Growth Doesn’t Just Happen

Over the last three months I’ve been writing about Communication. In April the topic was “The Power of Connection” in four parts. May was four posts on Organizational Communication. Finally, last week I concluded a five part series on Listening. During the quarter that started this month, I want to shift themes from Communication to Personal Growth. It’s been said that “mastery” (the desire to get better at stuff) is one of a handful of intrinsic motivators. In other words, we are driven to grow and improve because of internal rewards (satisfaction) over external ones like prizes or recognition.

Leadership teacher, coach, and author John C. Maxwell,  among his many books, has written two that have been helpful to me on this topic. First is , The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, and the other is called Intentional Living: Choosing a Life that Matters. I highly recommend them both and if you were to read them you would recognize their influence in my writing during this quarter.

The First Law

The first of John’s invaluable laws of growth is the law of “Intentionality.” It’s also what the entire second book is about, living on purpose. The Law of Intentionality says, “Growth Doesn’t Just Happen.” You have to plan for it and work on it … on purpose.

My youngest two graduated from High School a year ago (wow! already). Our lives have changed in the evenings since that happened. While they were in school the evenings were filled with homework and preparation. That’s because the school had a curriculum and each course in that curriculum had a syllabus and each day had a lesson plan which included learning objectives. The school district was intentional about their learning and development (growth).

Once we graduate and the structured learning environment of school is gone, most of us are set adrift when it comes to personal growth. We find jobs or start businesses that may or may not have anything to do with our formal education. Then life is all about the daily tasks related to that job or business. But, as many experts will tell you, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” If that’s true, then in the scenario I just described, we’re dying.

Be Your own Board of Education

Because we no longer have others structuring our learning and growth for us, we need to develop our own personal growth plan.

Start with work. If you love your job (if you don’t, that’s another conversation) or aspire to a certain position, there are most likely job related certifications you can pursue. Research those and decide which ones you want and how to get them. There may even be organizations you can join that provide curriculum for your job development. In many cases an employer will pay for job related education and memberships. LinkedIn Premium has training available on a wide variety of topics as well.

How about Hobbies and personal interests? Set a goal. What do you want to be able to do by the end of the year? Find Youtube videos or online communities or local clubs that deal with that and start learning. Or go old school, like me, and buy books. Invest some time and money in yourself.

Finally, set a time and place to “study.” I get up at 5:15 every morning. After feeding the cat and letting the dog out, I pour a cup of coffee and sit down on the couch in the living room. I read for half an hour. I read a selection from two books. First, I read a chapter from the Bible progressing through a book. Then I read from whichever book is current on my list. It could be on a variety of subjects. After that, I write for half an hour. That’s when I work on these posts. I also have a couple of e-books on my phone that I read whenever I’m in line or waiting for my wife in a store.

There are other things I do and other things you could do. The main thing, though, is to start. Growth doesn’t just happen.

Using the Speed Gap Trap to Your Advantage

Last week I listed one of 7 barriers to good listening as “The Speed Gap Trap.” I called it that because of the gap between the speed of speech and the speed of thought. I called it a trap because it’s in that gap that most good listening gets stuck. Most often people don’t listen well because their minds wander while the other person is talking or because they use the gap to plan their reply.

Bonus Brain Time

There is a completely opposite way to look at the speed gap. It can be listening’s worsts enemy, or it can be listening’s greatest ally. What makes the difference? Intentionality. You can learn to use the gap to your listening advantage.

Before we go any further, I want to try an experiment with you. Think about a red balloon . . . What came to mind? Was it a big hot air balloon or a smaller helium filled birthday party balloon? Now, think about a green chair . . . Did you have a specific chair that came to mind or did you imagine one? It doesn’t matter. The point of the experiment is to show that you can choose what you think about. If you followed the instructions, you directed your mind to a red balloon and a green chair, and you did it in no time at all. You’re pretty amazing!

What you are experiencing now is something called meta-cognition. That’s a fancy word for thinking about your thinking. You have the ability to examine your thought processes while they’re occurring. Think about that. If you apply that ability while you are listening, you can turn “The Speed Gap Trap” into what I call “Bonus Brain Time.” Use the speed gap to think about your listening and direct your thinking to focus on the speaker.

