how to improve communication in the workplace

Interview with Communication Skills Expert Rob Kendall

Rob Kendall

Rob Kendall is a leading expert on the dynamics of effective conversation. His award-winning first book Blamestorming was published in 2014, and next month sees the publication of Workstorming: Why Conversations at Work Go Wrong and How to Fix Them.

Over the last 25 years Rob has worked as a consultant with more than 70 organisations across five continents. He’s a Non-Executive Director of EMMY and BAFTA-winning visual effects company Jellyfish Pictures, and started his career as a professional artist with work published in 24 countries.

Hi Rob, thanks so much for stopping by our blog today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’ve spent much of the last 25 years working with organisations. In fact, I’ve worked in more than 70 organisations across 5 continents, which makes me feel quite tired thinking about it!  I’ve been married for 25 years and we have 3 children who are now entering the workplace. It’s so important to us that they’re able to find their own voice and do a job they love.

From what I gather, you’ve had quite an interesting and varied career – from working with amputees in India to becoming a professional artist. When and how did you become interested in communication skills and helping organisations improve?

When I was growing up, I thought my communication skills were awful because I wasn’t extroverted and gregarious. But when I went to India as an 18-year old, and worked with amputees who were having prosthetic limbs fitted, I realized I could listen to their stories without judging them or offering my opinions. In return, they offered a hand of friendship and this taught me an extraordinary lesson. Maybe there was more to communication than I thought, and perhaps I’d underestimated the power of being heard.

I spent the next 10 years developing my skills and eventually started working with a consulting firm based in USA who specialized in large-scale transformational projects. Things developed from there, and I began working independently over 20 years ago.

Your latest book, Workstorming, is coming out in September – could you tell us about it?

Workstorming by Rob Kendall

So often we come away from work conversations wishing they’d gone better. We also feel the effects of miscommunication on a daily basis, and frequently feel overwhelmed by emails and meetings. My aim in Workstorming is to combine hard science, real-life case studies and practical suggestions for how to:

  • Make meetings more effective
  • Manage information overload and stop work spilling into your home life
  • Negotiate and find your voice, especially in difficult situations
  • Support you in the challenge of being able to have any conversation, in any circumstance, with anyone at work.

Irrespective of your role, and whether you communicate face-to-face, by email, phone, or online, Workstorming is intended to be a survival guide for smart working in the information age.

What inspired you to write about this topic in more detail? How was the idea born?

My first book, Blamestorming, focused more strongly on conversations with partners, friends and family members, but received encouraging reviews for its application in the workplace and was a finalist for Small Business Book of the Year. This encouraged me to write another book about conversation in the workplace, and in particular to explore the dynamics of power, authority, gender and culture on the way we speak and listen.

In particular, I wanted to study the forces that are influencing the way we communicate. My book explores four big challenges of the information age: the way we manage our time, our attention, our boundaries and information overload. If we don’t handle these areas well, our conversations become highly reactive, and have a knock-on effect on our stress levels, motivation at work and productivity.

Are there any other new projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?

Workstorming will be my focus over the next few months, along with writing articles and blogs, speaking, and doing radio work. My family would probably be happy for me to take a break from writing for a few months – it’s quite an intense process – but I’m sure there will be other writing projects in the future.

I’m also a Non-Exec of a brilliant visual effects company called Jellyfish Pictures who have three offices in London, and I have half a dozen consulting projects that are ongoing.

What, in your opinion, are the most common barriers to effective listening – and how easy is it to overcome these?

It’s easy to think that ‘not talking’ is the same as listening, but this isn’t the case. You can be sitting in front of someone but thinking about your to-do list, what you ought to be doing instead, or the fact that you need to buy bananas on the way home. In other words, we may be physically present in a conversation but mentally elsewhere. Our own mental dialogue is the greatest obstacle to being able to listen. This isn’t easy to overcome and requires practice, in the same way that a professional athlete trains every day. The aim is to be fully present in each conversation that we’re in. The good news is that even a 10% or 20% improvement makes a difference.

Another problem is that we over-inflate the value of our opinions. While we like to think they’re worth their weight in gold, very often our opinions aren’t welcome or useful. Usually people want to be heard, and need help clarifying their own thought process. In this way our questions are more valuable than our solutions. If we can recognize this, it helps keep us humble.

How does poor workplace communication affect the productivity of the team?

If you think about any team that you’ve hated being part of, I’d bet that communication was poor. This is true without exception. You can’t separate productivity and communication because they’re intertwined, like the strands of a rope. For example, people’s relationship with their manager has the greatest impact – by far – on their desire to stay with an organization and their productivity in their role. And this comes back to the way that you communicate with each other.

One of the topics you cover in your book is miscommunication – what are some of the most common causes of this, especially in a work environment?

There’s often a gap between what someone says – or intends to say – and what we hear, and this is where miscommunication happens. We heavily rely on inference and assumptions to fill the gaps in what we hear, and therefore it’s vital to check each other’s understanding. In Workstorming, I refer to this as ‘closing the loop’ and examine a case study that led to the worst air crash in aviation history. It all comes back to checking that you’re on the same page. Taking an extra moment to do this can save a fortune in time and energy later. In some situations, it can save lives too.

According to recent surveys, thousands of managers claim that at least 30 percent of their time spent in meetings is a waste of time. Why do you think a lot of these meetings end up being so unproductive?

In Workstorming I offer seven reasons why our meetings are unproductive, and propose solutions that allow you to halve the length of your meetings and double their value. It all starts with the way that you set them up.

The four words, ‘Let’s have a meeting’ seem innocent enough, but they probably cause more problems and waste more time than any other sentence in the workplace. Rather than questioning whether a meeting is necessary, the normal response is:

‘Good idea. When do we want it, and who should we invite?’

Instead, we need to challenge the purpose and intended outcomes, who needs to be there and how much time is required. And when the meeting starts, we need simple agreements for how to behave. For starters, agree that you’re going to turn off your phones and avoid distractions.

Another common time-waster is relying on emails to collaborate with your team. What advice would you give to someone who constantly struggles to stay on top of their emails? 

There’s no single solution to the email problem. On average we receive 121 emails a day, and this is expected to rise to 140 by 2018, so it’s not a trivial issue.

It works for some people to tackle emails first thing in the morning, but for others the absolute priority is to spend time with your customers or team members at the start of the day. You have to be in control of your emails instead of letting them control you. Either way, I would recommend having a campaign to eradicate the senseless copying of messages to people who don’t really need to see them.

If you could give just one tip to someone who wants to improve their communication skills, what would it be?

Start observing the dynamics of conversations, rather than just being in them. Improvement always starts with noticing. You can learn from conversations that go well as well as the ones that go wrong.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Enjoy your conversations. They make us human, even if we don’t get them right all the time.

Rob’s book, Workstorming, is released on 15 September, 2016, and is now available to pre-order on Amazon, as well as other online booksellers. If you’d like to connect with Rob, make sure to say hello on Twitter at @Rob_Kendall.

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