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The Road to Better Communication

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We’ve talked before about my love of travel. I love the sights, the food, the culture—the entire experience. If you travel outside the country with any frequency, you’re bound to run into situations where you have no real command of the local language. I remember a few years ago when I was on vacation in Italy and took a boat across Lake Como to a town called Tremezzo, where I had dinner reservations. I stepped off the boat and realized...I had no idea where to go next.

I spent a minute or two looking for someone who spoke English—to no avail. So, I walked into a store and communicated with the store operator, who also, unsurprisingly, only spoke Italian. With language no longer an option for communication, we had to resort to hand gestures, even drawings on a piece of paper (we did laugh at how ridiculous we must have looked). Instead of asking me if I was driving, he put his hands on an imaginary steering wheel. I shook my head “no.” He then asked me if I was walking by pointing his fingers downward and moving two fingers back and forth (you know, the old “walking” gesture). When I nodded “yes,” his eyes got very large. I found out why a little later, as I went on a small hike up a very steep path to get to the restaurant. While we never spoke a word in each other’s language, he helped navigate me to the restaurant. It was a memory I’ll never forget and what I remember most is how easy communication can be when both parties are interested in communicating properly.  

Anyone in a leadership position has certainly felt the frustration when you tell someone what you want done and then, later on, find that your directions weren’t followed very well. If only I had a nickel for every time I, or another leader I know, gave directions that weren’t followed. More often than not, the initial reaction of the leader is to think the person he/she gave directions to just didn’t listen. Here’s the thing: most people listen quite well when they know the importance of what they are listening to.

It is very common for leaders in our industry to give directions to their team. More experienced techs give directions to new techs. Parts manager gives directions to our vendors. It is more than a daily occurrence in our industry. But because it is something that happens so often, I believe it makes it more difficult to listen well. When I asked for directions in Italy, we both knew that it was unlikely we would ever see each other again. We knew our “discussion” was a one-time event. We have to think and act differently with people we communicate with five days per week or more.

It’s no different than a married couple, really. In the beginning of a marriage, communication is so easy because it’s new and there is usually more effort given to the dialogue. As couples grow together, they sometimes find that communication becomes more difficult. “What do you mean you don’t remember Aunt Betty was coming over today?” is something we can easily expect to hear from a long-time married couple.

In the same way, when we communicate with people on our team on a daily basis, we must change the way we approach communication. We can’t just assume that, because we said something, which in our minds sounded exactly like we wanted it to, that it will be followed exactly how we expect. And when it doesn’t go that way, the first person we should blame is actually ourselves.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways we can make things easier. First, work on a team vocabulary. We all know that different manufacturers can call the same part lots of different names. Is it a splash shield or fender liner? A knuckle or a spindle? When an entire team uses the same language, it makes communication easier. Think of a football QB who calls an audible. If his teammates didn’t use the same terminology, the play would have very little chance of success.

It also helps after giving instructions to someone to get them to repeat it back to you so you can verify what they heard is indeed what you said. Sometimes our egos can get in the way of doing this, yet it is an easy way to make sure two people are on the same page (and avoid the old saying about what happens when you assume…).

Just because two professionals are speaking about something they are both knowledgeable about doesn’t mean that communication is easy. It takes a great effort from both parties to make sure the communication goes smoothly. I will end with one of my all time favorite sentences: “I never said he stole the money.” Repeat the sentence seven times, but each time emphasize a different word. When you change the word you emphasize, you completely change the meaning of the sentence.

Communication is vital to a successful team. Make sure you take the simple steps to verify all the players are on the same page.

 

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