Putting Bonus Brain Time to Work

Try an exercise. During your next conversation, practice being aware of how you are listening. First, pay attention to your own posture and attention. Are you giving eye contact? Are you listening to what is being said or are you planning what you will say next? One signal that you are planning what to say next instead of listening is the urge to interrupt. If you feel that, you are more than likely not listening as well as you could.

Next, pay attention to the person talking. What words are they using? What are their body language and facial expressions saying to you? I call this listening with your ears and listening with your eyes. How do the things they are saying come together to form a picture (listening with your brain)? How do you feel about what you’re hearing (listening with your gut)? Does it strike you as authentic? Is there any prejudice on your part that would lead you to believe one way or another?

After the conversation is over, make some notes. How did you do? What did you learn about the person who was talking? Even more, what did you learn about your listening? Yourself as a listener? Practice that same process over and over. It will be very useful as you develop your listening skills.

7 Barriers to Good Listening

At work we often talk about “Barriers.” They are those things, people, rules, policies, etc. that “prevent movement, or access, or progress.” In a coaching conversation, for example, you might ask, “have you experienced any barriers to meeting the expectation?” In other words, “is there anything outside or within your control that has prevented you from achieving the desired result?” In their book, The Oz Principle, authors Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman write about overcoming barriers to achieve results as part of being accountable.

We have a 9 month old puppy named Zuzu. It appears that one of her primary goals in life is to overcome barriers. While we were training her to go outside, we placed various barriers at entrances to rooms with carpeting or a rug and to keep her in the family room with us which has a tile floor. Mind you, Zuzu is a 5 pound puppy. It has been incredibly entertaining to watch her find ways to get beyond those barriers. She uses her nose, her paws, her teeth, whatever she can, to move (thankfully never destroy ) any barrier.

We’ve been talking this month about Listening. There are many potential barriers to good listening. One of them is he belief that because we hear, we listen. Hearing is part of listening, but only part. Listening, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is a full contact sport.

There are several other barriers to good listening. Here are a few of them:

The Speed Gap Trap

This refers to the difference in the speed at which people speak and the speed at which we can process speech. Most of the time, people speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute. But, we can hear at a rate of 500 – 800 words per minute. What happens to all that extra time? That’s where the untrained listener’s mind wanders, they lose concentration and wind up being accused of not listening.

The Vapor Effect

Hearing is the most ephemeral of senses. Sounds are vibrations. Once the vibration is over, it’s gone. That’s why we take notes or make audio recordings of lectures in school. That’s also why its a good idea to take notes during certain conversations. Because, if we don’t make some concerted effort to retain the words that have been spoken, they won’t last any longer than the vibration that carried them.

The Me Focus

“Self-Centered” means to be preoccupied with oneself and one’s own affairs. Often when we are in conversation our focus is us. What do I want to gain from this discussion? What do I want to say next? How can I prove my point? Again, this speaks to how we use our Bonus Brain Time. If my focus in our conversation is me, what are the chances I’ll ever reach super-power listening skills?

Now, there is a difference between being self-centered and being self-aware, a huge difference. Self awareness is linked to “Meta-cognition” which is something we’ve talked more about in another post. Basically it means “Thinking about our thinking.” For our topic we could say it means, “Thinking about our listening as we’re doing it.” This self-awareness is a powerful tool for developing our listening skills. Self-Centeredness is the opposite.

Some other barriers to good listening include:

Prejudice – If we have preconceived ideas about the other person, their motives, position on a topic, or anything else, it will inhibit our ability to listen to them.

Stress – is like static in our brain and blocks out other people.

Anger – is similar to stress in its effect. When we’re angry, even if it’s not with the person who is speaking, the emotion blocks our ability to listen.

Distractions – seems pretty basic, but background noise, cell phones, TV, etc are kryptonite to super-power listening.

There are many other possible barriers to listening. How many can you think of? Understanding the barriers to good listening goes a long way in helping us get better at listening if we act like Zuzu and find a way past those barriers.

