Communicating Better? Some Useful Ideas


Some months ago, an internal client approached me with a request for a “communication skills” course. Specifying the need when I get such a request is always interesting because what is really needed may be something quite different from “communication skills” in the end, even when we keep that as the name of the workshop. Part of the request was about technical writing and that is not part of my skill set, at least not as a trainer, even though I officially did write some manuals and other technical documents when I worked for a software firm. And the client did not want to include presentation skills in the package (phew, not a topic I like to cover).

We eventually settled on the following mix: active listening, feedback, managing differences of opinions, and doing better meetings. Then I got to work on the specific objectives, content details, flow, and optimum interactivity throughout. As usual, I turned to my library for some inspiration and “rediscovery” of content to energize my work.

When I ask people to list what an effective, active listener does, one of the few things that people fail to mention is effective handling of emotions. They will readily list other skills most often mentioned in the literature on communication skills, but the ability to recognize and identify emotions in others (as well as empathize) is rarely discussed until I bring it up, usually when we have a full flipchart already. Part of that skill is to recognize emotions in oneself and to manage them effectively. One book which does of good job of discussion the difficulty of that is Difficult Conversations, that came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project (the same people who put out Getting to Yes, another book that is of relevance here).

In Difficult Conversations, the authors point out that there are three levels of conversations: the “what happened” conversation, the feelings conversation and the identity conversation. The first one is about clarifying what happened, figuring out who’s right and who’s to blame. That is not always fruitful, it can generate a lot of negative emotions, and figuring out how to have a more collaborative discussion about differing interpretations of a situation can be much more helpful. The second one is about identifying and surfacing emotions that underlie the conversation in the first place and can cause it to derail when they are not made explicitly part of the conversation. The third one is the “ego” conversation which centers on questions of self-worth and self-esteem. Each level of conversation, when unrecognized and mishandled, can lead to a difficult conversation that leaves all parties bruised and unsatisfied, and sometimes further away from resolution than when they started. Diving back into this book before getting into this workshop was a useful reminder.

The second book I stuck my nose into was Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. Her approach to conversations is very similar to what I have seen written about problem solving and conflict resolution approaches but by not calling them that, she shifts the focus to everyday conversations that can be conducted much more collaboratively and openly. Her “confrontation model” is structured almost exactly like the way I explain providing constructive feedback. She also highlights the importance of asking open-ended questions to jump-start dialogue, in fact turning “what happened” conversations into founts of understanding. I was given this book while I worked at a company where the president liked it so much, he required his whole executive to read it.

What I found in putting together and delivering this workshop was that what people seemed to need the most was not so much better communication skills, but better ways to work together. While communication is part of that, of course, that’s not the whole story. I had designed the workshop to make them work together (the fact we were working also on meetings was the perfect excuse), and debriefs include both a discussion of how the assigned work went and how they communicated together while doing the work.

I handled the “content” aspects of having better meetings by using the “Effective Meeting Situation” business simulation from Human Synergistics (

I focused work tools for meetings around the concept of making things visual. I referred to David Sibbet’s Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity, as well as Dan Roam’s Blah, Blah, Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. I like Sibbet’s emphasis on the visual approach as a way to engage groups. It was very interesting to see this at work, even as a simple mindmap to generate ideas to organize a team activity. The participants had never used this approach and it was amazing to see the energy in the room. Dan Roam makes the point that over-reliance on words moves us away from clarity and forces us into linear thinking thereby stifling creativity. Using a visual approach just seems to unblock people’s ability to work and create together.

This goes much beyond the questions of “getting people to better communicate” and moves in the direction of “getting people to get things done together” which often the basis for better performance and a better work climate.

I look forward to checking in with my clients to see what they are actually incorporating in their day-to-day work.



Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversation: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1999.

Scott, Susan. Fierce Conversations. Berkley, New York, NY, 2004.

Sibbet, David. Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity. While, Hoboken, NJ, 2010.

Roam, Dan. Blah, Blah, Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. Portfolio/Penguin, New York, NY, 2011.


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