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How Bad Communication can Ruin Your Day (and Even Your Life)?!

Author : Dilip Saraf
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Clients often come to me with problems they face at work and for advice on how to deal with them. About half of my clients ongoing needs stem from how they communicate (or fail to) and how they hear what is being said to them without engaging in a critical dialog. A critical dialog can change the way you manage your relationship with others and can be a key element of your success, peace of mind, and the level of stress you experience in everyday life.

One recent example is an object lesson worth visiting and it is that of a mid-level manager at a large F-100 tech giant. This manager has been my client of many years. After nearly four years in that role and doing well he felt that he was ready for his next promotion. On a Friday not too long back he called me with panic in his voice and explained to me that he needed to see me urgently to understand how to deal with the situation that he would soon be facing: An imminent lay-off!

So, I shuffled my other clients that very day to make room for this one and to see him on why he thought he was going to be laid-off in the coming round. His company had been going through a major restructuring for the past two years with constant lay-offs and re-orgs, so everyone had been nervous, walking on eggshells.

When he came to see me I first asked him why he felt that he was going to be laid-off in the next round starting in a few weeks. He told me that based on the exchange with his skip-level boss in a conversation over the phone the previous day (see below the script of that conversation) it left no doubt in his mind that he was going to be laid-off. Then I asked him about how he was doing in his role and what his most recent performance review (APR) was. It was all not only just good, but it was well above average (4/5).

Then I asked him about his job and any changes he saw in his role and responsibilities. He told me that he was recently given a new responsibility to manage the European Field Operations in addition to his ongoing role as Customer Support Lead. This additional responsibility that he was given, immediately following his APR, told me that his management thought highly of him. In addition I also uncovered that there was no one able to do that job with both those elements rolled into a single job without seriously jeopardizing customer needs.

Adding all these relevant elements made me scratch my head about his lay-off anxiety in the coming round of RIF (Reduction in Force). So, I asked Jim to repeat to me the exact conversation he had with his skip-level boss the previous day. Here is the transcript of that call as he relayed it to me in our meeting:

Skip-boss: Jim, Im traveling down to HQ next week and would like to see you about some important matter that we need to discuss.

Jim: Oh!?

Skip-boss: As you know we have another round of lay-offs coming up and things have got difficult for me to go up the chain of command to ask for what I need to do for my own team. You have been on my list for a while and I have not been able to do anything about it. Before this lay-off I am going to finalize this list and then present it to my management.

Jim: Gulping, When did I get on THIS list?

Skip-boss: Right after your last performance review.

Jim: I am so sorry to hear this. I saw nothing but good things in my last review, which you signed-off on. What can I do to get off this list and what can you do to help me?

Skip-boss: I do not want you off this list and that is what I want to talk to you about when I come to the HQ next week and tell you some ideas I have of what options you still have.

Jim: Can I do anything before then?

Skip-boss: I think that it is too late for that!

They end that dreadful phone conversation, and in a panic Jim runs to his local boss and tells her about the impending lay-off and asks her if she knows why he is getting laid-off. She is now in a panic herself and tells Jim that she does not know anything about his getting laid-off (wondering if SHE herself is now on THAT list).

When Jim tells me this exchange almost verbatim I suddenly realized that there was something more to that list than what his skip boss was talking about. I asked Jim if he had any discussions about his promotion to the next level and when was he due for that promotion. Jim told me that he has been vying for this promotion for two years and had talked to both, his boss and the skip-level boss about getting their help for that promotion ever since his APR from a year back, repeating again during the most recent one.

Connecting all the dots of exchanges between these two, fraught with ambiguous messages I suddenly realized that in the original exchange Jim and his skip-level boss were talking not about his lay-off, but about his name on a promotion list and not a on lay-off list. So, I asked Jim about that possibility.

Suddenly a smile flashed across his face and his eyes lit up. I mentioned to Jim that the way the conversation went with the skip-level boss it was ambiguous at best and was subject to interpretation. Based on the frame of mind of each party, the prevailing doom, and based on the impending event, either party would be right to interpret that conversation in light of their own ability to mind-map it. At the end of my meeting with Jim that day, what started as a gloomy discussion, suddenly turned into a discussion with many positive possibilities!

In the ensuing week when Jims skip boss visited the offices their meeting resulted in an entirely different conversation. Jim was being presented for a promotion based on the list of candidates his skip-boss had created and his skip-boss was going to push for that promotion despite the impending lay-offs. The list they were discussing in that call was actually the list of people due for a promotion and not for a lay-off! Although this process is still pending it completely changed the way Jim now looks back on that fateful phone conversation.

So, what is the lesson to learn from this episode? Here is my take:

  1. In any conversational exchange do not make assumptions about the statement the other party is making, but challenge those assumptions in a critical way and ask them to clarify even though YOU may be certain about their meaning.
  2. Do not let your vulnerability to the negative news in that conversation that may impact you negatively hold you back from getting clarification of what the underlying message is and its possible impact on you. In this case, Jim could have asked his skip-boss: What list are you talking about and why am I on that list. An answer to this simple question may have save untold grief and an emergency session Jim had with me that Friday and the anxiety that dogged him for the next few days.
  3. If after seeking clarification on ambiguous or confusing terms in the conversation you recognize that the target of that conversation is you and that you are going to be negatively impacted do not get defensive and start arguing with the other party. Just keep your cool and keep digging deeper until that person can no longer shed any new light on the matter.
  4. If it is some adverse news that impacts you (lay-off) do not go running around and screaming Lay-offs, Lay-offs! Take a deep breath and find some avenues to verify the comment or the news with someone, who can authenticate it. In the case of Jim, he ran to his immediate boss and even she did not know what was going on. That should have been a clear hint to Jim that something was askew. Any manager should know if their subordinate is getting laid-off.
  5. Learn how to stay cool even when the communication exchange has an earthshaking impact within your ecosphere. Keep digging deeper and getting clarity on the terms used before you become unhinged and do something irrational.