Listen With Your Mouth

Several years ago our family was out to dinner with some friends. At one point during the meal their daughter said, “Hey everybody, Look!” When we all looked, we saw that she had put her earbuds in her nose and right when she had all our attention, she opened her mouth and we could hear music coming out of her mouth like a speaker. It was hilarious. But that’s not what I mean by listening with your mouth.

Listening with your mouth is more like the question I left you with last week, “What’s your story?” You listen with your mouth when you use your mouth to encourage the other person to speak or to speak more.

How to H.E.A.R.

There is an acronym that can help to remember the key elements or steps to good listening. I included this in a post in January of last year. The acronym is HEAR. Two of the four elements, interestingly, involve our mouths.

H is for hush. We have two ears and one mouth. But, we often use them in reverse proportion. We often talk more than we listen. The first step in Hearing someone and certainly in listening is to close our mouths. We can’t listen when we’re talking. Hush also refers to quieting some of the internal barriers to listening like prejudice against a person or idea.

E is for Empathize. Put our autobiographical responses on hold until we’ve heard the other person’s story from their point of view. There is a difference between Sympathy – sharing the speaker’s feelings (we’re not trying to do this) and Empathy – understand the speaker’s feelings (we are trying to do this) (E can also be for “Evaluate” when listening must be critical)

A is for Ask. I wrote more about this in a later post. But, questions are the most useful communication tools we have. The first rule of good listening responses is when in doubt, ask. The presidents association of New York once estimated that good questions increase our comprehension and retention by about 15%.

R is for Reflect. I also devoted another post to this. But, good listening responses reflect the speaker’s meaning like a mirror. How? Repeat and rephrase what you hear. It’s the most basic kind of feedback. You’re simply feeding back the speakers meaning to check for understanding. It is often easier to react than to reflect.

Initiating the Story

When you want to know someone’s story you have to get them talking. How do you do that? You could start with, “What about this weather?” I grew up part of my young life in Michigan where an apt reply would by, “Yeah, but wait 15 minutes and it will change” followed by the laughter of shared experience. While that gets the person talking, it doesn’t get you into their story.
You may want to try some of these conversation [story] starters:

  • “What are the top three things on your bucket list?”
  • “If you could ask for a miracle, what would it be?”
  • “What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?”
  • “Who has been the most influential person in your life?”
  • “What’s the most memorable lesson you learned from your parents?”

You can find 220 more possibilities here.

Going Deeper into the Story

Listening to someone tell their story is like viewing a picture. At one point in the conversation the picture may be like a sepia toned, old, faded snapshot. A little more information may add color and clarity to the picture. Still more information gives the picture 3 dimensions until at some point the picture begins to move. Even more information and you’ve stepped behind the eyes of your storyteller and are seeing the world through them. That’s Super Power Listening.

How do you get the additional information? With your mouth. Use questions to tease out the color, depth, movement, and emotion of the story. But make sure your questions are open ended. For example, instead of asking, “Were you angry?” which requires only a yes or no answer, ask “How did you feel?” That invites the speaker to volunteer more about their emotions.

Examples of other open ended questions include:

  • “Can you tell me more about that?”
  • “Why did you/they do that?”
  • “What’s next?”
  • “What’s the most important thing about that?”
  • “How did they feel about that?”

You see, it’s not only possible to listen with your mouth, if you want to get to SuperPower Listening, it’s necessary.

What’s Your Story?

I often find myself filled with wonder at the thought of how many stories there are in the world. Sometimes in traffic, other times driving through a neighborhood, I wonder what’s the story of the person in that car? Where are they going? Why? Are they happy about it? What’s their life been like to this point? Or the people who live in that house, what is the novel of their life?

John Holmes said, “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” As of April 2020, according to the most recent United Nations estimates, there are 7.8 billion people living on the planet. That’s 7.8 billion other stories! What an overwhelming thought!

As I write this there are demonstrations/riots going on in not less than 30 cities across the country. Those events were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died as a result of his treatment by a white police officer in Minneapolis. During the television coverage, reporters repeatedly ask demonstrators, “Why are you here, what’s your message to America?” The message of the sincere protesters is similar to the one after Rodney King in L.A., and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and others. These things keeps happening, I suggest, at least in part because no one is really listening.

