We all have stress-inducing moments at work—moments when you find yourself ticked off by a team member. Maybe it’s because they dropped the ball and didn’t deliver on time, or maybe they failed to communicate properly, making you look bad.
In these moments, it’s easy to jump to conclusions—to call them lazy or apathetic. I’ve heard it all before:
“They’re not focused!”
“They don’t even care!”
“What’s their problem?!”
Then, there’s that gut-wrenching moment when you realize your initial reaction was out of line because you didn’t know the full story. You instantly regret your hurled insults.
Often, it’s only after we hear a person’s perspective that our anger subsides and we sympathize. Maybe they were experiencing a personal hardship or were overwhelmed. Or maybe they just didn’t feel comfortable enough to communicate with you.
These kinds of misunderstandings can be avoided.
You might think, “Well, how can I possibly know what’s really going on if they don’t tell me?”
That’s at the heart of masterful communication.
How to Become a Master Communicator
As a foundation for your mastery of communication, I’m going to share the biggest insights I’ve received in business—plus a simple four-step process you can use the next time you find yourself at odds with a team member. These tools will help fix communication problems that already exist and prevent new ones from damaging relationships.
It all begins with how we start a conversation. Often, we enter wanting the other person to understand us.
Maybe you feel annoyed. Or disappointed. You’re frustrated with their performance and you need to make them understand where you’re coming from.
As humans, the biggest thing we crave is the understanding and recognition of others.
But that goes both ways. So the next time you find yourself fuming over something a team member did or didn’t do, flip the script to get to a solution faster.
Instead of asking, “How do I get what I want?” ask yourself, “How can I understand this person’s perspective so that I can motivate him/her to see a different perspective?”
This aligns with something a mentor, Dan Sullivan, said to me:
“People don’t buy from you because they understand you. People buy from you because they feel understood.”
In your business or workplace, the same statement might read something like this:
People don’t listen to you and take action because they understand you. They listen to you and take action because they feel understood.
Let that sink in for a moment.
If you want people to understand you, they must first feel understood.
As a copywriter, my goal isn’t for consumers to understand what my clients are selling; it’s for them to feel truly understood. Naturally, this applies to life in sum—not just business.
The next big question: How do you do it?
The Bridge to Understanding
To tackle the very common problem of mutual misunderstanding, I came up with a simple process.
Before we dive into that process, however, I want you to imagine that you’re on one side of a mountain and the person you’re trying to communicate with is on the other side of the mountain.
Many people—and perhaps you, too—shout, “Come over here! Just jump!” The only problem is, the other person is usually not ready.
What we need to do instead is build a bridge.
When you build a communication bridge, it becomes possible to move back and forth between different vantage points and see the world through new sets of eyes.
How do you build that bridge? With the building blocks I call A.C.U.E.
An easy-to-remember acronym, A.C.U.E. is the sure-fire way to improve communication. Here’s how it breaks down:
When we don’t take the time to really look someone in the eye and acknowledge them, we end up slapping labels on them or pushing them into stereotypes. This very quickly engenders imbalanced judgment.
For example, you might look at someone you work with and think, “They’re entitled because they smirk at me.” But are they? Do you know their full history? What are you basing that judgment on?
When we judge people, we immediately separate them from us. Instead, we need to acknowledge them. Period. Take a moment to be fully present and seek out something great in them. This leads us to the second step in this process…
Once we acknowledge the other person and start to see them as a fellow human being, we can really begin to connect with them.
This requires a certain amount of self-awareness, of course. For example, what triggers us to assign people labels is often a transference of our struggles with the very same labels.
But we can bypass this through conscious effort. Instead of jumping to conclusions or ascribing characteristics without basis, engage the person with questions. Find out what drives them. Maybe you’re both purpose-driven or creative. Maybe you both have children or love to play golf. When you start to see the similarities or strengths you share, you can remove the walls and enter a space of true connection.
Once you’ve acknowledged and connected, it’s time to understand the other person’s world.
Now, it’s important to remember that human beings are innately story-making machines. We often tell ourselves stories about others, just to fill in the gaps where we have no knowledge. And once we reach our self-imagined conclusion, we write off the situation and the person in it. But those stories can get us in trouble because they’re based on our own perspective and assumptions.
For example, when someone does something at work that disappoints or frustrates you, you might jump to the conclusion, “They did X because they were trying to upset me.”
Instead, work with your team member. Reach out and explain your reaction. Ask them for their perspective: “Hey, [name], I felt like your tardiness with that project yesterday reflected poorly on the whole team. It seems like you don’t really care. But maybe I’m misreading the situation. Was there another reason for being late that you’re willing to share?”
When you give the other person an opportunity to share their perspective and be seen, their walls will come down. You can even ask more “why” follow-up questions if it seems appropriate.
More often than not, what you’ll find is that people don’t do things to be malicious or intentionally upset you. It’s often a block in communication. The simplest way to remove that block is by understanding their world.
Once the other person is understood and seen—and you have all the facts and information—you can then empower them to make a better decision or take a desired action. You can educate them on what they need to know for the future, encourage them to be a better version of themselves, and challenge them to really live up to their core values.
Here’s how you do this:
As a follow-up to your “Understanding” conversation above, consider this segue: “Hey, we both recognize that you were late on this project because you had so many projects going on at once. What do we need to do to make sure you don’t miss a deadline again? What needs to happen on your end and how can I support you with that?”
Or: “Moving forward this week, I challenge you to collaborate with team members to delegate when necessary and communicate with us if there are any problems. Let’s work as a team to make sure we meet all the deadlines.”
This changes the conversation from reactive to proactive, so you can fix the problem at hand and avoid future hiccups.
That’s it—those are the four steps of the A.C.U.E. process. With these in practice, you’ll be well on your way to workplace communication mastery and a tripling of productivity.
But be sure you keep this process going. You’ll find that when you do, your own perspective begins to shift, your relationships start to improve, and understanding becomes second-nature.
Remember: If you want people to understand you and motivate them to take action, you must first make them feel understood.