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Less Is More When It Comes to Communication

August 24, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

When I was 13 years old, Mr. Burton was my 7th grade science teacher. As best as I could tell, he hated teaching. I’m not sure he even liked kids.

At least half of every class was dedicated to his sarcasm, coupled with derogatory comments that were targeted at students whom he disliked. Of all the insults that freely flowed from his mouth, the phrase “empty wagons rattle the loudest” was by far the most memorable. At the time, it was probably a function of repetition — you could hear the words before they even crossed his lips. Decades later, that phrase is still in my head, but luckily it has found a more productive use than the one Mr. Burton intended.

In a world filled with too much of just about everything (except peace, happiness and time), a good deal of our lives is spent in overload. Too many demands, too many meetings, too many deadlines, too much content, too many decisions, too many opinions. Sadly, I don’t have to make the case to you. Everyday, we’re challenged to make choices about how we will focus our time and energy depending on what we deem to be most important or most urgent.

In the workplace, we face the demands we place on each other, but also the competing demands our colleagues face outside of work. We may not know the specifics, but it’s probably safe to say there are just as many demands on the home front as there are at work. There's no room for empty words.

Instead of taking Mr. Burton's antagonistic path, how might we help each other cut through the noise and cope more effectively at work with the demands for our attention? Here are a few simple techniques I use during interactions, most of which I have learned from observing others savvier than me.

  1. Confirm their readiness to talk. At the beginning of conversations, even ones that are scheduled, ask if this is still a good time to talk. Often people will stick with scheduled meetings even when they need a temporary reprieve for something more pressing. A slight shift in timing might produce greater focus and a better outcome.
  2. Share a simple, verbal agenda. At the outset, convey the 2-3 things you’d like to cover or accomplish to focus your attention and theirs.
  3. Come prepared. It seems so obvious but back-to-back meetings don’t allow us to do our best thinking on the fly. Start your day with a review of what’s ahead so you’re not surprised midday when you realize “Yikes, that meeting is today?”
  4. Minimize your asks. Limit yourself to 1-2 requests of follow-on actions and show your appreciation by offering something in return.
  5. Highlight remaining time. Even if your time is flexible, assume others have commitments and allow them to offer additional time to you.

If you are in a leadership position, the burden is even greater on you. Focusing organizational resources is no easy task. If you’re guiding others, here are three essential guardrails that can foster alignment and enable those around you to be more productive:

  1. Set fewer goals. If your team can’t recall what’s expected, the likelihood of it happening goes way down.
  2. Use clear language. Simple messages shared in a straightforward way are the most memorable.
  3. Model what you expect. Aligned leadership behaviors add tremendous clarity and accelerate change.

Dr. Heidi Grant is Director of Learning Research & Development at EY
Heidi Grant, PhD is director of learning research and development at EY and an expert on the science of learning, motivation, decision-making and behavior change at scale. She is also the author of multiple books, the most recent being: "Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You."

Outside the world of people who study brains for a living, few tend to recognize how remarkably limited the human capacity for attention really is. It turns out there is a good reason why we describe attention as something to be paid, because using it has real costs, and we have a far from infinite supply.   

Distraction, multitasking, stress and anxiety, time pressure, uncertainty, lack of sleep, and high cognitive load (i.e., having to hold a lot of information in mind) all reduce our ability to attend to what other people are saying or doing … and yet, leaders in organizations routinely bombard employees with so much communication that even under ideal conditions, no human brain would stand the slightest chance of attending to — much less remembering — it all. It's nearly impossible to discern the signal (what really matters) from the noise (everything else).

Effective communication begins with respecting the attentional limits of your audience. Say less, not more. Make it easy to understand what matters most, using the minimum amount of clear and simple language. And remember that when you try to teach 10 things to someone whose brain can really only handle three, the actual number they will remember is zero.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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