Listening with Your Hands and Feet

When someone says, “I just don’t feel heard,” they usually don’t mean they are uncertain their voice has caused the other person’s eardrums to record sound. They usually mean the person hasn’t done anything in response to what they’ve said. People say, “No one ever listens” at work, for example, because they believe no one follows up, nothing ever gets done. Are they right?

While serving as the interim director of an international school in China it was brought to my attention that our local Chinese staff felt they were not being treated fairly in their compensation. I met with the staff members and decided to do some research. I met with local government agencies, a local attorney, business leaders of Chinese companies in the city and other Chinese educators to find out what the compensation packages were like for their employees. I learned that our packages were competitive. With the exception of one adjustment regarding housing allowance for married couples where both worked at the school, we made no changes to the compensation.

When I met with the staff to discuss my findings they accepted the outcome. What was interesting to me was not that they accepted the outcome but they accepted it with gratitude. They expressed appreciation that I had listened to them. Though it wasn’t the outcome they may have hoped for, they felt respected because I had listened and taken the time to research their concern. The reason they knew I had listened was because I had taken action and followed up with them. I call that listening with your hands and feet.

SuperPower Listening

“Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.” That’s how I describe what I call “Superpower Listening.” What would the world be like if we could all see it through the eyes of others?

It’s a similar idea to the Native American proverb:

“Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”

When I Googled that proverb to be sure I had the wording right, I ran across an unexpected source for a similar idea. If you’re a big Elvis fan it may not be as unexpected to you. But I didn’t remember an Elvis song called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Here’s a recording of that song with a brief intro by Elvis.

We can’t walk a mile in 7.8 billion pairs of shoes. But we can walk a mile in a few. In order to walk a mile in my shoes or see the world through my eyes, you need to know my story. SuperPower listening is engaging with someone well enough and long enough to learn their story. “Their story” is made up of episodes and one story is never the whole story. But, episodes build upon each other and reveal more and more of the person’s view of the world. It takes time and effort. It may also call upon you to take some action. Sadly, most people are not willing to put in the time and effort or are unwilling to be called upon for action to sincerely ask the question,

What’s your story?

Listen Linda!

“OK. Listen, listen, listen, Linda, just listen,” pleads then 3-year-old Mateo when debating with his mom over whether or not he should get a cupcake. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it here. Mom replies, “You’re not listening to me.” To which Mateo immediately retorts, “Because your not listening to me!” Wow! What a perfect representation of what’s wrong with so much communication. Ellen DeGeneres lunched the video to viral status when she had the Mom and son team on her show. The video is cute and Mateo is very articulate. But, I wonder if at least one reason it became so popular (no shade to Ellen) is that people everywhere (not just parents and kids) could relate to the issue it unveiled, No one is listening!

Last month I wrote about Organizational Communication. But a message sent is not communication unless it is received and understood. That requires listening. In fact, I would argue that listening is the most important element in effective communication (we have two ears, after all, and only one mouth). Well-known broadcaster, Celeste Headlee, in her famous TED Talk “How to Have a Good Conversation,” (over 5,000,000 views) says listening is the most important skill you can develop. She supports this claim with a quote from Buddha, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.”

Even though we spend a around a quarter of our time speaking and just over half our time listening (a 2:1 ratio), the following are true:

  • 87% of Married couples identify poor communication as their major problem … why? Because, “My Spouse Doesn’t Listen to me”
  • Surveys of workers rate “Good Listening” as a manager’s most important attribute, and, In a study of half the Fortune 500 companies, 2/3 of employees said “Good Listening” was a skill their managers most often lacked.
  • Management surveys have identified the most vital and neglected skill for college graduates entering the workforce as “the ability to listen and follow directions.”
  • One study estimated that 60% of corporate communication problems can be blamed on poor listening.

So, why don’t we listen?

Celeste Headlee suggests two reasons. First, she says, “we’d rather be talking.” When we’re talking, we’re in control. We don’t have to hear things we’re not interested in, we’re the center of attention, so we can bolster our own identity. The other reason Headlee offers is that we’re distracted. She mentions the fact that we can speak at about 125 words per minute but we can listen at between 500 and 800 words per minute. Our minds fill in the extra words. I call this “Bonus Brain Time” in my Listening course.

