at the right time in the right tone with the right content.
The Communication Breakdown
Let's use the example of a customer not paying an invoice on time. Let's play out the worst-case scenario here...you do everything properly by communicating your costs (even signing a contract) and follow up with an invoice at the appropriate time. You send a gentle reminder email 2 weeks before the payment is due and when that date rolls around there has been no payment. You decide to offer some grace and wait a week, imagining they may be busy/away/etc. A week goes by and still nothing - now you are feeling a bit frustrated.
You chat about your frustrations with a friend at a local cafe and come up with all the reasons why your client hasn't paid you...creeping heavily into assumption territory.
Still no payment by the end of that week.
You hastily fire off a fairly snappy email at 2 am because you woke up thinking about the fact that you worked hard to serve your customer and have not been compensated in a timely manner (and you have bills to pay too!). In the email, in addition to addressing the invoice issue, you also trickle into another concern you have had with this client (they don't dust your product regularly and customers have told you it looks dated in the shop).
You press send and try to get back to sleep.
Safe to say we can all relate to at least parts of that story or a version of it, yes?
Let's break it down using the 5 elements and see how we could improve this situation.
The Right Person
Communication started off well but it didn't last. It went off the rails as soon as they started chatting to their friend about the unpaid invoice and especially to judge/make assumptions about why the customer had not yet paid. Think about how you would like situations like this handled.You'd probably want someone to talk directly with you if they have any concerns vs chatting with others in your network, workplace, community, etc. Simple playground rules - talk it out with the person and find a solution.
The Right Place
Chatting with their friend about the late payment at a local cafe. We all have business besties in this world of entrepreneurship and we value those relationships for how they can ground us. However, chatting with your business bestie at a busy cafe about a sensitive customer issue is very different than chatting about the new Instagram feature. If you need to debrief or consult with someone, make sure you are doing it in private and not the local hang out spot for all the ears to hear. Make sense? In regards to finding the right place to communicate with your client, think about the culture of communication you have created with them and be consistent (do you exclusively email? Phone them to discuss specifics? set aside time to meet in person?). For example, If you always communicate via the phone, don’t all of a sudden email them with a concern and expect the same results.
The Right Time
Generally speaking, not much good comes from sending emails at 2 am. I'm a big believer in writing the email and keep it in draft format until you wake up/cool down/reflect/breathe. In this scenario, spend a few moments to consider when might be the best time for them to receive your note/phone call. Is it stopping by during their busy rush hour? Dropping by at the end of the day when you are tired and frustrated? Emailing them after work hours once you've had a moment to think? There is no magical time that works for every situation but if you can pause before communicating, generally things will roll out in a more positive light. Always think, is this really the best time to communicate?
The Right Tone
This can so often be ‘make or break’ in communication, can't it? We've all experienced that passive-aggressive tone from someone or have raised our eyebrows at an aggressive sounding conversation between people (think road rage on a busy highway!). There is also that safe feeling we get during conversations with someone you care about and/or highly respect. A no-nonsense and to the point tone can also be appropriate. Being conscious of how our words sound when they leave our mouths is so key. We can be direct and assertive without being snarky and rude. We can also be kind and generous without being passive-aggressive and condescending. This tip makes me think of the age-old golden rule, 'treat others the way we want to be treated' and how, as adults, we can sometimes forget how golden and shiny this principle really is.
The Right Content
This can be a slippery one. How often have you brought something up in a difficult conversation that actually has nothing to do with the discussion? There is a time and place for everything and in this story, a late payment is the main concern. The fact that you heard that the product is not being cared for is an entirely different concern and should be addressed separately (and possibly even with a different person, at a different place...etc). Keeping on point with what we communicate is important for us to clearly articulate what we need the other person to hear. It can be challenging, especially in our fast-paced world, to not add something else to an email but be sure to keep it to the point and cover your main concern.
Striving to incorporate all 5 elements is ideal, but remember to give yourself some grace when you don't get it perfect every time. Remember, if communication breaks down or that conversation didn’t go as well as you had planned, take a moment to pause. Reflect on what you could have done differently and just keep trying to do better.
Do you have any communication tips? Any key learnings you'd be willing to share? Please jot them down in the comments below so we can all keep learning and practicing!