In my day job as a project manager and a business analyst I have a number of skill sets that are critical to my success in a very demanding role. But there is one essential component that can undeniably make or break me in the tough, fast-paced corporate world of business – Communication.

When something needs to be done in a timely, efficient and correct manner, any breakdown in communication will ultimately discredit you, tarnish your image and put you on the hot-seat with not just your employer, but with everyone involved in a project including the clients who are footing the bill for your perceived incompetence. It only takes one instance of communication breakdown before people start to question your ability to do the job.

I remember one example in particular when I was first starting out my career as a project manager in which communication was based on assumptions, rather than clear-cut lines of communication. I had been assigned a high-profile implementation in which a client reported an issue that would derail the project and its anticipated production deadline if the issue was not resolved. While working through the issue it was decided that a developer would be assigned to fix the issue and report back to a designated point of contact at the client site once the resolution was in place. Unfortunately, it was a Friday evening and since the developer was not advised to inform the client immediately (rain or shine, death or dismemberment), the developer waited until Monday morning to send an email to the client. The point of contact at the client site on the other assumed that the communication would be made immediately upon resolution (in this case late Friday night), rather than the next business day.

Why did communication fail? It failed because the project manager (me in this case) neglected to set the expectation for both the developer and the client contact. If I had taken the time to inform both the developer and the client contact that a communication must be sent immediately upon resolution via a telephone call, the developer would have informed the client contact when a resolution was reached via the appropriate form of communication.

We know of course that the breakdown in communication is not exclusive nor is it isolated to the workplace. In fact, it is intensified in your personal life. Why? I don’t have a clear-cut answer for that but I do believe that in my life at least, the exaggerated response to a lack of communication is due to the fact that it can get…well, personal.

It is the classic ‘tomato–tomatoe’ argument. When Super Mom asks, “Can you take the trash out,” and I respond in the affirmative, in my mind, since there was no specific time frame given, it means I can do it when I get around to it, right? But in the female mind, when she asks us to do something it is with the unspoken agreement that you are going to do it now if not sooner. I think I’m getting better at understanding and utilizing the communication protocol between husband and wife, but I also know that it is something that requires persistence, patience and practice.

I have the same issue with my sons (and in saying so I wonder if Super Mom sometimes thinks that my communication style as a husband is on the same level as a kids). When I ask them to clean their rooms they come back to me five minutes later and tell me that they are done. But when I walk into their rooms it’s still a mess – not quite the mess that it was before, but there’s no doubt in my mind that stacking all of the dirty laundry in the corner, moving all of the books closer to the book case and throwing everything else into the already cluttered and stuffed closet is not considered cleaning.

My wife and I have gotten into some real tough spots because there was a misunderstanding on one end or the other. According to researchers, marriage counselors and psychologists who study marriage and divorce, the top reason for divorce is neither infidelity nor finances, it is communication. From my amateur sociologist soap-box I would go as far as stating that the other causes for divorce stem from the lack of or inability to communicate.

Every relationship requires a perpetual vigilance in communication. Whether I’m at work, home or in the public, it is very important to follow a few basic steps when communicating with others:

1) Listen with intent – There is a difference between hearing and listening; there is also a difference between listening and being actively engaged in a conversation. I’ve found that if I don’t listen to what is being said, I’m going to miss important pieces of the conversation that may prove crucial later on. Stop what you’re doing and be an active participant by listening to what is being said before you respond. You’ll find that it makes it easier to the other parties in the conversation to reciprocate when you’re trying to same something equally important.

2) Don’t pre-judge the communication – I once had to mediate a disagreement between two co-workers. It was a volatile situation in which both parties felt slighted by the other. After a brief one-on-one conversation with each co-worker I found that they had misinterpreted the conversation that led to the disagreement because of previous run-in’s. When you communicate with others, it is important to set aside preconceived notions, attitudes and opinions and concentrate on the matter at hand.

3) Set clear expectations – Understand and set clear, concise expectations during and before concluding the conversation. As in my previously stated example with a failed work project, it is important that all parties understand a) what the conversation is about; b) what we are trying to accomplish; c) what has been assigned and finally d) how will we follow-up to make sure that the issue is resolved.

4) All conversations should be safe – In the book Crucial Conversations the authors firmly believe that communications are altogether avoided because at least one party does not feel safe enough to broach a subject. It is important to feel safe when discussing any topic, whether it be crucial or inconsequential. If safety is not a priority, communications are avoided, evasive or guarded.

Communication is the foundation of all relationships. I’m doing my best to maintain healthy communications with all of the people in my life. Some require more attention than others, but I recognize that every communication is important.

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