Because of Bonus Brain Time, it takes a lot of work and discipline to listen. That’s another reason we’re not so good at it. We either have not learned how to discipline ourselves or we’re not willing to put in the work.

I’ll offer one final reason we don’t listen well. We’re selfish. Let me put it in the words of Stephen Covey, who said it much more eloquently.

“Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.”

I guess Celeste made the same point when she said, “We’d rather be talking.” We’re more interested in making our point than in understanding the point of another.

So, why should we listen?

For one reason, it’s the Loving thing to do. Love in any context is caring more about the other person’s well being than about your own. It’s what makes a great boss, a great lover, a great friend. If love is caring about the other person, what better way to show you care than to listen? Sometimes, that’s all the other person wants anyway.

Another reason to listen, it makes you more interesting. It’s true. If people, in general, like to talk about themselves, which we do, then we tend to find those who are more interested in us to be more interesting to us. Become that one-in-a-million listener and you’ll be the most interesting person many people know. Granted, it’s a little more selfish reason to listen, but it’s a reason.

I’ll offer one more reason to listen. You are far more likely to be amazed. Though we may like to talk about ourselves, the truth is, we know our story. Other people are often far more interesting to us. Celeste Headlee made this point in her video as well. She said she grew up believing everyone had some hidden amazing thing about them. She believes she is a better radio host because she keeps her mouth shut as much as possible, she keeps her mind open, and she is constantly prepared to be amazed. “And,” she said, “I’m never disappointed.”

This month we’re still talking about communication. But, more broadly than just organizational communication, and with a focus on the most critical part of communication, listening.

The 5 Purposes of Organizational Communication

So far in this 4 part series on Organizational Communication, we’ve talked about “The 5 W’s of Organizational Communication” and “The 4 Directions of Organizational Communication.” Each of those has given us insight from a different perspective on how communication works in organizations. This week we’ll look at the subject from the perspective of the intended purpose of organizational communication. What function is it intended to serve? As Steve Martin’s character said in the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,”

“And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea – have a point.”

What’s the point of your communication? Here are 5 possibilities.

Leading

If your point is to lead, then your content and tone might include giving direction, inspiriting, motivating, encouraging, challenging, influencing, mentoring. The function of leading is often considered to be downward in direction. But, everyone influences someone. And, as John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” How might that look in lateral communication? What about upward communication?

Rationalizing (knowing the “Why”)

Comedian Michael Jr. has a video in which he illustrates the truth behind the statement, “When you know your why, your what becomes more clear and has more impact.”

The point of this communication is explaining the reasons for things (not about making up excuses after an action has been taken). In one context, it is downward communication; however, rationalizing is also important for enabling workers to bring issues to the attention of management, using upward communication to do so. If a worker identifies a motivation problem, for example, s/he may communicate this to management and use rationalization to highlight the potential impact of the problem on operations and profit.

Problem Solving

The point here is self-evident. Most organizations hold regular meetings to discuss issues such as production cycles, delivery times, price models and other areas where unusual situations could arise that may affect the performance of an organization. In these meetings, organizational communication plays an important role in addressing problems, brainstorming potential responses and finalizing solutions. In this way, a company obtains maximum benefit from the abilities of those involved in the communication, which can flow in all directions.

Conflict Management

Conflict in the workplace can lead to the loss of talented employees, the lodging of grievances and possibly lawsuits. Managing conflict by bringing all parties together to discuss their differences in a safe, moderated environment is an important function of organizational communication. This type of communication usually involves all three directions of communication, and, although discussions may be informal, the final decisions are usually communicated formally.

Gaining Compliance

Gaining the compliance of employees is necessary for them to adhere fully to instructions. I think of compliance in two ways. One is compliance of the hands. This can be won by decree, order, and/or disciplinary action (or the threat of it). This type of compliance is appropriate in command and control situations where orders must be followed for life-and-death reasons. However, in most organizations, this type of compliance can lead to the attitude of the proverbial child who is, “Sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside.”

The other kind of compliance is that of the heart. To do this, management needs to listen to feedback from the staff and to take account of their ideas and comments. Feedback or two-way communication can be upward and downward or horizontal and may be formal or informal, but open communication channels are important for an organization to motivate and achieve the best performance from employees. This goes back to knowing the “why” as well.

