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The Power of Face-to-Face Communication

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D

In this techno-charged era of cell phones, pagers, e-mail, video conferences and the Internet, one universal truth about communication hasn't changed: People prefer to get information face-to-face.

Organizations are quick to understand the advantage of having senior management deliver inspiring messages to the troops, prepared by drilling presentation skills and honing executive speeches.

And yet time and time again research shows that, as important as it is to have the Chief Executive lead the way, employees want (and need) to hear important messages from their immediate manager or supervisor. Here are a few examples from high-tech organizations:

LEXIS-NEXIS: "Most people here are very busy and working long hours, so they're looking for substance in communications from management. They don't want platitudes and they don't want messages that lack clear direction. What they do want -- what they welcome, in fact -- are face to face forums with managers that offer the opportunity for question and answer sessions."

Lotus: "This is a company that communicates almost obsessively. We send each other around 40,000 email messages a day. But as much as we rely on email, I'd say face-to-face communication is still the most effective. I totally buy into the theory that communication should be put into the hands of supervisors; should be delivered by the people who are working on a daily basis with the teams and individuals directly affected."

NCR: "The whole point of cascade communication is to move top-level messages down to the workforce in such a way that they'll be believed, clearly understood and acted upon with commitment, efficiency and appropriateness. We've found that the best way to do that at NCR is to channel executive material down to the managers and team leaders who are working directly with the front-line people for whom the message is intended."

Do's and Don'ts of face-to-face communication

DO give people honest, direct, and comprehensive information.

DON'T hold back bad news. The people you're working with are intelligent adults. Treat them that way.

DO put messages into context, so that recipients come away with insights as well as facts. Don't just tell people "what"; tell them "why, how, and where their job fits into the larger picture", too.

DON'T make communication a one-way street. The more interaction you can build into your communications, the better. Develop group involvement mechanisms. Invite response. Discuss and debate, too.

DO communicate first through action, then words. What you do in the hallways is even more important than what you say in the meeting.

DON'T assume that one communication channel fits all. While email may be the perfect way to transmit some messages, and the Internet may be ideal for others, many messages require a more "high touch" approach. Sort through your communications and decide which channel fits which message. (Hint: the more emotional the message - or the reaction to the message - the more likely it is that face-to-face will be the best communication strategy.)

DO remember that effective communication also includes body language. Finger-pointing, fist-pounding, and making grandiose gestures are perceived as aggressive. On the other hand, smiling too much, speaking too softly, looking at the floor, and wringing your hands can make you seem uncertain and indecisive.

DON'T forget that one of the most important parts of communication is listening. And you must really listen -- giving people your full attention, asking for clarification about things you don't understand, and treating people's ideas and concerns as crucial to the organization's success.

DO stay aware that the message sent isn't always the one received. George Bernard Shaw once said that the problem with communication is "the illusion that it has been accomplished." As communicators, you must be careful not to suffer that illusion. While managing at the speed of business today, you can't afford to find that what you thought had been clearly communicated was, in reality, never understood or believed by employees.

DON'T wait too long to ask for feedback. The greatest advantages come when organizational feedback is gathered immediately after the delivery of every important message. One manager uses this short questionnaire to query her audiences before they leave the meeting room:

  • What in your view are the most important points we just covered?

  • What didn't you understand?

  • With what do you disagree?

  • What else do you want to know?

DO realize that in the information era, communication becomes a part of everyone's job. And, like any critical skill, it is one you can improve with training, practice, and coaching.

©Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is a coach, consultant, and keynote speaker who helps her clients thrive on change. She addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. She is the author of ten books including This Isn't the Company I Joined - How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down. Her newest book, "THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE - Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, will be published by Berrett-Koehler in May 2008. For more information, contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, email: CGoman@CKG.com, or through her website: http://www.CKG.com.

Some Related Articles:

Giving Difficult Feedback
The Silent Language of Leadership
Please Don't Tell Me to Improve Communication!
Four Steps to Direct Communication
The Seven Rules of Upward Communication
Communicating Decisions: Seven Things to Share


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