Are you known for telling it like it is, without regard to the impact on others? Do you actively avoid confrontation? Or have you somehow figured out how to strike the balance between both sides when it really matters?
Most of my clients fall into one of two camps, either Flame Throwers or Bullet Dodgers, especially under stress. Occasionally, I’ll have a client that has mastered the art of Clean Communications, a form of communication that simultaneously honors both the speaker and the receiver. This rare person has honed their communications style because their job requires it (i.e. leaders, communicators, mediators, etc.). Or perhaps they come by it naturally, having had a great childhood and highly effective role modeling early on. Not the case for most of us.
In today’s work environment, communications has to be front and center if we are to be effective leaders and teammates. How you communicate, can have a significant impact on your performance and influence the performance of others.
Three Types of Communicators:
I have seen three types of communicators amongst my clients especially when they are under stress – and who isn’t under stress these days? They are: “Flame Throwers”, “Bullet Dodgers”, and “Clean Communicators”.
First there are the Flame Throwers who say whatever they want to say without regard for the effect on others. These folks think it’s their right to speak what’s on their mind. They see things that are wrong and have no issue pointing out these “wrongs” to everyone, even their boss, and often publically. They think they know what’s best. They don’t get other’s opinions because they don’t think there could be another opinion other than theirs. If there is a valid and differentiating opinion, they expect their staff to be bold enough to tell them. However, the staff person who does speak up will have to be strong and prepared for a charged reaction from the Flame Thrower. So typically folks don’t speak up to Flame Throwers. The Flame Thrower then wonders why no one around them has an opinion, initiative, or is taking appropriate action. What the Flame Throwers don’t realize, especially if they are in a position of authority, is that no one is going to speak out for fear of being flamed, risking public humiliation, or being seen as “less than” in front their boss or peers.
I currently have a client – Marty – who is a Flame Thrower. Marty has worked hard to get to where he is today as a partner in a professional services firm. He is excellent at business development and client relationships. He has brought in work that is sorely needed by the firm. While he is outperforming his fellow partners in revenue generation, he is having trouble hiring, retaining, and motivating his staff. He feels his staff is under significantly underperforming and needs to shape up. What Marty isn’t taking into account is that as partner in the firm and with a Flame Thrower style, he will not be able to discuss the real issues his staff may be facing unless he pays more attention to how he communicates.
The second style of Communicator is the Bullet Dodger. The Dodgers are usually well liked by their co-workers, because they are agreeable, easy to talk to, and good listeners. But when there is constructive feedback to be given, a tough decision to make, or having to say “no” – the Bullet Dodgers are nowhere to be found. Instead, they can be found talking behind people’s backs, complaining about their lack of ability to get stuff done because of specific people or poor staff. Staff and colleagues of a Bullet Dodger get very frustrated because often there are issues that need to be confronted, problems to be solved, papers that need to be signed, and the Dodger is avoiding these things causing work backlogs. Problems get worse and tensions mount. The Bullet Dodger, however, doesn’t see any of this. When they do see the backlog mounting, they determine that the cost of confronting someone or making a tough decision will be worse than what’s happening now. The Dodger does not like conflict, does not want to hurt people’s feelings, or face an ugly reaction from staff and colleagues so they avoid taking action. They indirectly tell others what they are doing, and let them find out on their own (i.e. Instead of telling a person he/she is getting a new job – the leader changes the organizational chart and then distributes it with the person’s name in a new box).
Sometimes Bullet Dodgers become Flame Throwers for a short burst of time because they are so frustrated having waited so long for a problem to resolve itself. I had a client, Bill who is very good technically, an excellent negotiator, credible with clients, and knows how to find good people. Bill was uncomfortable with conflict with his fellow partners and his staff. He had tremendous respect for his peers and didn’t want to mess up the relationship with them. Yet his staff wanted him to be direct with them. He didn’t spend enough time with the staff, but then got upset when they made mistakes. Even after mistakes occurred, rather than have a conversation, he would send out a long email, complain to his colleagues, or surprise everyone with an epic burst. Had he been able to get out of his comfort zone earlier and have more direct communications, he could have reduced a lot of personal frustration, have helped prevent some of the mistakes, and had better working relationships.
The third type of Communicator is the Clean Communicator. This is the person we all want to work with. They are the special few who somehow manage their emotions, pluck up the courage to take on tough issues and communications for the good of everyone. They think beyond themselves and to the bigger goal: what the organization and their employees expect of them and their department, and what they are trying to achieve. They aren’t perfect. They mess up and sometimes Dodge or Flame, but for the most part but they quickly apologize and clean up any misunderstandings immediately while learning from their mistakes. They out- communicate their colleagues and bosses and win respect all around. Everyone knows what to expect, where they stand, and that they will go out of their way to help others.
I have a client, Duane, who is a Clean Communicator. He works in an organization of Indirect Communicators – many Bullet Dodgers. He recently went through a restructuring. His boss did a lousy job of communicating this to him and yet Duane accepted it in stride. He then managed to diplomatically give feedback to his former boss about the way the reorganization was communicated to him, without ruffling any feathers. He has built a strong relationship with his new boss – a mild Dodger and given her permission to be very open and honest with him. As a result, his new boss is moving out of her comfort zone to have more direct conversations with Duane. Duane also has several employees who are either not performing well or reacting poorly to the recent restructuring. He has been able to stay in contact with each of them – giving them constructive feedback about their behavior while offering to help develop and listen to them. He has not taken their behavior personally, gotten upset with them, nor complained about them to others.
In addition to the above benefits, Duane’s reaction to the restructure and his open, diplomatic communication style has encouraged his former boss to stay in constant contact with Duane. He continues to offer Duane opportunities that allow him to leverage his skills in new ways.
Which Type of Communicator are you?
What can you do to become more of a Clean Communicator? What’s it worth to you? In today’s world communication is so important. There are so many opportunities for diverse perspectives, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and miscommunication; one can never stop improving one’s ability to communicate well.
If you suspect you are a Flame Thrower, find ways to express your frustration to folks outside of work. Take time to prepare for tough conversations and have them when you know you can talk unemotionally. Get feedback from someone you trust. Know that if there is a difference in level with the person you are communicating with – your message will be taken far more seriously and strenuously than you could anticipate just because of the level difference. Go slow to go fast.
If you suspect you are a Bullet Dodger, think about the costs of avoiding vs. taking action. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Can you live through it? What are the benefits of taking action? Try a few experiments – are you still alive? Get feedback. You’ll find that much of what concerns you is in your head and that others are far stronger than you think. Take some risks, you may find you like it.
If you are a Clean Communicator, Congratulations! But don’t just sit back and relax. Communication is contextual and cultural. Every relationship requires attention. Every organization has its own culture of communication. You can always stay on top of your communication skills.
Photo credit: Flickr/stephen Moyers