You might think that those of us who work in business communication would be able to communicate perfectly. Well, that would be an incorrect assumption. I have found that communication skills require ongoing learning and development. Communicating with everyone in the workplace can be daunting. Just when I think I have mastered a skill, I realize that there are others who may interpret my communication in a way which was not intended.
Being civil is a requirement to communicate effectively with coworkers, customers, vendors and others in the business environment. One way to have a civil conversation is to set a mutual agreement about the purpose, timing, agenda and expected outcome of conversations ahead of time. In other words, to make sure we agree to the rules of engagement. Without understanding the expectations or the rules of the game, chaos and misunderstanding can arise.
To have a civilized dinner, you would normally eat your meal from a plate. I believe civilized business communications should also include a PLATE. PLATE is the acronym I use to remember how to begin and end business conversations.
- Purpose. First, let the other person know why you want to have the conversation. You can’t wait until time runs out and surprise them with a purpose of which they knew nothing. Be up front with why you want to engage in the conversation.
- Limit the time. You must agree on the time limit of the conversation and live up to that agreement. If you need more time, set another mutual agreement as to how much more time is needed, when you will continue and what else needs to be discussed. You can also agree at the beginning to continue the conversation if needed.
- Agenda of their expectations. Discover what is important to them first. Even though you may have initiated the conversation, allow them to go first. Once you know what is important to them, you might decide to alter your approach.
- Topics. Let the other person know your expectations of what will be discussed or not discussed. Always get permission to ask questions, so you can understand what is important to the other person. Get the truth on the table. Let them know exactly what you want to talk about and what you will be doing during the conversation, like asking questions.
- Eventual goal. Share what you hope the outcome of the conversation will be. Perhaps it is resolution to a problem or agreement on a plan of action. The point is to have a goal to go for in the conversation defined up front, in the beginning of the conversation. This will help keep you on topic.
Once the conversation is concluding, clearly state the mutual agreement for the next step, so each party knows and agrees to the purpose of the next step, the timing, the agenda and the expected outcome after that step is completed. Getting and keeping mutual agreements is an ongoing communication loop that will allow for more positive outcomes.
Clarity is key. The concept of mutual agreements extends to the language you use. If a coworker tells you they will try to get to your request, what are they really telling you? My experience says that I just heard them tell me that it is not going to happen. Go for clarity. “When you say try, does that mean it is going to the bottom of the pile and probably won’t happen?” or “Is that a polite way of telling me you just don’t have the time to get it done?” would be ways to get a clearer picture of what that person means when they say try.
Don’t use wishy-washy words. When I hear someone tell me there is a good chance of something happening, my experience tells me it means there’s a slim chance, which usually means no chance. Just this morning, I asked a coworker his opinion about something and he was brutally honest. I appreciated his honestly because it was clear what he thought and why he thought it. His actual comment was, “For the sake of transparency, I am sharing how I really feel. Most others you talk with will probably be thinking the same thing but won’t tell you.” His observation is spot-on. Seek clarity by getting mutual agreement about the ground rules for a conversation and what will be happening next.
One last thought: Don’t be afraid to ask a coworker, customer or vendor this question: “Is it OK if I ask you to clarify a word or something I am unsure of to make sure I understand what you are wanting to communicate to me?” You both have just agreed that it is OK to ask clarifying questions, and that leads to more civil, productive conversations.