Sunday, June 16, 2013

Communication Hacks 2 [Lucy Freedman]

Much as we may love what we are working on, our effectiveness depends on how well we communicate about it.

This is the second in a series about ten “syntax errors” and hacks that will fix them. The errors are based on the understanding that human communication has a syntax, or structure, which determines the quality of the outcomes. SYNTAX is a system that can be used to debug interpersonal communication.

Each short blurb in this series includes something specific you can do to cut through the chaos whenever you encounter that particular Syntax Error.

Ten Syntax Errors

Error No. 2 Staying in the Negative

What? Engineers being perceived as negative? Face it, it’s the fate that comes with loving to solve problems.

Negativity can arise and / or be perceived when we are just using logic, with such positive intentions as
•    Defining the problem
•    Uncovering root causes
•    Critiquing the plan
•    Finding the exceptions
•    Demanding evidence
•    Expecting rigor
•    Building a better mousetrap
And, a common favorite,
•    Protecting others from their folly.

The difficulty is that people avoid the negative. They don’t want to hear about it. They sometimes become defensive. They don’t answer your emails.
Fortunately, this is a solvable problem. Whatever it is that needs to be changed can be viewed and described from different perspectives. You can learn to frame things so that they reflect your true positive intention rather than coming across as criticism. When you want to raise criticism, you can frame it positively so that there is a chance the recipient will be able to hear it. (I hesitate to call it “constructive criticism” because that word is associated with some pretty bad attempts at diplomacy. Avoid the “sandwich” strategy, if you know what I mean.)

Some people make the mistake of thinking that a soft approach is what is called for. Soft-pedaling that misses the point or glosses over an issue is not helpful. On the other hand, being able to communicate in a specific and positive way usually is helpful.

Try this approach to shift from one frame to the other:

Instead of talking about
•    The problem
•    Why it exists
•    Limitations
•    Failure: What is broken or whose fault it is

Talk about
•    Your desired outcome
•    How it might work
•    Possibilities
•    Feedback: What we’ve learned about this so far

If you are able to clearly describe your desired outcome, you will probably have also shifted your own thinking from the negative to the positive.  Listen closely to be sure you really are stating the outcome in the positive, rather than a disguised negative, such as “What I want is for you to stop interrupting.” It can be stated as “What I want is for you to listen through the end of the sentence before giving your response.”

To learn more about this technique of shifting to the positive, download your complimentary excerpt of Smart Work: The SYNTAX Guide to Influence. Chapter Four spells out framing in detail.

The next SYNTAX Influence Course will be held in Silicon Valley August 20-22, 2013. Give yourself the opportunity to develop conscious competence for avoiding or remedying ALL the SYNTAX Errors that crop up in human collaboration! Email or visit for details

Lucy Freedman is the president of Syntax Communication Modeling Corporation, co-author of Smart Work: The SYNTAX Guide to Influence and developer of the Syntax Influence Course

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting! I hope this is of value not only to technical leaders, but for all kinds of workplace communication.