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Building a business
Practice communicating effectively


“Communication is the real work of leadership.”


This quote by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria reminds us of one of the most difficult challenges facing anyone in a leadership position. Whether a center director, a teacher, a committee chair, or an officer in an organization, we influence the atmosphere and accomplishments of our groups by what and how we communicate.


Listen actively
Perhaps the most powerful communication tool is listening. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

Listening requires devoting one’s entire attention to the employee, parent, or child who is speaking. That means direct eye contact, observing nonverbal communication (posture, facial expression, gestures, tears) as well as words. It means not thinking how you will answer while the person is talking, and not interrupting or criticizing.


Know your audience
All effective communication begins with knowing who you are trying to communicate with and planning appropriately. Some questions to consider:
Who is the audience: staff members, parents, a vendor, a licensing inspector, children, community leaders? Is it one person or a group?
What does the audience know about my topic or concern?
How receptive will they be toward my message?
Will they understand my language, or will I need a translator?
Will they understand my vocabulary?
Which form of communication will I use: informal
conversation, prepared speech, PowerPoint presentation, discussion in a meeting, written newsletter, telephone call, e-mail or text message?

Failure to consider these questions can lead to difficulties—misinformation, confusion, conflict. The difficulty has been expressed in this quip, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure your realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Tailoring your communication to your audience can prevent what playwright George Bernard Shaw has called “the single biggest problem in communication,” which is “the illusion that it has taken place.”


Be assertive
Much has been written about the differences in the communication styles of men and women. Unfortunately, women are often stereotyped as talking too much, being too loud and pushy, or being weak and passive. While everyone has communication flaws, the goal for both women and men is an assertive style.

An assertive style contains characteristics like these:
believes that everyone has rights and we are all valuable,
listens actively and checks others’ feelings,
states limits and realistic expectations,
observes behavior rather than judges it,
operates from choice, saying “I choose to…” or asking “What are our options?”
confronts problems as they occur, and
negotiates solutions and compromises.

Assertive does not mean aggressive, nor does it mean being a doormat. For more information on communication styles, see, which was prepared for the Small Business Administration and republished by the U.S. Air Force.

In coaching women, in particular, media consultants often advise the following:
Avoid diminishing ideas by using “just” and other qualifiers. For example: “I was just thinking…” and “This is a little thing, but….” Refrain from using such phrases as “sort of” and “kind of.”
Don’t offer gratuitous apologies. Avoid saying such things as “I’m sorry to take up your time….”
Make a statement sound like a statement. Too often women raise voice pitch at the end of a sentence, making it sound like a question.
Drop tag questions. Avoid ending sentences with phrases, such as “isn’t it?” and “you know?”
Punctuate and pause. Break up long passages such as “We have hired an auditing firm so we can apply for a grant, which requires a recent audit report, and we expect an auditor to come next Wednesday.” Take out words like “and” and “so” to sound more calm and confident.


Encourage feedback
Effective communication is two-way. Unfortunately, we’re all familiar with situations in which Mary talks endlessly about herself without giving you a chance to speak, or we hear nothing back from Mildred after we ask her to check the amount of glue left in the supply closet.

In the first example, it may be helpful to think about Mary’s experiences and needs. Does she have no one else willing to listen to her? Does she need to dominate the conversation out of a feeling of inferiority? Either way, the wise course may be to interrupt her gently with a touch on the arm or polite word. “Excuse me, but I have a ton of work. Could we continue this conversation at another time?” Or, “Wait a second, what would you like me to do about this?”

People like Mildred, on the other hand, may be accustomed to obeying orders from authority figures. “OK, I checked the glue, and we have enough,” she may think to herself, not realizing that a response is needed. If this happens more than once, it may be wise speak to Mildred directly: “I appreciate your doing what I asked, but I need to hear back from you so I’ll know what to do.” Or you may need to end all requests with a request: “I need to know by 5 p.m. so I’ll know whether to buy more.”


Stanch gossip
We talk about others because we need to navigate relationships as part of our social nature. But talk becomes gossip when it‘s potentially destructive, and the person talked about is not present and able to respond. In the workplace, it can be called back-stabbing or slander.

Gossip can be spoken in person or by phone, or it can be sent electronically by text or e-mail. Whatever the form, it’s unprofessional. Besides potentially damaging a person’s reputation, it wastes time and hampers morale.

One of the most damaging effects of gossip is the damage to trust and credibility. Co-workers may begin to view a gossiper with disrespect and fear, wondering what the gossiper may say when their backs are turned, and any information shared may be viewed as unreliable.

Here are suggestions for quelling gossip:
When a conversation starts in a gossipy direction, say, “This is beginning to sound like gossip. I don’t feel comfortable talking behind Joan’s back.”
Don’t dish it out. When you hear something juicy, zip your lips. Co-workers will respect you for taking the high road.
If you sense bad vibes flowing through the grapevine, acknowledge it to the group. Avoid naming the offenders in public so they can save face (but you may need to confront them privately if they don’t get the message). Confronting gossip directly is often enough to stop it and notifies everyone that it won’t be tolerated.

Gossip can start when staff are not getting along or are facing uncertainty. Information in any form—fact, gossip, rumor—can provide a sense of power and control. You can help prevent gossip by keeping everyone well-informed, being honest, and creating a sense of community among staff.

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place,” said Benjamin Franklin, “but far more difficult still to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”


Handle complaints with grace
Even the most well-run businesses receive complaints. Parents can get angry about food, curriculum, rules and guidance, and the fees you charge. Employees can complain about working conditions, duties, and pay. Complaints are often dreaded, but they can serve as opportunities for improvement.

Some suggestions for handling complaints:
Engage in conversation with the complainer to determine exactly what happened. “Tell me about it.” Don’t rely on hearsay, and remember there are two sides to every story.
Keep children (and other families) out of it. This is a situation for adults to resolve.
Listen actively. Encourage the complainer to get everything off his or her chest with simple responses such as “Uhmm” and “I see.”
Use “I” statements: “I understand that you think you should not have to pay the late fee.” Refrain from using the word “you.” Don’t blame the complainer or engage in name-calling.
Ask: “What would you like to see happen?” Specific complaints are more easily resolved than vague ones.
If the complainer tells you how to run the business and you don’t agree, say simply, “Thank you for your opinion.”
If the complainer has not read the policy handbook or doesn’t remember what it says, say something like, “By way of education, the employee handbooks says on page 12….”
If the complainer makes irrelevant comments, steer the conversation back to the issue at hand.
When you don’t know the answer to a question, respond with “I don’t have that information.” If appropriate, offer to find out.
If the conversation starts to escalate into an argument, suggest postponing the discussion to the next day or a time when you both have had time to think things out.
If the complaint reaches a stalemate, leave the conversation by agreeing to disagree. The parents may move their child to another school, or the employee may look for another job.

Handling complaints is not a matter of pleasing everyone. As Gen. Colin Powell has said, “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.”


Be generous with kind words
For many of us, the week goes by in a blur. We follow routines, take phone calls, answer e-mails, handle crises, and crank out paperwork. We may greet the next week, or the new year, resolving to take more time to recognize our staff’s good work and parents’ continued confidence.

A prompt “Thank you,” a squeeze of the shoulder, and a spontaneous smile can go a long way to communicate goodwill. As Mother Teresa said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”