In “You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself,” Harry Beckwith counsels that the first rule of communication is not, "Communicate so that you are understood.” Rather, it’s, "Communicate so you cannot be misunderstood."
I agree. So, I advise employers who are counseling employees to tell the worker at the outset what the conversation will not cover: “Joe, this conversation is not about you getting fired. But it is about [insert issue].” Otherwise, the listener's mind speeds ahead, thinking about what is coming around the corner rather than listening to the actual message the speaker is delivering. This technique avoids that pitfall, clears the employee’s mind, allows him to focus and inspires trust.
In “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about a military communication technique. Because commanders can't write down every single order, they issue them in broad form. So, subordinates are trained to ask themselves two questions about an order they receive:
- If we do nothing else on tomorrow's mission, what must we do?
- What is the single most important thing we must do tomorrow?
The big idea is that as soon as subordinates understand the order’s intent, they begin generating their own solutions.
Speaking of military orders, writing them is its own art form. One of my favorites is the order from Admiral Chester Nimitz (who was raised in Fredericksburg) to his commanders before the battle of Midway. The most recent of many good books about the event is “The Battle of Midway” by Craig L. Symonds, from which I’m taking the order: “You will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy.”
That's clear. It can't be misunderstood. The rest is history.