Avoiding Verbal Spam

Sometimes a tweet just sums it up perfectly.  Ben Eubanks tweeted:


“Verbal Spam”.  Creates quite the mental picture, doesn’t it?

How often are you subjected to verbal “spam” in the workplace?  Probably more often than you’d like.  My first reaction to Ben’s tweet was to imagine people who blather on, saying nothing of value.  But then, I had a thought of how maybe there is some measure of value to some people’s “spam”.  Ever heard the saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure?”  I think this saying could apply to the communication process as well. Maybe some people are just droning on and on, but what if they are simply at cross-purposes with their listener? What equates to trashy spam for you as the listener may indeed be another person’s golden treasure.

Here’s an example.  When I conduct my Listening Skills for Leaders webinar, we discuss the following graphic:


Let’s say the woman on the left is a supervisor who is explaining a new company policy to the person on the right who is an employee.  The supervisor is very carefully explaining the details of the new policy—when the change will go into effect, the specifics of the change and what the employee needs to do to adhere to the policy.  It’s her job as a supervisor to communicate these details; therefore she believes she’s delivering a treasure-trove of information.

Now let’s look at it from the employee’s viewpoint. Perhaps this policy change will require some type of change in the way the employee handles his day-to-day work.  Maybe the change is extensive enough that he may have to learn something new, or re-think how he handles other related company policies. Maybe those changes are daunting in some way.  In the graphic above, the employee is listening for the emotional content of the supervisor’s message—and isn’t hearing it.  He’s only hearing the logistical details, which he may translate as “unhelpful” or even “spam”.

So, what’s a supervisor to do?  Supervisors are constantly communicating—everything from the  mundane (“cookies in the break room, eat up!”) to the life-changing (“We are going to have do lay-offs for fourth quarter”). The key is to think about the expectations of the listeners.  Supervisors skilled in verbal communication will think about the following before they communicate their message:

  1. What’s my intent in sending this message?
  2. What does my listener expect from this communication?
  3. How will I check for understanding?

Answering these three simple questions will help supervisors stay focused in their communication, thereby reducing the chance that their employees will run their communications through the mental spam filter.

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