So, now that we know how to crack an ambiguous exchange of messages here is how the original dialog COULD have taken place, with Jim now taking charge of the conversation using the above tips:

Skip-boss: Jim, Im traveling down to HQ next week and would like to see you about some important matter that we need to discuss.

Jim: Great! What is the topic of that discussion?

Skip-boss: As you know we have another round of lay-offs coming up and things have got difficult for me to go up the chain of command to ask for what I need to do for my own team. You have been on my list for a while and I have not been able to do anything about it. Before this lay-off I am going to finalize this list and then present it to my management.

Jim: Without getting rattled asks: What is the list about?

Skip-boss: Right after your last performance review I added you to the list of people in my department that should be considered for a promotion. In view of the climate of lay-offs I am having difficult time putting forth that list for consideration and approval. But, I need to talk to you about what you can do to help me with making that happen.

Jim: Of course! Thank you for pushing my promotion. Id be curious to learn from you what I can do to help you in this matter. I am very interested in getting this promotion during the coming cycle.

Skip-boss: Let me know what day works for you to meet me. Ill be there the entire week.

Jim: Can I do anything before then?

Skip-boss: No, I think we are OK.

In many situations miscommunication or misinterpreted communication can wreak havoc in ones otherwise normal life, often for no reason. Taking charge, staying cool, and seeking clarity as if you are in the conversation as your own agent are the best strategies to get to the bottom of what matters to you!

Good luck!

About Author
Dilip has distinguished himself as LinkedIn’s #1 career coach from among a global pool of over 1,000 peers ever since LinkedIn started ranking them professionally (LinkedIn selected 23 categories of professionals for this ranking and published this ranking from 2006 until 2012). Having worked with over 6,000 clients from all walks of professions and having worked with nearly the entire spectrum of age groups—from high-school graduates about to enter college to those in their 70s, not knowing what to do with their retirement—Dilip has developed a unique approach to bringing meaning to their professional and personal lives. Dilip’s professional success lies in his ability to codify what he has learned in his own varied life (he has changed careers four times and is currently in his fifth) and from those of his clients, and to apply the essence of that learning to each coaching situation.

After getting his B.Tech. (Honors) from IIT-Bombay and Master’s in electrical engineering(MSEE) from Stanford University, Dilip worked at various organizations, starting as an individual contributor and then progressing to head an engineering organization of a division of a high-tech company, with $2B in sales, in California’s Silicon Valley. His current interest in coaching resulted from his career experiences spanning nearly four decades, at four very diverse organizations–and industries, including a major conglomerate in India, and from what it takes to re-invent oneself time and again, especially after a lay-off and with constraints that are beyond your control.

During the 45-plus years since his graduation, Dilip has reinvented himself time and again to explore new career horizons. When he left the corporate world, as head of engineering of a technology company, he started his own technology consulting business, helping high-tech and biotech companies streamline their product development processes. Dilip’s third career was working as a marketing consultant helping Fortune-500 companies dramatically improve their sales, based on a novel concept. It is during this work that Dilip realized that the greatest challenge most corporations face is available leadership resources and effectiveness; too many followers looking up to rudderless leadership.

Dilip then decided to work with corporations helping them understand the leadership process and how to increase leadership effectiveness at every level. Soon afterwards, when the job-market tanked in Silicon Valley in 2001, Dilip changed his career track yet again and decided to work initially with many high-tech refugees, who wanted expert guidance in their reinvention and reemployment. Quickly, Dilip expanded his practice to help professionals from all walks of life.

Now in his fifth career, Dilip works with professionals in the Silicon Valley and around the world helping with reinvention to get their dream jobs or vocations. As a career counselor and life coach, Dilip’s focus has been career transitions for professionals at all levels and engaging them in a purposeful pursuit. Working with them, he has developed many groundbreaking approaches to career transition that are now published in five books, his weekly blogs, and hundreds of articles. He has worked with those looking for a change in their careers–re-invention–and jobs at levels ranging from CEOs to hospital orderlies. He has developed numerous seminars and workshops to complement his individual coaching for helping others with making career and life transitions.

Dilip’s central theme in his practice is to help clients discover their latent genius and then build a value proposition around it to articulate a strong verbal brand.

Throughout this journey, Dilip has come up with many groundbreaking practices such as an Inductive Résumé and the Genius Extraction Tool. Dilip owns two patents, has two publications in the Harvard Business Review and has led a CEO roundtable for Chief Executive on Customer Loyalty. Both Amazon and B&N list numerous reviews on his five books. Dilip is also listed in Who’s Who, has appeared several times on CNN Headline News/Comcast Local Edition, as well as in the San Francisco Chronicle in its career columns. Dilip is a contributing writer to several publications. Dilip is a sought-after speaker at public and private forums on jobs, careers, leadership challenges, and how to be an effective leader.



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