I Just Work Here

Bosses, think before you speak

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It's communication

There are no bad bosses -- just bad communication. (John Cumming, Getty Images / May 18, 2012)

Leaders — and employees, as communication is a two-way street — need to recognize how flawed it is to phrase questions this way.

Instead, ask broad questions that are open-ended and solicit information or opinions. Or ask narrow ones that elicit facts or a simple yes or no.

If you're on the receiving end of a leading question, Benjamin suggests addressing it in two parts. If somebody says "Don't you think we should wait a few weeks?", say something like, "It sounds like you think we should wait a few weeks and you want to know if I agree. Is that correct?"

Another major communication pitfall is the yes/but question. Yes, I like this advice column you're writing, but are you sure you should've used the word "jerkface?"

Benjamin noted that this question format is, in essence, a scolding: "It's really arguing with the person rather than saying something specific. If somebody says, 'That was a really good job but …,' you know something bad is coming. It doesn't feel good to be in that situation. It's a yes and a no at the same time — a contradiction."

The "yes" part of that response is acknowledging that you agree in part with the other person. So when you feel tempted to use a yes/but response, first find ways to build on the areas where you can both agree.

Then raise the conflicting concern you have. Benjamin said it's best to do that by asking a broad question, one that encourages the other person to work with you to solve a problem.

Here's an example:

"I'd like to punch Rex Huppke in the stomach."

The classic yes/but response would be: "Yes, he probably deserves a good stomach-punching, but you might get arrested or hurt your hand on his rock-hard abs. "

A better approach might be: "Yes, I too would like to stomach-punch Rex Huppke. It sure would feel good to let that smart aleck have it. It would probably be pretty cathartic. Can you think of a way we could do this without getting in trouble?"

The broad point here is that — regardless of the conversation — bosses and managers need to put more thought into the things they say. Think forward a few steps. Consider how your phrasing might come across to the people who look to you for guidance and reassurance that they're doing a good job.

Changing conversation habits isn't easy.

"It takes time to retrain people's brains," Benjamin said. "You're not going to learn tennis or basketball by watching it or reading about it. You've got to practice, practice, practice."

Weaver, whose company did the survey on bosses, said leaders need to become "unconsciously competent" at communication, reaching the point where they automatically react intelligently and empathetically in the heat of the moment.

"All of this is trainable," he said. "Leaders, even if they aren't that good now at engaging their employees, can become better."

So give some thought to the way you speak, bosses. If you do, there's a pretty good chance we'll do a better job of listening.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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