So What?

Steve Martin’s character was irritated with his traveling companion when he said, “Have a point.” Granted, their whole situation in that movie was frustrating and irritating. But the truth remains that nobody cares for communication when the only motivation seems to be that the other person likes to hear themselves talk.

This is especially true in organizational communication. When you choose to communicate, have a point. You can start by deciding which of these 5 purposes you intend to accomplish with your communication. Everyone will be glad you did.

The 5 T’s

Hi Friends. This is a bit of a different post for me. It occurred to me awhile ago that five members of the Thomason family are actively either posting online or have an online presence for a business. Those 5 guys are my Dad, Jim Thomason, my brother Dr. Dan Thomason, my other brother Dr. Steve Thomason, my son Justin Thomason, and me. I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight the other four.

The first is my Dad. Jim Thomason is a retired pastor who is also an artist. He regularly posts a blog where he features a piece of his art every week. He writes briefly about the art, it’s medium and inspiration, and follows that up with a “Thought” which is always a wise devotional. Here’s a sample.

Next is my younger brother, Dr. Dan Thomason. Dan is a Psychologist with an emphasis on Marriage and Relationship coaching and counseling. In addition to his practice, Dan does speaking, training and coaching. Check out his website where you can start the “Relationship Makeover Blueprint,” book his to speak, or begin receiving the benefit of his coaching.

This is my youngest brother, Dr. Steve Thomason. Steve is a pastor and an artist. While he does fine art like our Dad, you’re more likely to see his cartoon work. Steve put himself through college doing caricatures at theme parks in the summer and did that as his business for awhile before entering the ministry. His latest website, “Visual Preacher.com,” highlights how he combines both.

Finally, my son, Justin Thomason. Affectionately known as “Mr. T” by his high school students, Justin is a social studies teacher. He has also been a volunteer youth group leader at his church for many years. Justin is a song writer, musician with one album so far. You can find “Where You Find Meaning” by Southbound 5 on Apple Music. Justin also regularly publishes a podcast, “Chicken Scratch” I had the privilege of being a guest on Justin’s podcast on leadership.

I’m proud of all of you!

The 4 Directions of Organizational Communication

Have you ever played the telephone game? It’s that game where a group of people form a line and the first person whispers a message to the person next to them. Then that person whispers the same message to the person next to them and so on until, finally, the last person in the line repeats the message out loud. The final version of the message is never exactly the same as the original. In fact, it is often very different, even the opposite because someone left out a single word for example. The telephone game illustrates the challenges of communication between multiple people. Most organizations have more than two people who are supposed to be moving in the same direction. What if organizational communication happened like the telephone game?

This month we’re talking about organizational communication. Last week I wrote about “The 5 W’s of Organizations Communication” (they’re not the same 5 W’s you may be thinking of). That post was about the different components of a communication from the originator to the message itself and about the importance of feedback.

Another helpful consideration when trying to understand organizational communication is the direction in which the communication is flowing. By direction I mean along the organizational chart. Certain types of communication with different purposes flow in different directions. Understanding the various types of communication associated with each direction can be helpful in both forming and interpreting messages.

We usually think of 4 possible directions along the organizational chart for communication to flow, down, up, lateral, and diagonal.

Down

This communication is coming from the “boss” (someone above in the org chart) down to everyone else. Its purpose is usually informative or directive. It can come in any of the modes (written, verbal, memo, speech, etc). Often downward communication includes policies, rules and regulations, organizational announcements, instructions and the like.

Up

Upward flow is communication that is coming from someone below in the org chart. Its purpose is usually informative or suggestive. This communication can also come in any of the modes though speeches are not usually recommended. Upward communication often includes feedback on how things are going on the front lines, requests, or complaints.

Lateral

Lateral flow is communication among peers in the organization. Its purpose is usually collaborative. This communication can come in any of the modes. One popular mode is an interdisciplinary team meeting. Lateral communication often includes discussion of issues, resolving problems, and sharing information.

