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Today I had a conversation with a superior who is some kind of a "mentor" to me within the company. After a few meetings in which he was also present he told me I need to work on the clarity in the way I communicate with people outside the team because the the way I speak sounds totally f-'d up.

I was startled by that remark as I was completely unaware. He said people may not want to admit they don't understand me e.g. because they are too lazy or tired, but I need to explain with more clarity so that people don't misunderstand what I mean.

Well, the problem is that nobody really tells me what part they don't understand... so I am not sure what I need to tell.

I am feeling a bit down and helpless after this feedback, not only because I am someone who puts in a lot of effort and dedication to my work, but especially because I don't really understand where to start, and don't see yet what exactly I am doing wrong and what exactly I need to improve.

My "mentor" told me I need to work more on becoming clearer. How can I become clearer?

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    Did he mean your accent or the sound of your voice is hard to understand, like you need to enunciate better? Or is this about the words you use? It's not clear to me in what way you're hard to understand. – John Kugelman Oct 15 '14 at 1:11
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    If he's a mentor, he's supposed to help. Ask him for specifics to work on. – keshlam Oct 15 '14 at 1:35
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    @JohnKugelman This is definitely important to know. Based on him saying "with people outside the team", it may be sentence structure or getting a meaning across. However, this post seems properly built, so maybe their "mentor" is the one not making sense. – Xrylite Oct 15 '14 at 17:02
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    Did he really say "totally f-'d up"? Because I'd go to HR and complain about unprofessional behaviour. – HorusKol Jan 8 '16 at 2:52
  • It may simply mean that you use a lot of jargon that is relative to your specific area of expertise, that may not be understood by others outside your team. We are all guilty of that at some level. – Burhan Khalid Jan 8 '16 at 5:58
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Feedback about areas needing improvement is usually hard to hear, but try to be grateful that your mentor has brought a problem to your attention so you can improve. You can approach it several ways:

  • Ask your mentor for more information: "I really appreciate you giving me feedback on my communication skills. I am having trouble understanding exactly what I should be doing differently. Could you give me an example of something I have said and how I could have said it better?" or "Could you give me some specific pointers? I really want to improve."
  • Ask a friend who is in your industry: "My mentor says I don't speak with clarity, but I am not sure what he means. Do you have any idea?"
  • Ask the people you are communicating with, periodically during your speech, if they are understanding: "Did what I just say make sense?" "Is that information helpful?" "Do you need me to reword that another way?" "Should I slow down?"
  • Tape yourself explaining something. Watch it yourself to see what you notice. Have someone else watch it - even your mentor - to pinpoint where you could improve.

Also, watch for nonverbal clues that people are zoning out on you - are they distracted? Looking around? Checking their phone or watch? Nodding without saying anything? They may have stopped listening.

Good luck!

  • On your third point, i feel like "Should I slow down?" differs from the other suggestions as it implies the other person is too slow to keep up with you. Comes across a little badly to me personally. All the others are about whether or not you explained it well enough. – Kialandei Jan 8 '16 at 9:40
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The problem is that the minute your mentor said that the way you speak with people outside the team sounds f- up, you rush here on this site and ask how to fix the way you communicate without bothering to ask your mentor what he means by "the way you speak with people outside the team sounds f- up"

People can sound f- up in an infinite number of ways. A few examples:

  • incoherence. I had a superior who was very smart but I had no clue what he was talking about because he kept three quarters of his reasoning inside his had. The result: a series of rapid fire, apparently disconnected sentences that didn't add up to anything that made sense. Are you making assumptions about what people outside your team should know that are simply unwarranted? Because if you are, you are the modern day reincarnation of the Oracle at Delphi. I hate it when people talk to me in riddles, and my animus is particularly strong when I am looking for a solution and I am getting a riddle for an answer.

  • you talk without giving them a chance to interrupt and ask for clarifications. If you chain one paragraph after another, you're discouraging them from asking for instant clarifications. Most people ask you immediately for instant clarifications and if they can't, they walk away at the end of the conversation without asking you anything

  • there is something that they don't like or that grates on them when you talk. Some speakers can't help it and their voices sound like something hard and rough being rubbed on sandpaper - the sandpaper being the listeners' ears. Your team may be used to how your voice sounds like but maybe, not someone else.

  • lack of clarity. At this point, you don't even know what's not clear to them. Is is the subject matter? Assumptions that you are making and not stating? Were they expecting you to talk about subject A and instead, they got a presentation on subject B and now, they are trying to figure out why is that the things you are talking about don't any make sense to them because they don't seem to fit the parameters of subject B? Are they confused about about something? What?

You need to run back to your mentor and ask what he means that the way you communicate to people outside the team sounds f- up. Because if you are not pinpointing the problem, you won't even have a clue as to what the solution looks looks like.

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he told me I need to work on the clarity in the way I communicate with people outside the team

Communication is about reaching understanding. It sounds like you (and some other responses) see this as an issue with your speaking, when most likely is has to do with your listening. As is the case with your post, it doesn't matter how clearly you speak, if you misunderstand the core issue, your words will not make sense. So start where you are likely to get the biggest gains - work on your listening.

And by "understand" I don't mean it's about intelligence. It's about simple things like, "I meant Brand X cookies, not Brand Y cookies." You think of them as the same thing and the other person didn't think of the options. That's what messes up communication, not realizing the other perspectives, options, etc.

