I’d like to start with a question. But before I pose that question, I want to encourage you to actually answer it. From the very beginning here on asmithblog.com, I’ve been championing the importance of experimentation in the learning process. In short, those who are willing to engage and take risks will remember and grow. Those who feel that experimental learning is beneath them, or that it is a waste of time – well, they won’t remember or grow, at least not nearly to the degree as those who are willing to be participants in the process.
And now for that question:
How would you describe
your communication style
in three words or less?
Grab a piece of paper, a sticky note or your Notes app right now and jot down 1 – 3 separate words that you feel best describe your own communication style. As you assess yourself, determine to be neither unduly flattering nor modest. Being honest about both your strengths and weaknesses is essential to maximizing your potential.
As you assess yourself, determine to be neither unduly flattering nor modest. Click To Tweet Being honest about both your strengths & weaknesses is essential to maximizing your potential. Click To Tweet
OK, so how long did this exercise take for you to complete? Did your list come immediately, or did it take some time to really consider what to write? What might this tell you about your understanding of your own communication style at this moment?
Now take a moment to consider how you arrived at this assessment of yourself. What is the evidence upon which you based your description of your communication style?
Is it just a feeling you have? Is it a reflection of reality, or merely of who you wish you were as a communicator?
Are these words you’ve heard from other people? If so, how many people? And what was their relationship to you?
These are not easy answers. Honest self-appraisal is rarely simple. And that is exactly what leads me to prompt the next part of this post: an experiment.
You’ll recall from your science classes of yesteryear that in order to conduct an experiment, we start with a hypothesis. In effect, that is what you just did when you wrote your short list describing your communication style to yourself. Your hypothesis, then, looked something like this: “I believe that I am a [fill in your word list] communicator.” But a meaningful and useful experiment only begins with such a hypothesis.
The next step is to collect data – as much data as we can.
Well, how do we collect data with regard to the effectiveness of our personal communication style? We can’t simply rely on what our mom or best friend has told us. Similarly, if we were to ask people in person, we would skew the results. That is because few people will be honest about assessing others when asked, and fewer still if you hold a position of influence or authority that may impact them in some way. Some will wheedle, hoping to get into your good graces. Others will be noncommittal or do their best to give neutral, even ambiguous, feedback. Still others will not be honest based on fear of consequences.
So how do we collect unbiased data?
The answer at core is simple: we allow anonymous responses.
Here’s where I need you to get onboard with me and commit to actually doing the experiment. If you’re hesitant to receive anonymous feedback from people regarding your communication style, ask yourself why that is the case. To quote Eckhart Tolle, “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.”'Awareness is the greatest agent for change.' ~ Eckhart Tolle Click To Tweet
What’s more, I’m going to provide you with a free and simple resource, so you have no excuses. In fact, I’ll provide two options, one for those who may feel a bit daunted by tech solutions, and one for those who embrace the digital possibilities. (To be honest, the digital method will be easier and quicker than the tech-free approach, so consider it.)
Option 1: Tech-Free
Buy (or make) a ballot box with a slot on top for inserting cards. To protect anonymity and confidentiality, it’s probably best to get the kind with a small hinge lock. You may also wish to include a cup filled with pens nearby, or a pen attached to the box with a cord.
Set up the ballot box in a public area where the people with whom you communicate can access it. If you’re wanting to get feedback from employees or coworkers in your office, set it up in the lunchroom. If you’re a teacher, set it up in the back of the classroom. You get the gist.
Clearly and briefly state your aim in writing on or near the ballot box. For instance: “I’m looking for your HONEST feedback to help me better understand how I’m doing as a communicator. Please take a moment to write down 1 – 3 words that you feel best describe my communication style, and place your card in the box. Thank you! ~Erik Tyler”
Use other methods as desired to get the word out about the location and purpose of the ballot box, as well as how long it will remain there. Consider word of mouth, email, group announcements at meetings, etc.
After the allotted time is up, collect the cards from the box. Don’t be in a hurry. Allow at least a week for people to respond, being sure to continue your announcements during that time.
Option 2: Digital
There are many online tools you can use to create questionnaires, forms, polls, quizzes, etc. One excellent and easy-to-use free tool is Google Forms. Create your form using simple drop-down menus and buttons, then choose one of the following to distribute:
File -> Send Form to get the link (which you can email to the recipients of your choosing)
File -> Send Form -> Get Shortlink (which will create a shorter link for you to send in email, on social media or simply write on a whiteboard, etc.)
File -> Embed to get the HTML code (for instance, to embed on your blog site)
Be sure to save or Bookmark the URL for the form you created. If you forget or lose it, just go to this URL once signed into Google: docs.google.com/forms. It will give you access to any forms you’ve created. This is where you can check for Responses that come in (it’s right in the main top menu, and the number after “Responses” will show how many people have responded; just click to view all responses at any time).
Here’s one I created in less than 5 minutes. Notice that I chose “text” fields for my responses, because I want people to be able to say anything they want. Note also that I have a TITLE and a Description, and that I only made the FIRST entry a required field (i.e., the form will not submit unless the person enters at least one word for me):
By the way, if you’d like to fill out the form with some words you feel describe my own communication style, feel free. It’s fully operational, using the “Embed” code described above.
Once you’ve got sufficient data / responses, it’s time to take the next step in the experiment; and that is to analyze.
This is where you need to be objective. Don’t dismiss any results because you think so-and-so who doesn’t like you wrote it. Would you categorize the overall consensus as positive or negative? Do any words or similar words show up more often than others? Are some cards all positive? All negative? Or does each card contain a mix of answers? Did most respondents give just one descriptor? Two? Did most give three?
What do these results tell you? Are there any surprises? Were you more effective than you thought you were? Less effective? What might you change to maximize your effectiveness as a communicator?
If you have a mentor, life coach or objective peer available, consider reviewing the feedback with that person. Or maybe the two of you can conduct parallel research and get together at the end to share the feedback you each received, discuss any patterns that may exist, and brainstorm ways to improve or to capitalize on areas of strength.
Once you’ve assessed the data, whether alone or with someone else, do write out goals for how you will adjust your communication style accordingly, or how you will focus your communication strengths.
If the setting allows, consider running another similar experiment six months later, and see if your plan is yielding results based on the feedback.
One last note: for those of you who are itinerant speakers and presenters, this is a great practice to use every time you speak. I usually use a short paper form which people fill out before I speak (regarding expectations of me and themselves) as well as after I speak (regarding whether expectations on both accounts were met). I allot time for people to fill out these short forms and to then hand them in, folded, as a group (i.e., anonymously). But the ballot box or digital survey work equally well. You could show the shortlink on a screen or whiteboard, and have people access it right from their phones or tablets at the close of each presentation.
If you’re serious about this experiment and getting objective feedback about your communication style, but you get stuck anywhere along the way, I’m happy to help step you through. Just ask.