How to ReadPosted on: May 20, 2021
(with intent and understanding)
Now that I have your attention, this article is about how to read; feedback, criticisms, letters, emails, text messages and the like.
The truth about communication is that while we may all think we are excellent communicators, a lot gets in the way of open, effective communication. Most of our communication actually does not come from our words, the vast majority of our message comes from how we relay the message (body language, tone of voice etc..). In this day and age of excess use of written communication, its is much more likely to have a miscommunication than it is to get the message perfect every time.
I’ll start with a story.
A few years ago, myself and my team were teaching leadership for a client overseas. During this class we worked with 108 organizational leaders to examine, discuss and grow leadership within the organization. We felt that the week of classes went quite well. Engagement was strong, there was lots of laughter as we undertook roleplays, and the group seemed to gel quite well. Except for Mr. X, we will call him Joe.
Joe was directed to attend the class. His superiors wrestled with his actions and behaviours in the work unit. According to them, he was non-compliant, disruptive, and difficult.
We work hard not to start a program with assumptions of what we will experience in a class, however, Joe lived up to his reputation.
At the end of the week, we undertook a full evaluation of our course with the class. We asked for feedback – anonymously, to help us improve our programming. We provided our two-page feedback form and the organization asked to scan them, then send them to us.
We arrived back in Canada and began to unpack the trip and what we felt about the classes. Part of our regular debrief was to examine what we presented, how the information was received, assess the learning, and then the final stage was to go through the feedback forms. The next day, the feedback forms arrived in an email.
We opened up the file and began to read. All in all, the numerical feedback rated our program in the 97th percentile, a lofty and joyous outcome. Then as I slowly went through the anecdotal (comment based feedback) I realized we were one feedback form short: 107. Where is the 108th? I thought. I printed the package and counted again…107.
Maybe one got jammed in the scanner? Maybe someone withheld theirs? I popped off a note to the training department of the organization and shortly thereafter got a reply with the document attached. “sorry for the delay”, it stated. “..we have been working with the individual on his feedback.”
Oh, oh, I thought as I opened the file.
I started with the Numerical, zero out of five, 1 out of five, zero out of five, and so it went… My heart sank, as it does when you get negative news. “what…?” I whispered to myself.
It was Joe’s feedback form. He wrote his name across the top like a defiant banner.
In the written feedback he made comments like:
“the assistant’s nose ring was inappropriate and too big”
“the primary trainer is an idiot, he needs to attend training”
On and on it went.
My first response was to file it in the bin. However, the leader in me paused and considered what I could do with the information. The whole assessment was filled with a dark, angry tone, but there might be a nugget we didn’t know existed. I often say the message may still exist, even if the person communicating has poor communication skills. I believe that everyone who completes a feedback form deserves us to respect the effort they went through and find the nugget that may be hidden within.
What Am I bringing to the Communication?
When I’m doing an assessment, my first step is to consider what I may bring to the situation. do I have preconceptions? When I knew the feedback was from Joe, my subconscious tried to sabotage me by assuming Joe likely would not have much positive to say.
If you are tired, cranky, stressed or experiencing any other emotion, you likely will read the message with that emotional tilt. Similarly, if you are in an extremely good mood, you may miss critical cues.
More than ½ of all communication is how its being received. Take the time to breathe, read the message more than once, or better yet, put it aside until you have clarity of mind to really look at it.
Assume the Best
Always assume the best of intents, even if the message is negative. Many people will share dissenting opinions to educate or inform others of opinions or ideas they think are relevant.
What can be discarded, what needs to be considered?
As I looked at Joe’s feedback form, I reached over to my desk drawer and pulled out two highlighters: Red and Green. I use these to colour code “Relevant Information” and “subjective language”
This is a key strategy for clarifying messages. While you are reviewing the message, take your red highlighter. For any piece of information that is not value building (subjective language or messages, blaming words etc…) highlight in red.
Move to the Green Highlighter and identify any key words or phrases which may be important. Look for topics or words that are applicable to the topic of the message or the issue being discussed. This process allows you to focus on the two types of information: Diminishing or Value building.
Discard any diminishing piece of information.
For the “Value Building” components apply these questions:
Is this applicable to what we are discussing?
If yes, what does it say about our conversation, is it fulsome enough, is it clear enough to each party? Are we not connecting for some reason?
If no, either put it aside for another conversation or discard it.
Is this a point of view which counters my own?
If yes, what is the key message that is being shared? Sometimes you have to dig deep to find this.
If no, is it a letter of support, poorly composed?
Is it possible that I missed something in the original topic, message etc, which is relevant?
If yes, what is this message or lesson?
If no, move on.
Clarify if Concerned.
If you can’t understand the message, reach out; by phone, in person or in some communication format that allows you to see and exchange the information.
Finally, the last two thoughts about How to Read are:
Consider that the person may not posses the same communication skills as you, so be generous with your assumptions of their positive intent.
Consider your original message; was it compose in a way that may have created the miscommunication or misunderstanding? Perhaps the original communication created the feedback.
Regardless of how you receive feedback or communication, you are always better served by taking the time to really understand what is being shared and responding only when you have taken the time to really digest the actual message, hidden or not.