First, spend more time listening. Listening is the biggest problem most people have when communicating. Notice that when someone important is in the room, people tend to listen more. There is an emphasis on listening in facilitate better communication and reduce misunderstanding. That is a clear indication that communication happens better when people listen.

Also, you notice other styles of communication, which gives you more communication options. You give others time to think about their responses, reducing miscommunication. Listening skills are hard to come by because very few people will say, "Shut up and listen more" (besides your parents..).

Second, practice reflective listening. This is where you spend your time trying to repeat what another person says in order to validate that you fully understood it. Many people think they understand what they hear and respond accordingly. If they didn't understand, things get complicated. This style of communication reduces those situations by proactively avoiding communication gaps. There is a lot to learn about how to do this, so read up on it and/or ask about it. Perhaps another approach will work for you better, but this is a good I see frequently used.

Third, read books on communication. There are many self-help books out there that are very helpful. I can post recommendations, but the core point here is that when you start down the path of, "I need to communicate better" you may hopefully realize that you can communicate better - and that's a good thing! Use audio books if you like. The idea here is to get a wide range of professional help - some of the topics you may need more help on than others. Books can cover a wide range of material that a site like this cannot really provide.

I suggest that you avoid asking for feedback from most people close to you, unless they have studied things like this and are capable of providing guidance. Some good communicators don't know how to coach good communication, just like some great athletes can't coach their sport. And some people that care and may want to offer help will not be helpful. A good example is probably your mentor - he doesn't sound like someone that could teach you to communicate well (and maybe you don't like his style) but based on your post, he got his point across. So maybe not the ideal coach for you.

After working on your listening skills, you should begin to gain speaking skills. Copying/mimicking those around you that are effective will be easy when you know how to listen to them for the information you want. If you decide that you want to be even more effective at speaking, there are books, references, etc. But, to emphasize, it doesn't matter how clearly you say something, if you don't understand what is being said to you, your polished speaking won't matter.

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As you do not define what your mentor means by "f-'d up", there is not much to focus our attention.

In general, be aware of the following physical issues:

  1. Speed of speaking - too fast?

  2. Volume - too soft?

  3. Pronunciation - mispronounced words cause brain blocks on the listener.

  4. Grammar - grammatical train wrecks confuse listeners.

  5. Succinctness - rambling, long, unfocused or overly technical communication causes brain blocks.

  6. Jargon or Dialect - using too much technical jargon? Or, regional/national dialect words?

You can also close any discussion with something along the lines of "I want to make sure we have a shared understanding of what we just discussed. Does everyone understand what needs to be done? (or is being proposed, or whatever)"

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There are so many ways in which your communications could be off, that it is difficult to know where to start. However, the first place is with the person who gave you the feedback. Ask for specific examples and specific examples of what he thought you should have said instead.

Apparently he goes to some of the same meetings as you. So ask for feedback on what you could improve after every meeting until you get better at it. Depending on the problem, you could do a pre-meeting with him and tell him what you plan to talk about and get his feedback before the meeting.

Some things to watch out for. Many people will not tell you that you confused them, you have to learn to read their body language. Especially look for a glazed expression on their face. If you see it, then stop and ask them if they have any questions. Or ask if you need to reword that last part. Anytime you see a glazed expression you have lost the communication between you and the other person. Stop and fix it in real time. I used to do this when I taught and I sometimes just outright said, "I've lost you haven't I?" and then asked them at what point they got confused.

Look at whether you are meeting their needs. Much miscommunication is that people are being too technical for the audience. If you want to give technical details, so it only when the audience consists of other people at the same technical level you are at or higher. NEVER get technical talking to nontechnical types. They don't understand it and will not humiliate themselves by telling you so. Tell them what they will need to know not just what you want to say.

For instance suppose you have a major bug that is causing problems. and you are meeting with engagement about it. What the managers want to know is, is it fixable, how soon (and if it will difficult to track down, how hard you think that will be) and what the impact on production will be. They don't want to know how the code change will work or how specifically you will find the problem (although something that gives them an idea of the scope of the change such as I have to track through a 2000 line stored proc to find the problem is fine). Start with generalities and let them ask you for more specifics if they need them until you get better at this.

Join a group like Toastmasters where you can get specific critiques on your attempts to give speeches. This is especially useful if your communication is too disjointed to understand, if your voice is hard to understand or if you tend to be too informal for a business environment (Like using the term f'd up).

If you are not a native speaker of the language used at work, find a group that does training in that language. In the US there are English as a Second language (ESL) instructors. Consult with one of them.

Read books on communication and office politics to see how you can better communicate. If the problem seems to go across gender lines, look at Deborah Tannen's excellent books. An exapmple is : http://www.amazon.com/Just-Dont-Understand-Deborah-Tannen-ebook/dp/B007OWRBL8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452204909&sr=1-1&keywords=deborah+tannen

Listen to what is asked carefully before you start to answer. Ask them to repeat back the pertinent parts of the communication to check that they understood it. Don't interrupt unless it is critically important. Be polite.

Record yourself speaking on video and watch it and pretend this is someone not you talking. Watch do you see that you are doing? Are you mumbling, or looking away from people (failing to make eye contact) or speaking too slowly or do you have a nervous tic. Get someone you trust to review the video and be brutally frank with you about their impression. You can't fix a problem you don;t know about.

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