Diagonal

Diagonal communication is a bit less intuitive than the others. We expect upward and downward and even lateral communication. Diagonal flow is communication from the top of one discipline to a lower part of another and vice versa. Its purpose is usually educational. For example, let’s say the training department is developing a training video on a certain part of the operational process. A leader from training will probably reach out to a front line worker to learn about the key tasks of the job.

So What?

Imagine there is a certain task that should be done by Friday. How you formulate a message about that will depend on which direction the communication will flow. If you’re communicating up to your boss or even laterally to peers, the message will most likely take the form of a reminder, a “follow up,” or a suggestion. On the other hand, if you’re communicating down the organization, you might structure it as a directive.

In the same way, when you receive a message, the direction its flowing to you will help you interpret its intent. Is your boss directing you to complete the task by Friday? Is a colleague reminding you that your part of the project is due Friday? Or, is your employee following up on the commitment you made to respond by Friday?

In one sense, the directional flow of communication is a more detailed look at the Who and the to Whom from last week. In any case, the better you understand how organizational communication works, the more likely you’ll be an influence toward improving communication in your organization.

The 5 “W’s” of Organizational Communication

During the first two weeks of starting my last job, I made it a point to sit down with every member of the leadership team and office staff for a one-on-one meeting. The purpose of these meetings was to learn. I wanted to learn about each person, how they viewed the operation, their personality and style, and something about their plans and dreams. I conducted 30 interviews and asked each one of them them same set of questions. One of the questions was, “What’s one thing could we improve right now that would make the most difference? 60% of the people said, “communication.” It was the number one answer. I wonder what the results would be of a similar question in other organizations. How important and how effective is communication in your organization?

It was important enough for this group that I put together some material in the form of a short course I called “Organizational Communication” (clever, right?). During this month I plan to share four bits from that course. This week: “The 5 W’s of Organizational Communication.” Spoiler alert, It’s not the same 5 W’s you may be thinking.

WHO?

Any communication, organizational or personal, begins with “who,” the source of the communication. There is a person or a group who is wanting to initiate communication.

WHAT?

Next is the message. What is it the person or group wants to convey?

WHICH WAY?

I know, I could have said, “How,” but then it wouldn’t be 5 W’s. Here we’re talking about the channel or medium of communication. Is it verbal? If so, is it a meeting, an individual conversation, a small group? Is it written? In that case, is it a memo? Is it an email or an article or a hand-written note? Is it physical or mechanical?

to WHOM?

Who is the intended recipient of this message? Is it a single person or a group? Are they inside the organization or outside? Are they friendly or adversarial?

with WHAT effect?

How will we know if communication has taken place or been effective? By the feedback it generates. Like an electrical circuit, the amount of electricity at the source doesn’t matter. There is no effect (the light doesn’t come on or the motor doesn’t run) unless the circuit is closed. Feedback closes the communication circuit demonstrating the effect of the source’s message.

SO WHAT?

That’s a sixth “W,” but it’s not part of the list of components of communication. It’s the question I’m asking about those 5 “W’s.” Why bother thinking about those? Think about how altering only one element will change the dynamic of the communication completely. For example, let’s say all the front line workers in your organization (the to Whom), received a letter attached to their paycheck envelope (the Which Way) that said, “You should all take next Friday off.” (the What). What would be the effect of that communication (the with What effect)?

The effect of that communication would depend on the “Who.” What was the source of the message? If it was the boss, the feedback might be gratitude for the long weekend. What if the source of the message was a union organizer? How does that change the dynamic of the communication?

My example highlights two things. First, an additional factor to consider is context. If the boss was giving Friday off as a bonus because the organization is doing well, that’s one thing. If, however, the organization is struggling financially and that day off is without pay to save money, that’s a whole different dynamic. The second thing my example highlights is the necessity of the “with What effect” “W.” Feedback lets the originator know whether or not the message had the intended effect or outcome. How would the boss or the union organizer know what effect the note had? The concrete evidence would be how many people showed up to work next Friday.

The point is that you can improve organizational communication by paying attention to each component of the communication process. Good decisions about who should deliver the message, clarifying the content of the message, how it should be delivered, who should the recipients be, and how to assure you receive feedback will help to eliminate the many problems that arise from poor communication.