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Leadership at All Levels

Improving Productivity through Better Communication

Patrick McGuigan | October 21, 2016

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Businessmen whispering

Everybody loves a secret, but what everyone really loves is a secret that matters. The management guru Peter Drucker said that, in the era of the knowledge worker, unlocking the secret of productivity is the key to success in the future. Communication has always been essential, but, in a hypercompetitive global marketplace, effective interpersonal communication is more critical to driving change than ever. We are more wired but less connected, and managers must have a black belt in communication.

Communication encompasses a wide range of modalities, and this article zeros in on face-to-face interactions. Interpersonal communication fails when it is one-sided, and it becomes one-sided when one of the parties opts out of the interaction. "Checking out" of the interaction is common for myriad reasons, but we are going to examine the impact of feedback. Feedback is essential to verify what is communicated and how it is communicated. Feedback is complex and includes verbal and nonverbal aspects, allowing the parties to assess how the interaction is progressing.

Effective progress can only be achieved when meaningful feedback loops have been established. Feedback lets us know how we are doing and progressing. The nature of the feedback loop is implied by the relationship between the parties. The parties can be intimate (friends), casual (coworkers), distant (sales call), formal (company president), or functional (lawyer). It is important to recognize that functional interactions can change over time, even during an interaction. It is critical to know when and when not to adapt.

The Relationship

The relationship of the parties implies certain patterns of communication, but description only describes one element of multimodal interactions. Relationships are inconsistent and dynamic. More insightful aspects of interpersonal communication are these dimensions: similarity, inclusion, liking, control, and trust. When the parties share education, experience, culture, values, and personality traits, or many other features, the interaction may be easier. Similarities are natural points of connection, but you must be careful not to over-assume a greater connection than is actual.

The more involved a party is to the communication process, the easier it is to develop satisfactory outcomes. Inclusion enables the seeds of collaboration to take root. Relationships are delicate and need to be thoughtfully and diligently managed. When we like or dislike someone, that can have critical implications for how we manage and attend the relationship. Communication is a continuous process, and both parties are responsible for the ultimate outcomes.

Many relationships have a formal or informal hierarchy—one party is more dominant. In formal interactions, the hierarchy is self-evident, but in informal interactions, it is more difficult to assess. Communication flows up and down a hierarchy and is a feature of most interactions. Basic respect effectively mitigates errors when the hierarchy is not clear. Respect reinforces trust, which is delicate, and a person can still trust someone they dislike. The features of a relationship dance together, and the trick is not to waltz when the music is the foxtrot.

Perception Is Reality

Perception is multidimensional, but four perceptions drive most interactions: the perception of self, your perception of the other party, the perception of the other party of you, and the other party's perception of self. Perceptions may be more important than reality, and our actions are guided by our perceptions—this is a two-way process. They may be influenced by age, gender, race, ethnicity, size, or attractiveness, and the impact may be related to how the person differs from you. For instance, people with low self-esteem can see themselves as having little power, which may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How well the parties adapt and their level of flexibility shape the dynamic nature of perceptions. As the interaction progresses, perceptions shift based on how the interaction begins or ends, the attitude and mannerisms of the other party, and how the parties dress. Both parties are continuously judged based on how they listen and provide feedback and the verbal and nonverbal interactions. Importantly, the types of questions asked and the responses provided are driven by our evolving perceptions. It is critical to keep close watch of when you are flexible and how you adapt.

Levels of Interaction

Different interpersonal interactions vary in the level of complexity based on the relationship of the parties. Some of the forces that impact complexity are the amount of self-disclosure, risk, and the intensity and volume of information exchanged. The most basic level of communication is safe and superficial and doesn't evoke judgments and feelings. Topics are nonthreatening and the relational-distance between the parties is safe. More complex interactions demand trust and risk-taking.

More complex interactions deal with threatening, personal, and controversial actions and involve beliefs, values, and attitudes. These interactions are less common, and individuals may prevent interactions from evolving to accept more risk. Less trusting relationships imply less willingness to take the risk. The most complex interactions require full disclosure and are uncommon. Self-disclosure is risky, and the level of communication can be difficult to change. Many relationships are not ready to change levels. Great communicators develop meaningful rapport quickly because they are perceived as trustworthy and nonjudgmental.

Observing Feedback

Interpersonal interactions are characterized by immediate and extensive feedback used to verify the effectiveness of the ongoing interaction. Feedback uses the full range of communication methods but relies heavily on verbal and nonverbal methods. Feedback is conveyed in a glance as well as by probing questions. Each party must monitor the interaction through observation and careful listening—it is essential to give the interaction 100 percent of your attention. It is challenging to be perceptive, receptive, and sensitive.

As the interaction unfolds, observing what is changing and the speed of change is essential. It is easy to miss signals or misread them. In either case, careful observation requires patience. It is safe to assume that most people are better prepared to talk than they are to listen. Few people listen well. These are four approaches to listening.

  • Listening for comprehension helps understand the content.
  • Listening for empathy helps understand the other party.
  • Listening for evaluation is to render a judgment about content or action.
  • Listening for resolution helps resolve problems.

Listening is difficult, but critical, and hard to observe because it is invisible. It is a skill that improves with conscious practice. Listening and attending are skills that can always be improved, and even the best listener frequently fails to observe important signals.


You are a knowledge worker struggling to improve your personal productivity and the productivity of your organization. In the hypercompetitive global marketplace, effective interpersonal communication is the critical driver of change. You must have a black belt in communication. Black belts know that the only way to develop and maintain skill is practice and more practice. What is startling about the secret of improving your skill is that it is mundane and work-a-day boring.

You have to stay checked-in and help prevent the other party from developing your feedback acumen, which is a great way to assess how an interaction is progressing. Effective progress can only be achieved by cultivating meaningful feedback loops. Learning to listen and communicate better is like learning to dance—you learn the steps, and then you develop a rhythm. Be patient and listen for the music to cue your steps and moves.

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