Difficult Conversations Made Easier with Clearer Communication
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Have you ever received a text from a significant other that just said, “Can we talk tonight?” Has your boss ever sent an email, or worse, glided by your desk to say, “Hey, I need to see you in my office at noon.” Clearly, your boss is lacking in business communication skills.
No matter how positive your outlook is, everyone who’s ever received a message like that can’t help but think the worst. Your brain immediately starts filling in the gaps with the least favorable possible outcomes:
- “My special someone is going to break up with me tonight!”
- “My boss is going to fire me!”
Why do we react this way?
Uncertainty Begets Anxiety
Scientists have found that uncertainty leads to outsized anxiety: “Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact, and thus results in anxiety.”
When we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s like throwing a match on a pile of dry anxiety sticks — emotions start blazing and become hard to control.
The irony is that, quite often, the reason behind the message is positive, or at least harmless. And the person sending the message is completely unaware that they have caused incredible anxiety.
For example, I was coaching a leader who shared that she was annoyed when her top-performing employee started crying in a meeting. The employee had been called at the last minute with a gruff email and thought they were going to be fired. In fact, the leader had called them in to announce they had won an award! At first, the leader was concerned about a crisis of confidence in the employee. Upon reviewing the email, I helped her see it was due to lackluster business communication skills.
By removing uncertainty, you can smooth interactions for everyone.
“Give a Gift” to Remove Uncertainty
Removing uncertainty is actually a key concept in improvisation. When improvisers want to bring up a new topic on stage, we always provide some context or information so that our partner has something to work with — it’s called “giving a gift.” Remember, we’re working on stage without a script; every bit of the scene is created in the moment together.
If you give only a little information, there’s a big hole in the scene. Instead, we share something they need to know, so they can proceed with confidence. It builds a more interesting show and creates more context for collaboration and comedy.
It’s the same for business communication skills at work and in personal communication outside the office. A simple addition to your communication can eliminate uncertainty and, thus, anxiety. Always give people a reason for a reach out — even the smallest explanation creates focus and clarity. What if your significant other sent this text? “Can we talk tonight? The concert tickets went on sale today!”
Or, your boss shared this message, “Hey, I need to see you in my office at noon. I got free lunch vouchers for the team, and I want you to hand them out!” A little context and leveraging better business communication skills creates a totally different outcome.
Managing Tough Conversations with Solid Business Communication Skills
What if you do have bad news to share? That’s an even better reason to give people the respect of being clear and allowing them the opportunity to prepare for the conversation. My company developed an entire curriculum on managing tough conversations with confidence and preparation. The initial skill we focus on is the very first moment of connection. By being honest, straightforward, and clear, you avoid anxiety in the listener. That leads to simpler conversations and much better outcomes.
A text might say, “Can we talk tonight? I know you want to go to that concert, but I just don’t have the cash right now.”
And your boss might say, “Hey, I need to see you in my office at noon. The client moved the deadline, and we’ll need you to work on the weekend.”
Yes, that’s tough news to receive, but now you won’t spend hours worrying unnecessarily or about the wrong thing. You’ll have a chance to prepare for the conversation. Small changes have large impacts. Next time you are composing a message, think about creating certainty and clarity. Act like an improviser — give them key information and let them know what’s going to happen next. The ensuing interaction will benefit because of it!
Gain proven business communication skills & lessons learned from other entrepreneurs who are in your shoes. Ready to learn more?
Karen Hough, an EO member in Columbus, Ohio, is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which uses improvisation as the catalyst for business training. Karen ranks in the top 4 percent of women-owned businesses in the US.
This article was originally published in 2023 at https://www.inc.com/entrepreneurs-organization/end-anxiety-cycle-how-to-reach-out-with-clarity.html