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3 killer communication mistakes to avoid

4 min read


This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

When was the last time you saw a project run off the rails because of poor communication? No doubt you’ve seen it happen. In my work as an executive coach in large organizations, I see it pretty frequently.

Since I’m in the organization but not of it, I have the advantage of looking at things with an outside-in perspective. When I do, I see three common killer communication mistakes that lead to project derailment:

  1. Lack of clarity and agreement on what the project is even about.
  2. Varying levels of understanding or mixed buy-in on why the project is important.
  3. Unclear lines of accountability about who’s doing what.

If you’re the project leader (and that project can be anything from planning the office party to a multimillion-dollar product launch), there are three simple questions you can regularly ask to avoid the three killer communication mistakes. The good news is that they’re so simple, you probably don’t even need to take notes. Ready? Here they are:

  • What?
  • So What?
  • Now What?

Don’t let the simplicity fool you. Asking these questions of yourself when you’re planning your own communications or leading a project team meeting can help everyone avoid the three killer communication mistakes.

Asking “What?” helps you get clear about the project. A good answer to “What?” will take this type of construction, “We are doing X so that Y happens. When we’re successful in completing X, this is what we should see.”

Asking “So what?” helps you understand why the project matters. A word of warning here — the reason it matters to you won’t be a one-size-fits-all reason for everyone involved. Senior management’s answer to “So what?” (e.g. to increase profitability) will likely be different than the answer of people on the front line (e.g. to keep my job). In shaping the “So what?” of your communications, you have to put yourself in the shoes of each group of stakeholders. That will help ensure understanding and buy-in.

Asking “Now what?” helps you and everyone else understand what to do next and who’s doing it. When you’re planning your communications strategy for a project conversation, ask yourself, “What do I want people to do, know, think, feel or believe at the end of this conversation?”

In the moment itself, check in with people to ensure they’re clear on next steps. A good model for that is when you’re sitting in the exit row on a plane and the flight attendant asks you for eye contact and a verbal “Yes” that you’re willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency. Getting your version of a verbal yes when you get to the “Now what?” part of the conversation will help everyone get clear about accountability for next steps.

What would you add? What other communication mistakes lead to poor performance? What do you do to avoid them?

As an executive coach, speaker and author, Scott Eblin helps next level leaders learn what to pick up and let go of to get game changing results. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with a leadership development client list that includes some of the world’s best known private and public sector organizations. He is the author of “The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.” His next book, “Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative,” will be published by Wiley in the fall of 2014. Follow Eblin on Twitter and YouTube, and connect with The Eblin Group on Facebook and LinkedIn.