The Eight Communication Principles Every Manager Should to Know

1.  Ask Questions

Asking effective questions is the most powerful way to get the best results from people. Asking is the key to move people to understand results, behaviors, or tasks required. This leadership skill requires people to ask questions even if they know or think they know the answer.

This guiding principle of questioning builds understanding and motivation within the individual or team.  It is important to use “What” and “How” questions because of the benefits gained:  lead people to effectiveness, build evaluation skills, encourage self-confidence, and more. “Who” questions identify the person; “When and Where” questions seek commitment as to time and place.

AVOID USING “WHY”! “Why” questions increase the likelihood of defensive responses that generate reasons, excuses, rationalizations, or justifications. “Why” based questions focus on the past. Therefore, all responses to “Why” questions demand past based answers.  Since the past cannot be changed, asking “Why” is less effective than asking “What” and “How” questions which allow people to stay in the present, where change happens.

Avoid Telling: Telling lowers motivation. Unfortunately, we often tell others, either directly or indirectly, what to do or how to do it.  Telling does not engage others in gaining a meaningful understanding of the results, processes, or tasks required.

Fill In:  If people do not know the information being sought, then and only then is it appropriate to “fill in” the gaps with new information.


2.  Be Relevant

Ask yourself if this issue really matters.  Is this a recurring issue, an exception, or part of a bigger problem?  What makes it of top importance?  Look at those issues that are costing customers and employees the most amount of time or money. You cannot change everything all at once, so start with the most relevant concerns.


3.  Be Specific

Understanding and differentiating between general and specific language is key to effective communication.

General informationis not effectivein making change happen. Itis effectiveto get an overview of a strategy, a problem or situation.  However, general information, regardless of how important it sounds, is stillgeneral information and cannot on its own change any aspect of a problem or situation.

Specific informationis effectivein making change happen. Problems or situations all exist in the real world and are specific to a real time and place that is externally verifiable. Specific behaviors and/or systems affecting the problem or situation can be addressed, changed, and externally identified and verified by a third party only when addressed specifically.  With general information, everyone might agree on the problem and become aware of its significance.  However, until a specific person makes a specific change to a specific problem or situation, no change will occur.

Note:  Awareness or identification of a problem is often said to be the first step in making change happen.  That is true.  However, it is not the last step.


4.  Address Root Cause:  Ask Questions Three Levels Deeper

To ask questions three levels deeper, it is important to know what the first two levels are. The first level question is thesituationlevel. This is characterized (a) by talking about the problem or situation and about how something needs to be done and (b) by the fact that nobody is doing anything about it. For some reason, they cannot do anything about this situation themselves.  The second level question is about the people level, or who.  Often the discussion is of who has the problem, or who should do something about it, and 95% of the time it is not a people or situation problem – it is a process problem, which is the third level of questioning.  A question that goes three levels deep is a question that asks about process.  The process must be independent of person and be appropriate to the situation. The problem is not the person.  It is what or how the person does or does not do in regards to the needed actions. People can change their actions and even behaviors; however, they cannot change who they fundamentally are.


5.  Focus on What and How, not on Why

If moving forward with change is what is expected, then asking “why-based” questions is ineffective, because they are based on the past and perceived as accusatory and judgmental.  What happens, then, is that the person being asked a “why” question is likely to become defensive and to begin offering reasons, excuses, justifications, and rationalizations; this, in turn, can lead to high emotional stress and, worse, to finger-pointing and/or blaming others.  This why-based form of communication is completely ineffective both in terms of the personal human interaction and in terms of moving forward with the change.

What is effective is to ask “what-” and “how-” based questions, because those types of questions focus attention on facts and possible actions; such questions lead individuals toward generating a list of one or more things or events that can be changed now.  The effective questions to keep in mind are these:

What might we do differently here?” and then continue with something like, “How might we/you do that?” or “How might it be done?”  The probable result of such questions is that the individuals will create an action-oriented “to-do” list (the “whats”), the contents of which are ultimately manifested in the actions themselves (the “hows”).  The result, then, is that changes are made and the company continues to move forward.


6.  Get All Affected Individuals Involved

Instead of running around getting explanations from ten people, bring them all together into the same room.  You are more likely get a clearer picture of the entire problem.  And, clarity provides access to action.


7.  Never Backstab

Never talk negatively about someone without them being present. The only exception to this guiding principle is if you need to seek the advice of someone before confronting the person.  In any event, the confrontation should happen as soon as possible.  The benefit of this fundamental process is a reduction in or elimination of gossip and an increase in trust and openness in your organization. Where there is openness and trust, all parties will tend to follow the first five guiding principles more diligently.


8. “At-A-Boy” or Planned Spontaneous Recognition

This spontaneous action of providing positive, specific feedback or recognition that comes as a surprise to the recipient is an extremely effective way to build long-term, effective behaviors and relationships.  Finding an opportunity to recognize someone is done by looking for and discovering specific improvements in newly-learned behaviors, actions, or processes used by people on their own, without being prompted.  This recognition must be done genuinely, must be appropriate to time and place, and must show true appreciation, care, and concern for the individual.  It is important to remember that providing an “At-a-boy” in front of others as well as in private is very effective.  Giving positive feedback only in private does not have the full spin-off benefit as giving public recognition delivered personally to a specific individual in an open yet personal heartfelt manner.

Giving positive feedback to a group of individuals does not have the same effect as giving positive feedback individually to each person.  Feedback given to a group is not owned personally.  People feel good, but nobody takes personal responsibility for the success. Giving positive feedback to an individual and describing a specific set of actions, processes or behaviors that they did effectively to create a positive outcome, and then consistently reinforcing those positives, gets the best desired results.