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Business Communication – A Child’s View

Welcome to the first installment in our series of business lessons learned in unconventional places.

Make sure your employees understand your true intent

In all my years of consulting I’ve never heard a company say, “Our internal communication rocks.” Poor communication is a constant challenge for many leaders. Consequently, I’ve taught a wide variety of communication-related topics over the years- change management, facilitation skills, building a communication plan, and so on.

One key issue is communication style — there are two. There’s one-way communication, where the sender delivers the message with no opportunity for questions or dialogue. This is shown on the left below. Business examples include email, voice mail, memos, etc. One-way communication can be fraught with problems. Have you ever written an email, re-read it before sending, and thought “whoa, I need to edit that… they will definitely get the wrong idea.” Here’s the sobering thought: that’s just the ones you catch. Most of us have gotten responses to emails and thought “what set them off?”, unaware our message would be received in an unintended manner.

The alternative (and preferred) method is two-way communication, shown above on the right. The sender still transmits the message, but this time there’s opportunity for dialogue and feedback. This method typically produces much better results, but the drawback is that it takes more time. Working with someone to make sure they understand requires more effort than simply telling them what to do.

Is the extra time worth it? I could justify it with business examples, but my most important lesson learned came from my 2-year-old daughter. From the time she was an infant we had an established pattern for communication when we wanted her attention. It went like this:

In a normal voice: “Lindsey.”

If no response, in a louder voice: “LINDSEY!!”

If no response, in a much louder voice: “LINDSEY ELIZABETH SMITH.”

At that point, she knew we meant business and would stop what she was doing and pay attention. This is classic one-way communication, since babies don’t have the capacity to respond. We followed this process for two years, not realizing how she was processing the information. Then one day I found myself on the kitchen phone (we had phone cords back then!) with a company president. Lindsey was playing with her little plastic tea set across the room. Amazingly, she didn’t care that I was on the phone with an important client- she wanted me to come have tea with her. So I heard a loud “DADDY!” I immediately clapped my hand over the phone and said “Shhh- I’ll be right there, honey.” After a few more seconds came another “DADDY!” followed by “Shhh, I’ll be with you in a minute.” And then the lesson of a lifetime:


What a great lesson for leadership, particularly in a post-pandemic business world where the challenges of communication are greater due to increased separation. Take the time to make sure your employees understand your true intent, lest you find out in two years that they think Elizabeth means “now I’m serious!”

Ralph Smith

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