Welcome back to our series about how to facilitate meetings with people who have challenging personalities. In this part of the series, we’re talking about people who have trouble clearly communicating.
Projects can face serious risks when team members think they are on the same page but actually aren’t. Entire teams can spend hours, days, or weeks working on the wrong thing, or implementing a solution in the wrong way. Unclear communicators increase the risk of this happening.
As the facilitator, you should strive to make sure everyone in the room understands whoever is speaking. As people speak, make a habit of scanning listeners to gauge their reactions — facial expressions and body language can reveal a lot. Do people look confused or uninterested? Is anyone restless or fidgety? If so, the speaker is probably being unclear, and it’s up to you to make sure the speaker clarifies for the group.
Summarize Your Understanding
Usually, unclear communicators aren’t aware they’re being unclear. Sometimes they’re unaware because they assume you share the same amount of domain knowledge. In such cases, they just need a nudge in the right direction. A tactful way to help them realize their lack of clarity is to summarize your understanding of what they said.
“So, just to make sure I understand, you’re saying that an organization can have more than one administrator. Is that correct?”
If you didn’t understand enough to even attempt a summary, politely ask the person to reiterate.
“Sorry, I’m not sure I followed what you said 100 percent. Can we start from the beginning?”
Communicate With Other Mediums
Make sure you are communicating with the person through the most effective medium. Spoken language is great, but it’s often the worst way to communicate complex messages. Something that is tough to explain in words may be better understood as a diagram or a sketch. Encourage your team early on to make use of post-it notes, whiteboards and markers, and other materials. When someone dives into a long verbal explanation, offer a simple prompt.
“Would you mind drawing that idea for me?”
Some people may feel uncomfortable sketching out their ideas because they feel there is an expectation to produce something beautiful. Be sure to explain that creating something beautiful is not the goal and that quick, messy sketches are encouraged.
You can even get creative and provide unorthodox materials, such as game board pieces or legos. Having something physical to reference during your conversation puts you and the unclear communicator on an equal playing field.
When brainstorming, I tend to ask attendees to write their ideas down on paper. When I first started doing this, I thought the sole practice of writing the ideas out, instead of speaking them, would yield more streamlined and understandable responses. But when faced with a blank canvas, people tend to write either too little, too much, or responses that only they can understand — especially if you introduce time limits into the brainstorming process.
Fill in the blank statements, also known as mad libs, give structure to such responses. Even if attendees deviate from the fill-in-the-blank format, this approach still communicates the quality of responses you expect.
Some people may feel that fill-in-the-blanks are limiting. But not everything has to happen on paper. Written ideas are just a method to start more creative and open ended follow-up conversations off on the right foot.
Here are some fill-in-the-blanks to try:
- As a [type of user] I feel frustrated when [problem] because [reason problem is frustrating]
- How might we [problem to solve]
- My biggest fear for this project is [risk or fear]
- For this project to be considered successful, we need to [measurable goal to accomplish]
- For this project to be considered successful, we need to [increase, decrease] [metric] to [target] by [deadline]
Ask Follow Up Questions
Sometimes people communicate very clearly, but they leave out information. People often just need a little nudge to keep explaining something. One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever read said that the only way to ask the right questions, is to ask all of the questions.
Open-ended follow up questions can help you draw out additional information that’s useful for the whole team. You can try some of these:
“Could you tell me more about that?”
“What effect did that have?”
“Why did that happen?”
It’s always interesting to hear how people answer this last question. People often struggle to truly explain why something happened or why something is needed. I find this especially common when asking someone why we should build a feature into a product. Take the following exchange as an example:
Q: “Why do administrators need to group permissions?”
A: “Well, because our product is a platform that people should be able to customize.”
Q: “Why do they need to be able to customize how permissions are grouped?”
A: “Well, because it’s more convenient for admins.”
Q: “Why is it more convenient?”
A: “Well, because different organizations have different roles.”
Q: “Why does grouping permissions help organizations conveniently support different roles?”
A: “Well, because we have over 500 permissions, and turning each one on and off for each person would be incredibly time consuming.”
Finally, after asking why four different times, we got the answer we were looking for. While this is a somewhat extreme example, it’s not too different from what you might hear if you repetitively ask why.
Luckily, there is a great way to shorten this exchange; simply say:
“I understand there is probably a reason to group permissions. But, just for my knowledge, can you help me understand what would happen if we didn’t build that feature?”
This question is much easier for people to process and provide a concrete response.
Plan Ahead So You Can Focus On Listening
Sometimes, facilitators can struggle to understand someone because they simply just aren’t listening. As facilitators, we have a lot to keep track of and can become distracted too. It’s easy to tune people out and think about what question to ask next, or the appropriate way to respond to a tough situation.
This is why it’s important to plan your meeting agenda and know it intimately ahead of time. If you just wing it, then you’ll focus too much on what to do next, and not enough on actually listening to and shepherding the conversation.
Admit to Your Flaws and Mistakes
If you notice you missed something someone said or didn’t fully understand it, it’s much better to admit your lack of understanding than to pretend like everything is fine. It may be slightly embarrassing, but the right move here is to admit you were focusing on something else, apologize, and ask the attendee to reiterate.
If you’re new to a team, you also may lack the domain knowledge that others have, which makes communication much more difficult. A good approach here is to admit to your lack of domain knowledge and, again, to summarize your understanding of what the person said. If you are way off, the attendee will likely reiterate what they said in a more universally understandable way. If they don’t, make your request clear.
“Forgive me, but I’m still coming up to speed on a lot of the terminology in this space. Would you mind explaining that to me again?”
Clear communication is key to productive meetings and projects. Let us know in the comments how you have handled this in the past.
The Rest of The Series
Intro and Part 1: The Silent Genius
Someone who has great ideas or input, but doesn’t speak up.
Part 2: The Swoop-and-Pooper
Someone who isn’t very involved in the project, but then swoops in late in the project lifecycle and gives feedback that sends you back to the drawing board.
Part 3: The Great Debaters
A pack of attendees who relish debate, side conversations, and talking over one another.
Part 4: The Multitasker
An attendee who thinks they can simultaneously check their email, reply to slack messages, juggle oranges, and pay attention to the meeting.
Looking for more information on how to handle challenging personalities? We have more for you coming soon.