Effective Communication: Query and Clarify

I had an interesting experience recently that got me thinking and refining my approach to effective communication.  We all know that communication is a two-way street where the involved parties adopt the sender-receiver model in order to share information back and forth.  Everyone is aware that active listening involves paying attention to what the other person is telling you and indicating that you understand, or asking questions and making comments to confirm that you “get it”.  Even with these basic skills in place, it is amazingly easy to misunderstand what you are being told.  I think that query and clarify are also very important pieces of the basic communication model.

Case in point: a lovely garden party my husband and I recently attended hosted by folks we have known since our college days. We had a great time and in my thank-you note I asked for a particular recipe for a yummy item that our hostess had made for the event. I received a written reply to my thank-you note, and inside that note was the requested recipe handwritten on a card.  There was also a written reply on that notecard accompanying the recipe containing a communication surprise.

The note described the disappointment our hostess felt concerning my husband’s lack of courtesy. His lack of what? The note went on to say how he had broken a water serving container and left the party without speaking up and saying he was the guilty party. The only problem with that story is that he had not broken anything.  However, he had told me the story about witnessing the breakage incident while waiting to get a glass of water.  He watched the top of the water serving container fall off and break after another guest got their water and turned to walk away.  He mentioned to the hostess’s son that the container had been broken and considered that the end of the story.

Somewhere along the way, communication about this situation somehow missed the “query and clarify” steps and led to some erroneous data.  After receiving the note, my husband called our hostess to tell her what had happened.  He also told her that he did not owe her an apology since he had not broken anything. The fellow who did the breaking wasn’t even aware that he had done so as he was walking away when the incident actually took place.

Funny, my takeaways from this incident got me thinking about communicating effectively not just on a personal level, but on the job and on my projects as well.  Transmit and receive + clarify and query! Here’s my short list of effective communication points to remember:

  1. When someone tells you something, make sure you understand what they are really telling you.  Sometimes you get data, such as “The guy in the tank top broke the water container” when in fact the statement should be “The guy in the tank top told me the water container was broken.”  Always ask questions to get to the root cause of the problem and the true sequence of events.
  2. If it sounds just plain strange when you are told that someone did something, get to the root cause of events versus assuming anything.  Trust your instincts. Just like in my party example, my husband is simply not the kind of guy to break something at a party and not ‘fess up to doing so and offer to replace it.  Again, asking for clarification can go a long way towards getting things straight.
  3. Make sure of the facts before you start accusing folks of doing bad things.  You never know, maybe you are missing something that changes everything.  No one appreciates being accused of doing something they did not do, so “suss” things out before you get folks in your sights. After all, these are your coworkers, not your children.
  4. When you are annoyed about something, counting to ten sounds like an excellent first step.  After you calm down, consider picking up the phone to ask the involved party or parties what’s up versus writing a nasty note or email and sending it off too quickly.  No one likes getting a surprising “nastygram” about something they didn’t do.

Well, there’s my list of advice on “query and clarify” in addition to “transmit and receive” in order to enable effective communications.  I hope you enjoyed my story and its resolution.   If you are looking to refine or validate your communication skills, take a look at Learning Tree’s 3-day course on effective communications.  This course is certainly a great place to begin or revisit how well you are communicating and to learn some new skills and techniques for communicating even better still.

Susan Weese

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